Cut Out Witch – Carpe Jugulum

carpe-jugulum-2Supposing there was justice for all, after all? For every unheeded beggar, every harsh word, every neglected duty, every slight…every choice…Because that was the point, wasn’t it? You had to choose. You might be right, you might be wrong, but you had to choose, knowing that the rightness or wrongness might never be clear or even that you were deciding between two sorts of wrong, that there was no right anywhere. And always, always, you did it by yourself.

It’s a sad time in the Discworld, because with this book we wave goodbye to the Witches of Lancre. Not forever, with cameos in the forthcoming Tiffany Aching novels to follow, but Carpe Jugulum marks the last time Granny, Nanny and Magrat squabble their way into defeating whatever evil is invading the Discworld.

Maskerade, the last Witches’ novel, was all about hidden selves, that gap between who we are to other people and the person we fear we are underneath. Carpe Jugulum is also about duality so it is somewhat amusing that I am in two minds about this novel. Amusing to me anyway.

There’s a mixed blessing in reading a series of books with recurring characters and that’s one of attachment. On the positive, you build a relationship with certain protagonists – I am pleased when I lift up the next book and find it features Vimes or Weatherwax. On the other hand, you start thinking you *know* the characters and want certain things to happen to them.

Take what I wrote two weeks ago about Jingo. I felt the character of 71 Hour Ahmed was a waste as he seemed to be a perfect foil for Vimes but they were never really given a sufficient opportunity to battle one another. That’s not a valid criticism – I’m annoyed because something I felt should happen didn’t.

And that’s an issue with fandom, something which is full of invention and passion, spanning cosplay, fan-fiction, internet groups or densely packed conventions. That attachment to a series, an author, or group of characters means you (and I include myself in this) can be that bit more demanding. Or lack perspective.

(As an aside, Neil Gaiman is brilliant about this in his famous defence of George RR Martin and the relationship between fans and authors)

This is my long-winded way of saying that I am several days on from finishing Carpe Jugulum and I still can’t quite work out what I think. I’m not sure whether the problem is me, or the book. Taken independently, Carpe Jugulum is a strong, chilling, comic thriller, pushing the reader into thinking in ways they never expected to when they picked up a novel about vampires.

But I’m finding it difficult to take it on its own merits. It’s clear that Carpe Jugulum is better than most of the first 10 Discworld novels, Pyramids aside. It’s funnier and more intellectually deft – Pratchett has a much greater control over his writing at this stage in his career. But the novel’s retread of Lords and Ladies and thematic similarities to Small Gods mean it is hard to judge the book on its own.

The whole point of this bloody thing is to do so, so let’s try and get some thoughts down and work out where I stand, shall we?

Maskerade opened with Nanny trying to inject some fun into the life of a very depressed Granny. It turns out the satisfaction of tearing through a murder mystery set in an opera house was shortlived as Granny decides to leave Lancre for good, after not being invited to the christening of Magrat’s child with the King of Lancre. The invite was pinched by magpies – no-one is so suicidal not to invite the most terrifying person in all of the Discworld to something.

Granny’s disappearance comes at the worst time (who knew, eh?) as vampires from nearby Uberwald decide to overstay their invitation and take over the kingdom. Can Nanny, Magrat and Agnes, the operatic latest addition to the coven, find Granny and save the kingdom, with the help of a priest of Om?

Well clearly they can.

An interesting aspect of Pratchett’s fiction is his ability to let things go. I’ve touched on this before. Rather than taking more time and reducing the still mind-boggling publication rate of two books a year, he ploughs on through, with anything interesting returned to at a later date. This is by no means a criticism. The Discworld’s consistency in quality is terrifying. I genuinely don’t know how he was capable of having two books published a year up until recently and almost all of them at a very good standard at worst. Apart from Soul Music. It’s a bit rubbish.

There are some neat seeds in this novel that show where the Discworld series is going. It was published towards the end of the 1990s, with the UK under the modernising brio of Tony Blair’s New Labour government. There’s not an explicit political satire within the novel but Pratchett does give signs that the world is changing. Verence, the king of Lancre, is trying to improve his kingdom, to the ambivalence of his subjects. Lancastrians never threw away anything that worked. The trouble was they seldom changed anything that worked either…His plans for better irrigation and agriculture were warmly applauded by the people from Lancre, who then did nothing about them.

The invading vampires are also modernisers, in their push to enter the daylight and move away from traditions. These traditions mainly comprise ‘things that can kill them’ but Pratchett has a lot of fun messing around with vampire tropes, whether it’s how they rebel by giving themselves ‘normal’ names, or their attempts to drink wine over blood. I saw on the internet that the attempt to kill the vampires with garlic canapes at the beginning gives us the divine pun ‘Buffet The Vampire Slayer’. I wish I could have spotted that first time around.

Another area where they have abandoned tradition is in their role as evil villains. While they do invade Lancre, they appear to want to do so with a surprising lack of bloodshed for a vampire family, instead using hypnotism. Things get ugly when the Witches decide to fight back and it’s only when the Magpyr family revert to tradition at the end of the novel that things get truly gothic.

The changing Discworld will be explored more in the next Discworld novel, The Fifth Elephant, and the forthcoming ‘Industrial Revolution’ novels. It’s an extension of Pratchett’s deeply held belief that you should keep questioning why things are the way they are and whether they can, and should, be improved.

