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February 2006
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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Thud!, by Terry Pratchett, HarperCollins, 2005, $24.95.

The Big Over Easy, by Jasper Fforde, Viking, 2005, $24.95.

SOMETIMES, when reading, I hit what I call a reader wall. I pick up a book, I start it, and I bounce off the words, as if they were solid and impenetrable. When I can identify a root cause—often prose or pacing—I feel safe in assuming it's the book, not the reader. When I pick up a few dozen books and they all fail to catch my attention, I assume it's me. And the last two months have been an attention desert; I have desperately yearned to be able to find escape in a book (let's not even mention television), and have been unable to let go of life enough to pass through the words and into the worlds between the covers.

I don't know why this happens, and I don't know if it's just that I'm getting older and grouchier with the passage of time, but I've found it very, very hard to finish anything. After a while, I've found it hard to begin anything, either. For someone who used to read cereal boxes out of desperation if there was nothing on hand to read, this is a bewildering state of affairs.

As is so often the case when this happens, Terry Pratchett came to my rescue with his newest installment in the beloved (by me) stories about the Watch, and Commander Sam Vimes.

I've been curious—like all of the Pratchett readers I know—to see how having a child on the scene would affect Sam Vimes and his workaholic routine. Children change things; there's a reason why many protagonists are orphans, and why many stories end with marriage, and the mention of children follows without any of the actual details. Children are real-world complications, and most stories don't mesh all that well with that type of complication—at least not in fantasy environs.

So it was with some apprehension that I started Thud!.

Sam is still married, and the end of the masterful and brilliant Night Watch ushered the infant Sam Vimes (the second) into the world. Wife, baby, title that still fits him about as well as fancy clothing (which is to say, not very well, at least not from the inside), this might have been a fitting close to Sam Vimes's story—and that would have been a tragedy.

But this is Pratchett, and life goes on. Young Sam is fourteen months of age, his father is still Commander of the Watch and still keeps obscenely long hours, and Sybil—his wife—still darns her husband's socks (badly). The only change of routine in the life of the Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is that at 6:00 on the dot, he must be at home, and he must take out a rather well-chewed and read book, called Where Is My Cow, which he must read to his son. It's a ritual by which Sam Vimes lives (and almost dies, but all in good time), because he knows that if he allowed anything to stand in the way of that time, he will lose all. This is the Ankh-Morpork version of a modern parent.

Other than that, it's business as usual.

Business as usual, unfortunately, appears to include the anniversary of the dreaded battle of KoomValley, in which dwarves ambushed trolls (if you happen to be a dwarf) or trolls ambushed dwarves (if you happen to be a troll) and slaughter almost happened. Ankh-Morpork is a city of commerce, and in general, the dwarves and trolls get along about as well as anyone else—which is to say famously, where money is involved, and not at all where racial tensions begin to rear their head.

Sam Vimes runs a Night Watch that is considered somewhat cosmopolitan and modern—which means that his force includes zombies, golems, werewolves, humans, humans who think they're dwarves, dwarves, and trolls. Oh, and an Igor. Sam has been pressured for years to hire a vampire, and his famous response, "Do I look like I'm dead?" is no longer a defense against the political pressure the Black Ribbon Temperance League is bringing to bear on Lord Vetinari, the ruler of the city. Who, in usual inimitable Vetinari style, is more than willing to require that Commander Vimes comply with the request for vampiric representation on the Watch.

Vimes, knowing when he's momentarily beaten, accepts a young woman with a zillion names and a title—who likes to be called Sally—into his ranks, just in time to lose manpower to the racial tensions that always accompany the anniversary of Koom Valley. But this year it's worse, because this year, one of the religious leaders whom Vimes dislikes on principle and whom the Ankh-Morpork dwarves revere (and since they are city dwarves, with residual guilt for lives lived on the surface of the world and not in the dark depths, their reverence is almost desperate) appears to have been murdered. By a troll.

