But more importantly there’s no interaction with the city aside from a pub crawl. I just finished reading
Guards!Guards! the 8th Discworld novel and I feel like the Discworld has now reached the point where it’s The Disc I know and love. So why is that? What has changed between The Colour of Magic, which I love btw, and Guards!Guards!? And which of these changes do I feel were needed to turn all these novels set on The Disc into the kinds of novels that come to mind when I think of Discworld novels? I had a hard time putting my finger on this, but I found some points that I’ve noticed and I think they’re best illustrated by comparing Equal Rites to Guards!Guards!.
Equal Rites is the third Discworld novel, but it is the first Discworld novel with what I think of as the standard Discworld plot set up. It’s a plot that’s not centred around a character or story arc, but around examining the an idea or concept from Roundworld by looking at it through the Discworld lens. That’s not to say that later Discworld novels are abstract, they have very clear plots, but the plots facilitate the examining of these concepts.
Take Guards!Guards!, I could summarise the plot by saying that it’s about a secret society summoning a dragon to stage a coup, and that’s accurate. But it’s also about how powerless a person can feel to change the system they live in, about how kings are no good because they’re inherently better than others, about how nobody, nobody, is above the law.
The difference between Equal Rites and Guards!Guards! lies in how these issues are examined. In Equal Rites, the central theme drives the plot much more obviously than it does in Guards!Guards!. Heck the very title of the Equal Rites mentions this central theme. And it’s this directness that makes Equal Rites a bit preachy and frankly predictable. You know how it’ll end from the second it turns out that Eskarina is a girl instead of the 8th son the wizard was expecting. The opposition and sexism that Esk faces is very blatant and obvious. It’s all very in your face straight forward “women can’t be wizards” stuff.
By comparison in Guards!Guards! when the dragon shows up you can understand why people side with the people who summoned it. Vimes, our protagonist, is against it and I did root for him and the other Watch members. But I get it, I get why the citizens get swept along in the romance of a king defeating a dragon, why fear cows them into accepting a dragon as their king. And this makes Vimes’ struggle more poignant and it also makes me wonder if ultimately Vimes can win this. Not if he can defeat this dragon, I’ve read the rest of novels once already, but if he can survive this world. If his believe in the basic decency of humans is justified. It’s a more human view, no good or evil, but humans making very human decisions. And you get to see it from several points of view, not just Vimes’.
This is the approach I recognise from later Discworld novels. For instance, sexism is a recurring theme in later novels, especially within the Dwarfish community. The difference is that this sexism isn’t as blatant, nor is it solved by the end of a story. Instead some women take steps towards claiming their space and get both support and backlash directed at them. And this nuance resonates much more with me, because it’s closer to my everyday experiences. I also find that it frees up the characters and plot in a way. These issues are part their lives, they’re part of what they’re dealing with, but the story continues regardless.
The books between Equal Rites and Guards!Guards! largely move in this direction. With the exception of Sourcery which feels like a poor retread The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic. I feel that it falls flat, because it doesn’t have a very clear idea of it’s main theme. Half of it reads like a romp around The Disc with Rincewind and this detracts from the whole sorcerer plot somewhat. With the other novels: Mort, Wyrd Sisters and Pyramids the focus on the theme is there, but there’s something I can’t quite put my finger on that means they’re not quite there yet for me.
Part of it is the details I think, Dwarfish culture for example doesn’t really crystallise into what it’ll be for the rest of the books till Guards!Guards!. Similarly, Vetinari isn’t the Patrician yet. Now, of course there were rulers of Ankh-Morpork before him and there’ll be ones after him, but you need Vetinari to enable you to look at politics in a certain way. It’s a very cynical and technical way and a way that no other character can give you. Nobody else uses a committee as a lethal weapon.
You really notice this in Wyrd Sisters. Lancre has always been one of the most solid parts of the Disc, I feel Terry knew what Lancre would be from the beginning. So now that Nanny Ogg and Magrat are there to balance out Granny Weatherwax this part just comes together wonderfully. It’s beyond the borders of the this rock hard country that things get shakier. The Ankh-Morpork the theatre group tries to settle down in doesn’t really feel like Ankh-Morpork yet. There’s no interaction with the city aside from a pub crawl. C.M.O.T. Dibbler doesn’t show up to try to get a contract to sell sausages-in-buns in the theatre. More importantly, the plot is centred around the power of stories to shape how we see the world, but the Patrician doesn’t appear to care about a group with such potential power settling down in his city.
These may seem like little things, but it’s these little things that make the world feel alive to me. It feels like the characters are just living their lives in the background and then when the plot pushes something their way they care about, they notice. I’ve always felt that at the core of the Discworld novels is the message that actions have consequences and you need to take responsibility for them. These little moments add to that.