November 21, 2007


Going Postal. By Terry Pratchett. HarperCollins. $24.95.

Making Money. By Terry Pratchett. HarperCollins. $25.95.

Thud! By Terry Pratchett. HarperTorch. $7.99.

Wintersmith. By Terry Pratchett. HarperTeen. $7.99.

      Terry Pratchett really has no right to be this good. His satire, often scathing but rarely mean-spirited, drips from all the books of his Discworld series like a thread connecting them all. And if you don’t think a thread can drip, you don’t know Pratchett, creator of luggage that irritatingly follows you around wherever you go on its own (many) little feet.

      From the single notion of Discworld – a flat planet that moves through space carried atop the backs of four unimaginably gigantic elephants, which in turn ride on an even more unimaginably gigantic turtle – Pratchett has spun so many different webs that it is amazing that even he can keep all the characters straight. Or crooked, actually – most of them are skewed one way or another, the good guys endearingly so and the bad guys…also endearingly so. In Pratchett’s world, which of course is recognizable just under the surface of the stories as our own, everything that happens makes a weird kind of sense through its convincing narrative impossibility.

      Thus, in Going Postal, Pratchett introduces swindler Moist von Lipwig (weirdly appropriate names are a Pratchett trademark), who is about to hang from the neck until dead for his crimes – when the ruler of Ankh-Morpork, the fascinating cesspool of a city where many Pratchett tales take place, decides instead to give him a job: to revivify the moribund postal service, which is clogged with decades-old mail, a headquarters building teetering on collapse, and mail carriers ranging from the senile to the unhealthily obsessed. Guarded by a huge golem that will prevent him from shirking his duties, Moist gives the job a go, even though it means confronting the current super-fast communication method of choice in the form of the Grand Trunk clacks communication monopoly, headed by the power-and-wealth-obsessed Reacher Gilt (another great name). Oh, and in the midst of everything, Moist hears the mail talking to him…

      Well, Moist eventually does his job so well that the post office is humming along just fine – a bad thing in Pratchett’s world, where, as so often in our own, no good deed goes unpunished. Ankh-Morpork’s ruler, Lord Vetinari, decides that Moist is ready for an even greater challenge, so in Making Money Moist is given the opportunity to…well, make money. Literally make it. Lord Vetinari puts him in charge of the Royal Mint, which insists on such outmoded approaches as manufacturing pennies that cost more than a penny to make (why, that’s true in the U.S. as well!). Meanwhile, next door at the Royal Bank, an analogy machine called the Glooper has scientifically established that one never has quite as much money at the end of the week as one thinks one should. This is the bank whose elderly head, Topsy Lavish (those Pratchett names!), has been keeping two loaded crossbows on her desk, and whose chief clerk who may be a vampire, or perhaps something a great deal more destabilizing. Soon Moist is saddled with as much trouble as money, which is really saying something for someone in charge of the Royal Mint. Along the way, Pratchett introduces such concepts as the god-of-the-month club: “We pick a god and believe in him, or her, obviously, or it, although we draw the line at the ones with teeth and too many legs, er, and foreign ones, of course…”

      Pratchett’s stylistic mastery and oddity show itself in everything he writes. Between Going Postal and Making Money, he turned out a neat book called Thud! – now available in paperback. This one swirls around one of Pratchett’s recurring characters, Sam Vimes of the City Watch, who gets to solve all sorts of deadly and puzzling and funny murders. The one here traces to the ancient enmity between trolls and dwarfs: influential dwarf Grag Hamcrusher has been stirring things up among the smaller citizens of Ankh-Morpork, until one day he is found bashed to death, with a troll club nearby. A setup? Obviously. But who set up whom, and why? The quest for answers leads Vimes into a mine network beneath the very streets of Ankh-Morpork, and then to the fabled Koom Valley: “You couldn’t make plans for Koom Valley. It’d laugh at them. It would push them away, like it pushed away roads.” Fortunately, non-planning is one thing at which Vimes – who refuses to believe in the supernatural entities that nevertheless believe in him – proves quite adept.

      And speaking of adepts, elsewhere on Discworld lives witch-in-training Tiffany Aching (yet another of those marvelous Pratchett names), whose adventures with the Wee Free Men (six-inch-tall, sheep-stealing, sword-wielding blue characters also known as Feegles or Pictsies) continue in Wintersmith, now available in paperback. Like the two prior Tiffany tales – The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky – this one is intended for younger readers, ages 12 and up, which in Pratchett’s mind means that it considers altogether more serious subjects than he handles in his books for (alleged) adults. Among the issues in Wintersmith are loyalty, willingness to serve without material reward, and the consequences of making something right that you have, however inadvertently, thoroughly messed up. What Tiffany has messed up is the sequence of the seasons themselves: the spirit of Winter has become so entranced by her that he intends to turn himself into a human and stay around all year long. The Wintersmith’s main problem is unresolvable naïveté – his attempts to make himself a man are touchingly silly. But his cold passion is real enough, and dealing with it requires Tiffany to develop some of her witch skills (which are not at all what you might expect) quite quickly, while relying on help from the Wee Free Men and other friends. Terry Pratchett’s mind is a vast and wonderful thing, encompassing within it so many other vast and wonderful things that it is always a bit of a shame to have to put one of his books down. Fortunately, it seems that there are always more yet to come.

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