With dwarves quitting the force for personal reasons, and trolls quitting the force in equal numbers, the Watch is undermanned while the city is heading toward its own special reenactment of—yes—the battle of Koom Valley.

You can pretty much be certain that all is not as it seems, and you can pretty much be certain that Sam Vimes is going to discover the truth—but in this case, the truth, and the commitments that have made Sam what he is to date, all come together in a collision of strange events that culminate in a return to—no, sorry, wait. That's enough.

The young Sam Vimes is an addition to the family, and Thud! is a delight from beginning to end. The games being played are, as always, larger than Commander Vimes, and Vimes, in his stubborn, bulldog way, is determined to chew them down to pieces that he can understand and manipulate. But there's a lot of dwarven history here that Pratchett has never touched on before, and a surprise at the end that I hadn't quite expected; kings are placed on the board, and games started that I'm sure will have reverberations on the Discworld for years to come.

And I personally look forward to every one of them.

*     *     *

Jasper Fforde broke onto the scene with the madcap and sublime The Eyre Affair, introducing Thursday Next and the literary crimes division. I adored the first book, but found the subsequent books less captivating. The Big Over Easy is not a Thursday Next novel. It is not, in fact, in the same universe as Thursday Next (as far as I can tell). It is a detective novel, and the lead detective, Jack Spratt, is a happily married man with five children (two by his first wife, two stepchildren and one with his second wife) and a job in the NCD—the Nursery Crimes Division.

His career is in a tailspin. Failing to convict the three little pigs of first degree murder in the boiling death of the Wolf—at a large cost to taxpayers—has been costly in more ways than one, and existence of the NCD, which has been Spratt's life, and was the starting ground for the famous Friedland Chymes, is in serious question.

Mary Mary (no, that is not a typo) is an ambitious young detective. She wants a job that will catapult her into the limelight, but she's new and has relatively few—well, only one, really—publications to her Detective Credit, although that one publication beats Jack Spratt's, and was in the first-rate Amazing Crime Stories. It's a publish or perish world, and only those who are media savvy have a chance to reach the heights that Chymes has reached. Mary Mary is shunted into the NCD, and she's not happy with the shabbiness of the department and the lack of luster of Jack Spratt—but she has plans, and if she can ride out the assignment, hopes to be on her way to much better things.

Friedland is a member of the detective guild that Jack Spratt continually forgets to apply to; he has the media in the palm of his hand; he is dashing, dramatic, well groomed, charismatic, and he always tells a good story. So his press conferences are packed, his fame grows with each case he solves, and he is the headliner for Amazing Crime Stories every time he solves a case. That, to Mary Mary, is the better life. She sees Friedland and Spratt back to back, and her job seems pathetic and disappointing; she feels like she's working for the wrong man.

And that's where we start when a very large egg falls off a somewhat tall wall and shatters into a lot of little pieces. Humpty Dumpty has died.

Jack Spratt's boss wants this classified as a suicide and turned in without a fuss, given the embarrassment of the three little pigs case. Unfortunately, a gunshot wound puts paid to that. Well, and the murder weapon.

The very famous Friedland wants Spratt off the case; the very ambitious Mary Mary wants to work for Friedland, and Jack Spratt just wants to solve a murder mystery and save as many innocent people as possible while trying to hold onto his job.

Throw in the fact that Humpty was an egg who loved women—and who was loved by a lot of them—and had one conviction and a list of fraudulent activities a mile long, and you have a book that careens around like a car with a jolly, drunk driver who never quite manages to crash into telephone poles or more sane, rational drivers on the same road.

This has all the manic inventiveness of Fforde's first novel, and pokes fun at a number of conventions in a variety of genres with the help of a lot of familiar nursery rhymes—which is reminiscent of his first novel. But while Thursday Next was a detective and Jack Spratt is a detective, the feel and the tone of this particular, new homage is totally different, new, and a lot of fun.

*     *     *

Both of these books were easy to read, both of them helped me get over a long, dry spell and allowed me to wake up in the loopy but humane worlds their authors created. So in the end, it's still good to be a reader.

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