Title: Thief of Time
Author: Terry Pratchett
Today I am reviewing another comic fantasy novel penned by one of my favorite authors, Terry Pratchett. It is the 26th novel in the Discworld series. Astute readers may notice that my last review was the 25th novel in the Discworld series.
The Auditors are, as their name implies, the beings responsible for enforcing The Rules. According to the Discworld Wiki:
They make sure that gravity works, file the appropriate paperwork for each chemical reaction, and so forth.Discworld Wiki
While they enforce The Rules, in a sense, they are The Rules. They are an anthropomorphic personification of the Laws of Physics.
The Auditors hate life. It is unpredictable and messy. It is hard to square life with the Rules. And so, they hate it. And so, not for the first time in the Discworld series, they have set out to wipe it out.
Why not do it directly? That is against The Rules. They have to get life to do it themselves. That is not against The Rules. And so the book begins with the sinister plots of the cosmic bureaucrats.
The book explores the nature of what makes us human. Now, I know, isn’t that the role of all fiction? True enough. However, let me present one false alternative, one held by the Auditors.
The Auditors are creatures that are part of a soulless hive mind. They are immortal beings with no imagination and no grasp of life at all.
The Auditors attempt to understand life as if they were physicists! They cannot understand humans’ desire for anything. To them, food is merely there to keep the meat sacks running. What other purpose could it serve?
However, if you attempt to understand humanity as a physics problem, you are doomed to failure. You cannot understand human psychology on a purely chemical level. You cannot understand human sociology on a purely chemical level.
And you certainly cannot get much of anywhere with art by studying physics! For that, you need to study psychology and philosophy! That is what the Auditors are missing. They do not understand that you cannot understand humans on a purely mechanical level.
We understand other people precisely because we do not approach them as math problems. We comprehend that people have emotions and ideas. People are not math problems. People are not chemical equations to be solved.
You cannot understand the human experience by reducing it to a mechanical problem. That is a major theme of the book and one I enjoyed the most.
But the book is called “Thief of Time”, so does time come into it? Yes, it does! Time is another theme of this novel.
To quote the book:
People have been messing around with time ever since there were people. Wasting it, killing it, sparing it, making it up. And they do it. People’s heads were made to play with time.Lu-Tze
In the book, this is very literal. Time is literally being taken away. Time is a very real thing on the Discworld and people can have it taken away from them. Seconds, hours, and years are being taken away from people.
In reality, of course, time is not so literally real. We invented this concept of time. We can waste it, use it productively, make it up, and do many things with it.
I don’t consider this nearly as interesting as the other major theme of the book. We have this concept called time management. Some of us are better at it. Some of us are worse with it.
I have discussed the primary antagonists of the book, the Auditors. These soulless creatures are rather compelling enemies.
Is it right to say that they are evil? I am not convinced “evil” is the right word. The Auditors are amoral beings, soulless beings. They do not understand life. They are opposed to its existence.
Watching the Auditors struggle to understand humanity, or merely the concept of individuality, is revealing. Imagine if the laws of physics were conscious. Imagine if those laws tried to relate to us.
We meet a strange Order of monks known as the History Monks. This secretive religion ensures that time follows its correct path. These custodians of time are something like the Time Lords from Doctor Who, if that helps.
The History Monks have abilities to do things like manipulate time. They can “slice” time. This allows them to move much faster than anyone around them. They can move time from one place to another and manipulate it in other strange ways.
I will not go into it much here. It can all be confusing, even in the book, if you are not paying close attention.
The History Monks we spend most of our time with are Lu-Tze and Lobsang Ludd.
Lu-Tze is a wise elderly monk known as The Sweeper. He also uses a lot of seemingly paradoxical anecdotes, some of which he may not have noted down properly. Such as “It never rains, but it pours” and “Do unto otters as you would have them do unto you”.
We also met Lobsang Ludd. He is a gifted History Monk and apprentice to Lu-Tze. He was an orphan and a former member of the Thieves Guild in the city of Ankh-Morpork.
Lobsang has a natural talent for the work of a History Monk. The History Monks found him when he stopped time as he was about to hit the ground just after falling off a building.
Susan, the adopted granddaughter of Death, makes an appearance. Susan has inherited traits from her grandfather. She can walk through walls and manipulate time. And do many other supernatural things Death can do.
In this book, she is a schoolteacher. She uses her powers to make things rather interesting for her students. All very useful for this story, as you will see.
And finally, we have Jeremy Clockson. He is obsessed with making clocks. He can’t understand people. But he understands everything there is to know about clocks. As you may guess, clocks play a major role in the plot of this story, so I cannot say too much more. Not without wandering into spoiler territory.
The Auditors of Reality are a collection of all-powerful celestial bureaucrats. They despise life. And yet, they seek to understand it. For all of their knowledge of The Rules of reality, they cannot understand life. Why?
The Auditors could not understand humanity. They view humans as a physics problem. The Auditors’ failure was the best part of the book. I loved it!
You cannot reduce human behavior to the sloshing of chemicals or the tracking of the dancing of atoms. Not even if you are the most skilled godlike cosmic accountant. It does not work like that.
The book does not give very much detail about why it does not work like that. Why is this? The reasons are fairly obvious. Human behavior is too complex, and we have free will.
The book explores this hilariously and with great color. It is worth reading for this alone.
The book is a little slow-paced in several places. I think the book spent too much time on Lu-Tze and the History Monks.
The theme of time is not that interesting or novel. While I think it is a valid theme, I don’t think it is all that interesting. And I do not think the plot supporting it is all that interesting.
Nor do I think it integrates well with the other Auditor plot. I think it should have been made shorter.
Lu-Tze is not a very interesting character. Most of his should be condensed or cut.
There is some forced romance near the end. I think it is only mentioned to be covered in later books, but it seems to have no impact on this book. It seems forced and out of place here.
Thief of Time is a highly amusing book! I would highly recommend it if you want to see why a mechanistic view of humanity does not work.
Are you a fan of the Auditors or stories about alien lifeforms trying to understand humanity? Then you will love this book.
I was not a great fan of the temporal aspect of the plot, but your mileage might vary. Perhaps you will disagree. Perhaps you like stories about monks slowing down time, playing with time, and that kind of thing. If so, check this out.
If you like Discworld, enjoy comic fantasy, and want to read a highly philosophical story about the human condition, I would certainly read this.