Monthly Archives: April 2012

Heere be…

Review: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

In the past, I’ve felt a slight reluctance to admitting to liking Terry Pratchett.  Something about the combination of fantasy and comedy always seemed so naff and so likely to attract the oddest of aficionados. I read once on the Guardian CiF section (such a warm and open hearted place!) that Pratchett novels are often found at the homes of serial killers.  But there comes a point in a reader’s life where you have to stop having the mindset of an angry and bitter 16 year old who only really likes 19th century Russian literature and open up to books that might be, y’know, fun. Either that, or become a literary critic.

Guards! Guards! is the first in the Pratchett’s rich and extraordinary Discworld series to feature centrally the City Watch Characters, Ank-Morpork’s beleaguered police force.  The other books are (in order): Men at Arms; Feet of Clay; Jingo; The Fifth Elephant; Night Watch; Thud!; and Snuff. It’s important to note that you certainly don’t need to read the other novels in the Discworld series to enjoy the City Watch books but it’s a more satisfying experience to read these ones in published order.

Captained by drunken and disillusioned Samuel Vimes, the Night Watch has been reduced to a token presence by the machinations of the Patrician and the City Guilds.  Vimes’ quiet despair is shattered by the arrival of two newcomers to the city: Carrot, a 6”4 dwarf, determined to become a successful and productive Watchman and, well, a dragon.

Like many of Pratchett’s books, reducing the plot to mere synopsis would do very little to encourage you to read the novel itself. Suffice it to say that the dragon is summoned to act as a WMD for a Freemason-esque sect intent on returning the city to a monarchy and that their plan succeeds beyond their wildest nightmares. The joy here is not so much in the story, though that most certainly satisfies as a ‘whodunnit’, but in the exuberant characterisation and the gleeful wit. A self-avowed mystery fan, Pratchett takes great delight in playing with the clichés and conventions of the crime genre, amongst many other things. Parody and allusion zing past at a startling rate and there is a definite need for a second, slower reading to pick up on all Pratchett is doing here. He is an astonishingly clever writer, yet rare perhaps for that breed, an incredibly human one at the same time.  Never do his insights into the human condition take the easy turn into misanthropy and there is always laughter here, even if it is laughter in the dark.

I prefer to listen to the Discworld novels and I can’t recommend highly enough Nigel Planer’s reading. A good narrator can do a lot with even mediocre material (the reverse is unfortunately also true) but here we have a perfect symbiosis. The cognoscenti will also be aware that Stephen Briggs is the usual narrator for Pratchett’s City Watch novels and whilst he does perhaps have the edge overall, Planer is wonderful here.

To those of you familiar with these novels, well, you already know but to those of you yet to sample Pratchett’s work, I envy you a little for the pleasures that lie ahead. Don’t be afraid. Yes, they’re funny, and yes, they’re fantasy but that doesn’t mean you have to start watching Babylon 5. Time to have a little fun.

Advertisements

Beginnings (1)

Review: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie King

I started Laurie R King’s novel The Beekeeper’s Apprentice with more than a little apprehension. You see, Sherlock Holmes was my first detective love. My dad read me the stories and I would walk around my village with a tablespoon as a meerschaum searching for baddies. So I can be a bit protective of the canon. Much as I adore Martin Freeman and Stephan Moffat, Sherlock was a slightly uncomfortable experience. In its own right, it was enjoyable but as Holmes… it just hadn’t got the nuances quite right.

Plus The Beekeeper’s Apprentice seemed a bit high-concept for me. After too many American crime shows where, say,  the hero’s a FBI agent with a counting dog , I had decided that the fewer words needed to sum up a premise, the less I wanted to have anything to do with it. So ‘Sherlock Holmes is brought out of retirement by a feisty young American (and she’s a girl!)’ was not especially appealing.

But despite my resistance and the ever-so slightly clunky framing device at the start, I found myself drawn in.  It’s an immensely enjoyable novel, with all the simple satisfactions of a well-wrought, traditional mystery.

Mary, as a narrator, grates on some but I found her exuberance and arrogance entirely fitting for someone of her age, blessed with her gifts of intellect and aptitude. Passivity or self –effacement would have called Holmes’ previous companion too quickly into mind and it is clear from the start that Mary Russell is to be a foil for Sherlock, not a mere sidekick. Anything less abrasive would’ve made the whole confection rather too sickly for my tastes.

The characterisation of Holmes himself is well done too. He’s more richly characterised that in the Conan Doyle Stories, in the sense that he is more emotionally accessible to us as readers. This, however, is not a betrayal of the canon but the logical extension of having a narrator who can more clearly see the workings of his mind.

As is to be expected of an origins-type story, the first third of the novel is taken up with the burgeoning friendship between Holmes and Russell, and her induction into the ways of detection. Soon enough, however, (and it will be soon as the pacing is impeccable!) we are thrown into a full-throttle mystery plot that see our protagonists dodging bombs and tearing round Europe in their quest to hunt down a satisfyingly nefarious nemesis.  For all King’s novels are categorised as ‘cosy’ mysteries, there is a real sense of peril here, something that is too often missing from the work of authors who pride themselves on their edginess.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is conventional and perhaps even a little old-fashioned. But it is a well-crafted novel by a writer who knows and loves her source material. Unlike so many other Holmesian homages, it fits well with the original works, never seeking to undermine or mock. In its own right, it’s a cracking read and a lot of fun. On finishing it, I immediately looked up Laurie King’s website to see which book was next; what more do you want from a series opener?