DISCWORLD DISCUSSIONS: Guards! Guards! (1989)

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It is with great excitement that I sit down to think about Guards! Guards!, because this book marks the first appearance of Samuel Vimes, who is not only my all-time favourite Discworld character, but who is also perhaps my most favourite literary character of all time. I’m telling you this because I just feel you should all know how serious I am when I say that I love Sam Vimes. I’ve never been back to the start of his journey, to see who he was before I knew the character would mean so much to me. Revisiting him here is so far the best fun I have had in this re-reading project so far.

When we meet him for the first time, he is an alcoholic, tortured cop stereotype. He comes from a poor background, an ex-gang member, spurned by a woman and generally down on his luck. The rest of his force is incompetent (Sergeant Colon), corrupt (Corporal Nobby) or so shiny and new they don’t even know what a brothel is (the excellently named Carrot). These four are the foundations of the City Watch and it is almost like I am reading this book for the very first time, a prequel of sorts to the Watch that I remember so well from the later books.

As well as the City Watch in all their unspectacular glory, this book features dragons of all shapes and sizes, the Librarian, what I believe is the first appearance of Ankh-Morpork denizen ‘Cut Me Own Throat’ Dibbler and the excellent Lady Sybil Ramkin, who is not only mad enough to fall in love with Sam Vimes but who also first sees something worthy in the other Watch members. I would be inclined to say that this book, along with ‘Wyrd Sisters’, is the best of what early Discworld has to offer; the story is pacy, there is enough of what we already know of Ankh-Morpork mixed in with the new to make it familiar and it is clear from the beginning that these new characters are set to become classics. Also dragons. Did I mention the dragons?

Carrot, the human adopted and raised by dwarves, is our introduction to the races who call the Disc home but who are not in fact humans. Until this book, they have only been mentioned briefly; Hwel, the dwarfish playwright from ‘Wyrd Sisters’ is the only non-human character to feature, but he lives among humans and is not so different to them. Carrot was brought up in a mine, pulling carts and digging gold with dwarves who all have beards, even the women, and who don’t reach puberty until they are fifty five years old. The head of a mine shaft is referred to as a king and humans are called ‘Big People’. This is a very different kind of people.

Carrot, six foot tall and bumping his head on the roof, doesn’t belong there anymore, so he is sent off to the city and the Watch, to join a group of misfits who don’t really belong either. It’s a familiar start to a story but, in Pratchett style, that doesn’t much matter. Early on, we also meet Detritus the troll, bouncer at the shadiest bar in town, and another character who doesn’t really go – with the benefit of foresight, it is no surprise that he joins the Watch later on as well.

There are hints of greatness here, at the start of the Watch arc. Even when he is almost constantly drunk, Vimes has a flare for detail and deduction. He knows exactly how long it takes Sergeant Colon to climb the stairs, pauses included. He figures out that a missing book in a magical library would be stolen by someone that the books know. He is the one who realises that the dragon literally disappears, not that it has been killed. For all his fumbling and alcoholism, he is a fairly decent detective almost straight away. It can’t be a coincidence that Pratchett quotes almost directly from Sherlock Holmes when Vimes is detecting. Here is a character who could be brilliant.

There’s also a great section when Colon, Nobby and Carrot think that Vimes is dead; not only do they truly mourn for their less than illustrious leader, but then the three of them try to come up with their own plan to stop the dragon. It fails, of course – none of the three are very bright, after all – but the important thing is that they tried. They calculate the odds of winning to be a million to one but they try anyway, because they are the Watch and that is what the Watch should do. It is incredibly brave for three characters who sometimes leave a lot to be desired. By the end of the novel, you are sure that the Watch is going places, sure to be better than they were before. I am so much looking forward to following them as they do.

Favourite Quote: ‘And then it arose and struck Vimes that, in her own special category, she [Lady Sybil] was quite beautiful; this was the category of all the women, in his entire life, who had ever thought he was worth smiling at. She couldn’t do worse, but then, he couldn’t do better. So maybe it balanced out.’

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