Book Review: Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

Title: Night Watch
Author: Terry Pratchett
Night Watch Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Today, I am reviewing another comic fantasy novel by Terry Pratchett, one of my favorite authors. We are looking at Night Watch, the 29th novel in the long-running Discworld series. In our last review, we looked at Thief of Time, the 26th novel in the series.

Night Watch is the sixth novel in the Watch series. That might confuse some of you. I thought you said this was the Discworld series. Indeed, it is. However, the Discworld series comprises several sub-series. Night Watch is part of the series focusing on the adventures of the City Watch of the city of Ankh-Morpork.

The Watch series is one of the more popular series. It includes some of my favorite Discworld novels (such as this one and Guards! Guards!)  

[The other series are Witches, Death, and the Industrial Revolution. There are also some standalone books not in any of these series. Thief of Time and The Truth are standalone novels.]

Before we go further, I should clarify that this will be a somewhat spoiler-laden review. If you have not read the book, do not read the Themes section. That contains spoilers. Sorry, I could not avoid spoilers in that section. If you have not read the book and do not want spoilers, skip that section. The rest of the review is safe.

The main character of this novel is a fan favorite and a leader of the City Watch: One Samuel Vimes. On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Glorious Twenty-Fifth of May Revolution, Vimes is chasing the notorious criminal Carcer Dun. 

Because of temporal shenanigans during Thief of Time, Vimes accidentally travels back to the days before the famous May Revolution! 

That is not good. What if Vimes runs into his younger self? It is funny that you should mention that. That is a plot point of the book. Vimes has to protect and train his younger self. 

From whom, you might ask? The primary villain of our book accidentally traveled in time along with Vimes.  This crazed villain, Carcer, has a grudge against Vimes and decides he might try to take out the younger version of Vimes if he gets the chance.

That would be a bad thing for the future Vimes. Supposing he wishes to continue existing. Or if he died when he was Young Vimes, does that mean Old Vimes never traveled back in time? Time travel is confusing!

Young Vimes had a mentor, John Keel. He was the man who helped make Young Vimes into the man Old Vimes would grow up to be. Night Watch sees Old Vimes replace John Keel and become a mentor for himself. Throughout the book, Old Vimes has to pretend to be John Keel without letting Young Vimes or anyone else know who he is. See, I told you time travel was confusing! 

To make matters more interesting, they have traveled to the past of the city of Ankh-Morpork, a rather dark period, thirty years in the past. Ankh-Morpork suffered under the rule of the corrupt Patrician Winder. During this period, the City Watch was deeply corrupt, and a Gestapo-like branch of the Watch, the Cable Street Particulars, terrorized the city.

Ah, that might have something to do with this May Revolution, no? Probably! That is not much of a spoiler. Nor is it much of a spoiler that old and young Vimes find themselves wrapped up in the events of the May Revolution. It is pretty obvious, what with that kind of setup!

A lot more happens. However, as I do not want to provide serious spoilers, I will leave that up to the reader to discover. Hopefully, the historical revolution will occur. We can hope the revolution will see Winder removed from office. Hopefully, Young Vimes lives to become a less naïve Vimes. Hopefully, he will become less of a twerp, as Older Vimes might say.

If you have not read the novel, skip the next section. Perhaps read Night Watch and come back and then read it? I am afraid the themes section contains spoilers. Sorry, I cannot discuss the themes without providing spoilers.

Cover of Night Watch
The cover of our book. Yes, it is a reference to a certain Rembrandt painting.

Night Watch Themes [SPOILERS]

I should acknowledge the many similarities between this novel and Les Miserables. For instance, both novels involve the heroes joining revolutions. 

In Les Miserables, Valjean is a good man running from justice because he stole a loaf of bread. Like Valjean, Carcer claims his original crime was to steal a loaf of bread. Do not mistake him for an innocent man! The book clarifies that Carcer is very far from an innocent man.

Such parallels exist but are not a focus of the book. Revolutions and evil governments are typical literary tropes, and it is tricky to write about such without having common elements. 

For instance, it is virtually impossible to tell a story about a revolution without the presence of impassioned revolutionaries on the front line, leading revolutions. Both stories have these. Both stories mimic Earth in a roughly similar period, so it should not be surprising that both books include revolutionaries with frilly shirts.

Much fuss can be made of such parallels, and there are many more I could mention. They are interesting. However, I see no point in making them the focus of this review. 

I do not believe they were a focus of Pratchett’s writing. Many of the parallels likely exist as comedic references. However, they are not very relevant to our discussion of the themes of Night Watch.

One theme of this book is how “nothing changes” and how “history finds a way.” That manifests in two primary ways.

First, of course, Old Vimes tries to avoid changing the past. That is very difficult to do, and he predictably fails. However, he finds that although he seems to change certain events in the past, this does not significantly alter the flow of events. Things seem to mostly happen the way he remembers them, despite his accidental changes to the past and the changes his enemy Carcer inflicts upon the past.

That has very little relevance to the real world. Some have read it as a commentary on parallel universes or determinism. However, I do not believe in either of these. I do not find this theme very interesting.

The second way the “nothing change” theme manifests is not better. After the revolution, things largely continued as they were for most Ankh-Morpork citizens. Winder is gone. But another madman, Lord Snapcase, takes over. The Cable Street Particulars might be gone. But this does not seem to make much difference to most people. The revolution has made little impact on the lives of most citizens. 

Meanwhile, the evil people continue scheming to take power as they had before. Indeed, as I mentioned, Snapcase becomes the next Patrician. And he is hardly any better than Winder, the previous ruler. How much difference did the revolution make?

That is also overly cynical. Why do I think this? For many of the same reasons, I stated earlier. There is no reason evil has to win in this fashion. That is a rather deterministic view, which I take issue with. Yes, it often happens this way. But it does not have to!

I do not always agree with the ideas he expresses. However, he makes his point well, even if I dislike what he is saying. You do not have to agree with the theme of a work of art. It might not be a good theme. Is it expressed well? When judging a work qua art, always focus on how well the author delivers his themes. Here, they are well-delivered.

Another theme of Night Watch is how you should always act to set a good example. Old Vimes spends much of the book teaching his younger self and other members of the Night Watch how he thinks they should act as members of the Watch.

They start as corrupt officers, and he does not like this. He believes that if the city is ever to improve, the Watch must rise above corruption and set the proper example. And he spends a considerable portion of the novel teaching the Watch how to do this. 

That is a theme I had no issue with. I agree that you should certainly lead by example, especially if you are in a position of authority. That is a theme Pratchett expresses very well. 

Finally, another theme of the novel ispeople not having the courage to say “no” to what they might think to be minor things.

For example, various members of the Night Watch feel it is immoral to take bribes from citizens. But they do not dare to say so because everyone does it, and they do not want to feel they do not belong.

Several leading members of the city militia wonder if it is immoral to mow the public down with cavalry charges or employ martial law. That is what military tradition says should be done. Should they not do it? 

No, they should not do that. People in these situations must stand up and refuse to do such things. Imagine if more Nazis had questioned their orders during WWII or more American soldiers during the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1968. 

People in a position to make a difference need to speak up where they can make a difference. To not do so is to allow evil to grow stronger. The excuse “everyone does” is not an excuse. Nor is “What can we do?” You can do something. You can encourage other people to do something. Nothing ever gets better if you allow evil to win. 

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