That book icon in my blog banner isn’t just nifty decoration; I do read from time to time. Not as much as I used to — the movie watching takes up more of my free time than when I was younger — but there are certain authors and series that I do try to keep up on. One of those authors is Terry Pratchett, and his very-long-running series of fantasy-satires, Discworld.
How long-running? It started in 1983, with The Colour of Magic, and in October 2011 Pratchett and his publishers released Snuff, which is the 39th entry in the series. It would be easy for a series to get stale after that many entries, but Pratchett keeps it fresh by using the Discworld as a setting for a variety of characters rather a singular ongoing story. And one of the most interesting characters is His Grace, the Duke of Ankh-Morpork, Commander of the Watch, Sir Samuel Vimes. Snuff is the eighth novel to focus on the City Watch and Sam Vimes, and while it retreads some earlier ground, it’s still an entertaining read.
In Snuff, Sam is forcibly taken on vacation by his wife, Sybil, who insists that he stop working so hard for a few moments and go visit her ancestral manor in the country. Sam, having been raised to the gentry by virtue of merit and very much against his will, doesn’t want anything to do with feudal lands or countryside manors, but goes along because he loves his wife, and agrees that the experience might be good for their son, Young Sam.
But, of course, where a policeman goes, he inevitably finds crime. Soon after his arrival, a blacksmith he argued with goes missing, and a goblin — one of the Disc’s most abused races — has been murdered. Despite the fact that he is on vacation, and arguably has no authority there, Sam begins investigating the crimes.
Snuff builds on the already-complex foundations of Sam’s character established in the earlier novels by putting him in a situation where he has to choose between being lawful and being good. How does a man who has always taken a hard stance against vigilantism react when faced with something that, while monstrously wrong, might not, technically, be illegal? Making this particularly challenging is that Sam’s stance against vigilante action has always been driven largely from his fear, not of what others would do, but of what he himself would do without the restraints of the law. The City Watch books keep pushing Sam closer and closer to the edge, with him being increasingly troubled at the lengths he has to go to keep his actions on the right side of the law and the right side of morality.
One aspect of the book that’s a bit of a mixed bag is the heavy racial themes in the novel. The goblins are subjected to confinement, slavery, abuse, genocide, basically every evil that has ever been perpetrated in the name of racial domination. It makes Snuff a markedly darker book than most in the series, even compared to those that also deal with heavy issues and/or racial issues. And yet racial issues have been tackled before in the series, particularly in the other City Watch novels. While it’s fairly well done in Snuff, and there are certainly people who need the message delivered to them in a heavy and transparent fashion, it’s doubtful that long-time readers of the series are numbered among those people. The themes in Snuff are presented in a more extreme manner, but extremity is the only new thing it brings to the table. That one of the villains seems almost like a less-menacing version of Carcer from Night Watch doesn’t help.
Also, unlike a lot of Discworld novels, and arguably any of the other City Watch novels, Snuff does not quite make a good “jumping on” point for new readers. While the personas of Sam, Sybil, Lord Vetinari, and others should become readily apparent to a new reader, the frequent references to the Summoning Dark, introduced in the novel Thud!, essentially require that the reader has read that earlier volume prior to picking up Snuff.
Despite its flaws, Snuff is still an interesting story with a passable mystery behind it. What it lacks in novelty and laughs it makes up for in the continued exploration of Vimes’s character and in the occasional moment of bad-ass action (again, usually from Vimes). I can’t really give it 4 stars, considering there are so many better books in the series, but my rating here should be considered a “high 3”, particularly when compared to the fantasy genre as a whole.
I consider that the primary villain in Snuff is not any of the individuals, but the culture and custom that has let the situation happen and continue. It’s hard to fight a culture, particularly an entrenched one. It’s even harder to fight it when even its victims seem to agree with the system.
Very true. Like a lot of the social issues represented in the City Watch novels, the wrongdoing is spearheaded by Lord Rust, but he’s symptomatic, not the root cause.