… reasonably priced love, and a hard boiled egg; those were the stated aims of The People’s Republic of Treacle Mine Road on May 25th when the Glorious Revolution was at hand. Given the nature of revolutions they didn’t actually get any of them. Not even the egg.
If you understood those sentences then you’ve already read Night Watch by Terry Pratchett at least once. As such you don’t need any explanation as to why sections of social media are currently full of hashtags like #HowDoTheyRiseUp, #Glorious25th and #WearTheLilac and quotes such as “they did the job they didn’t have to do, and they died doing it”. However it’s been pointed out to me that for anyone unaware of the book and/or the fervour of the Pratchett fandom it can be both confusing and unsettling, especially given the current state of the world.
So if you don’t understand then this post is for you; an explanation of sorts, mostly in the form of a plea for you to pick up a copy yourself.
Night Watch is, in my opinion, the best Discworld book Terry Pratchett ever wrote. I have re-read it at least once every year since it was first published, back in November 2002, always around May 25th when the book is set (and often a second time if I’m doing a full Discworld read through). Each time the rightness of the book bubbles up through the pages as fresh and clear and astonishing as if I were reading it for the first time.
All of Terry’s books are, to some extent or other, about what it truly means to be a human living in a society. Night Watch takes that theme, turns it up to 11, and turns you inside out while it does so. With the main character being Samuel Vimes, who has already been the focus of five books by this point in the series, this novel contains (as well as lilac and hard boiled eggs and the astute social commentary Terry always provides) magical time travel, a Les Miserables parody, little old men in orange robes, ginger beer, and hinges in part around the presence (or otherwise) of a silver cigar case. Which, when put like that, sounds absolutely terrible.
It is not terrible. It is entirely the opposite of terrible and I have yet to finish reading it without being moved to tears.
In order to explain exactly why it is so wonderful I’d have to spoil the plot and I don’t want to do that. I want you to read it for yourself (after reading the five books which come before it so you receive the maximum impact of every word, although I suspect it works as a stand alone too because Terry was Just That Good). Instead of wittering on myself I’m simply going to share the six quotes which, for me, sum up the heart of the book and hope that they’re enough to entice you into the Pratchettian fold.
‘Put it like this, lance-constable,’ as they turned the corner. ‘Would you let a murderer off for a thousand dollars?’Night Watch: (Discworld Novel 29) (Discworld series) (p. 94). Transworld.
‘A thousand dollars’d set your mum up in a nice place in a good part of town, though.’
‘Knock it off, sarge, I’m not like that.’
‘You were when you took that dollar. Everything else is just a haggling over the price.’
That was always the dream, wasn’t it? ‘I wish I’d known then what I know now’? But when you got older you found out that you now wasn’t you then. You then was a twerp. You then was what you had to be to start out on the rocky road of becoming you now, and one of the rocky patches on that road was being a twerp.Night Watch: (Discworld Novel 29) (Discworld series) (pp. 135-136). Transworld.
One of the hardest lessons of young Sam’s life had been finding out that the people in charge weren’t in charge. It had been finding out that governments were not, on the whole, staffed by people who had a grip, and that plans were what people made instead of thinking.Night Watch: (Discworld Novel 29) (Discworld series) (p. 205). Transworld.
‘Well, at least we can agree on Truth, Freedom and Justice, yes?’Night Watch: (Discworld Novel 29) (Discworld series) (p. 243). Transworld.
There was a chorus of nods. Everyone wanted those. They didn’t cost anything.
Tomorrow the sun will come up again, and I’m pretty sure that whatever happens we won’t have found Freedom, and there won’t be a whole lot of Justice, and I’m damn sure we won’t have found Truth. But it’s just possible that I might get a hard-boiled egg.Night Watch: (Discworld Novel 29) (Discworld series) (p. 243). Transworld.
He wanted to go home. He wanted it so much that he trembled at the thought. But if the price of that was selling good men to the night, if the price was filling those graves, if the price was not fighting with every trick he knew . . . then it was too high. It wasn’t a decision that he was making, he knew. It was happening far below the areas of the brain that made decisions. It was something built in. There was no universe, anywhere, where a Sam Vimes would give in on this, because if he did then he wouldn’t be Sam Vimes any more.Night Watch: (Discworld Novel 29) (Discworld series) (p. 273). Transworld.
Terry Pratchett is supposed to have said, in an interview, that Vimes was the character that was most like him. Whether that’s the case or not, Vimes is certain one of my favourite characters of all time and one whose personal growth is all the more astounding for having been written so entirely organically that you don’t realise the lessons you’re learning from him until you sit down and think about it. He’s not written as a “good” man, he’s written as a man who works hard, minute by minute, hour by hour, to do the right thing and keeps watch over himself to ensure he lives up to his own expectations. He’s a lot like Granny Weatherwax that way. And if you also don’t know who she is, you definitely need more Discworld in your life! I’ll leave this link here to a full list of Discworld novels, written by someone who shares my preferred reading order for the series (although reading them in published order works fine too, just be aware that Terry grows as a writer so the first books, whilst excellent, do not display the same genius as the later ones).