NESFA Members' Reviews

coverNight Watch

by Terry Pratchett

A book review by Mark L. Olson

HarperCollins, 2002, $24.95, 338 pp

Terry Pratchett has done it again with a first-rate Discworld novel which is both entertaining and thoughtful. Sam Vimes, the reforming head of the Ankh-Morpork Guard is personally chasing a criminal (he really wants to get this one and, besides, it's a great excuse to avoid some tedious official duties) across the roofs of Unseen University when a great bolt of lightning discharges some of the built-up magical energy and both are thrust 30 years into the past.

The criminal promptly kills a man, John Keel, who Sam remembers having later joined the Watch (the despised predecessor of the Guard). Keel was Sam's own mentor in his own early days in the Watch and died protecting his part of Ankh-Morpork against the disturbance of a major rebellion. John Keel is Sam's idea of what a policeman should be. And now he's dead. So Sam -- without an identity of his own -- takes on John Keel's and as John Keel quickly joins the Night Watch – it's what he loves – and learns again why it was despised then.

Times are bad in Ankh-Morpork. The Patrician is old and feeble and there is a secret police force which is tyrannical without being very effective. The city is a powder keg, and rival factions among the powerful seek to exploit it to their own ends. Sam quickly rises to command one Watch station and sets out to take the demoralized Watchmen and forge them into a real, honest and effective police force. The description of how he does it and why is classic Pratchett, equal in my opinion to the best of his work.

Shadowy figures among the elite finally trigger a minor revolution and Sam finds himself following what he remembers of John Keel's plan to win the confidence of the local neighborhood (who see the Watch as incompetent oppressors) and to organize it so that as the rioting spreads their neighborhood is safe.

In the end, Sam escapes back to his own future, criminal in hand, and all's well.

One of the amusing parts of this book is seeing many of the characters we've known for some time in their youth – the young Ventinari while he was still an assassin, the young CMOT Dibbler and others. (The lady who is Ventinari's aunt who seems to be behind this revolution is a major loose end – it seems very likely that Pratchett plans to come back to her again in some way.)

I'm a little less sure that Pratchett is taking a correct turn by allowing the monks of History to play a role – it now turns out that they're not just shuffling time around Discworld in the present, but they're doing some timeline management as well. This could easily get out of hand – I hope he isn't tempted to play around with time travel and alternate histories of Discworld too much.

The Night Watch, in my opinion, is one of Pratchett's best novels and the equal of Lords and Ladies.

Highly recommended.

See also my other Pratchett reviews: The Truth, Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature, Carpe Jugulum, The Science of Discworld, The Fifth Elephant, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, The Last Hero, Jingo, Night Watch, The Wee Free Men

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