Mighty Oats, the Omnian priest, is another questioning soul, going through a crisis of faith. What he realises through the novel, in his relationship with Granny, is that what he is experiencing is not a failure of religion, it’s a failure of being human:

‘Being human means judgin’ all the time,’ said the voice behind him. ‘This and that, good and bad, making choices every day…that’s human.

‘And are you so sure you make the right decisions?’

‘No. But I do the best I can.’

He’s a spiritual brother of Small Gods’ Brutha, who questioned the then fire and brimstone nature of Omnian faith centuries ago, drawing up the religion that Oats follows today. But questioning should never end. Just because Brutha was one of the most intelligent, thoughtful and complex characters Pratchett has ever written doesn’t mean he is an absolute. It wasn’t that he lacked faith. But faith wasn’t enough. He wanted knowledge.

It is the duality of Oats’s personality, which helps him stay beyond the vampires’ clutches. The same goes for Agnes, whose alter-ego Perdita can’t help emerging to the surface. There’s a neat sliver of the future in the pages of the novel with Agnes once she lets Perdita take over her body. Pratchett makes a Tomb Raider reference in how Perdita does a handstand upon pulling herself up onto a bridge. Like so. Some years later, his daughter Rihanna was involved in writing the excellent Tomb Raider reboot. *cue X-Files music*

It’s Granny’s confronting of her dark self, and overcoming it, which forms the backbone of the novel. Since they were first written into the Discworld, Pratchett has made clear how witches help bring people into life and steer them towards what is next, sometimes with a helping hand. He has hinted at the psychological toll this would have upon someone in the previous Witches’ books but it’s explicit here:

One of the things a witch did was stand right on the edge, where the decisions had to be made. You made them so that others didn’t have to, so that others could even pretend to themselves that there were no decisions to be made, no little secrets, that things just happened.

Granny’s fear is that she’s evil, the Wicked Witch is just under the surface, just like her sister and her Granny Alison. When she is bitten by the vampires, she confronts the wickedness inside her, for good. I know you. I’ve always known you….I’ve fought you every day of my life  and you’ll get no victory now.

Here is where the difficulty at the centre of the novel is for me. Both Lords and Ladies and Small Gods relied on the importance of questioning, particularly of one’s self. Lords and Ladies had a brilliantly satisfying dramatic pay-off because after three novels of Magrat as a whipping girl, she overcomes the worst of herself. It’s a great character moment. Small Gods is, well, just read what I wrote about it if you haven’t already.

My point is that we have been here before. The pay-off here is clever – by trying to convert Granny into a vampire, the undead have been ‘Weatherwaxed’ and are weakened (and crave tea) – but there was a lack of dramatic heft for me, which may be why I banged on about the drawbacks of reading books as a series above. I have seen Granny confront her dark self – that was how Witches Abroad ended. One other disadvantage is Pratchett writes a killer false finale  midway through the book, where Granny tries to confront the vampires and fails, leading to the infamous feeding. The actual final act is nowhere near as dramatic and the comic take on the vampires does not have the icy threat of the elves in Lords and Ladies.

Opinion about Carpe Jugulum online appears to be split, albeit with a bias towards ‘it’s great’. That’s some comfort that I am not the only one to have had issues with the novel. It reminds me of when I was reading Soul Music and Interesting Times; where it felt like Pratchett was working out ‘what comes next’ on the page, before the series kicked back in with Maskerade.

There are several concepts and themes that become more important as the series continues. Along with the modernisation of the Discworld, the Nac Mac Feegle make a (poor IMO) first appearance and will have greater import in the Aching novels. Carpe Jugulum is a good book – it sits along the likes of Moving Pictures and Reaper Man – but its retread of better Discworld novels is a negative. I’d give someone Small Gods or Lords and Ladies before handing them this. What is clear is Pratchett is wanting to move Discworld forward again. The next book, The Fifth Elephant, gives us an idea of where. See you next week.

Advertisements

11 Comments

  1. Some interesting views, that I disagree with.
    As you may have noticed, I do broadly agree with you on this book – it has some great moments, but the plot itself feels like a bunch of other plots he’s used but not as good.

    Soul Music, however, is surprisingly good, albeit not great.

    I don’t think Pratchett at this point really is moving forward – at least not intentionally. I think this is where he’s stuck in a rut and doesn’t know what to do next – note that around this point the cycle of POVs that he’s been using breaks up, and a new one doesn’t get started until Going Postal – the next run of books will include a bunch of books that either are or feel like the end of series, and a bunch that try to introduce new characters or places that we then never see again.

    [And as an aside, don’t get me started on Gaiman’s entitled piece of ranting…]

    Amusingly, I was kicked into doing my reread by seeing Nathan’s reread, and you say I unwittingly helped kick you into doing yours… well, your re-read is up to Carpe Jugulum, and mine is up to Fifth Elephant, and Nathan’s is up to Maurice. There’s a remote chance we may all end up reviewing either Maurice or Night Watch at the same time… [we won’t, I’m going to let the side down, but you never know].
    (I’d like to think I’m going faster than Nathan, but to be honest I caught him up because the earlier books are both shorter and easier to read…)

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    1. I think I’m in good shape to stick to the ‘one new post per week’ schedule. Pretty much everything as far as Raising Steam has been drafted – I’m just ironing out any issues with them in the weeks coming up to publication.

      I think unlike you and Nathan, I was reading Pratchett almost exclusively since October. The only non-Discworld book I read in that time was Clare North’s excellent The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. A bout of flu during the past 10 days meant I could crack on and finish reading Raising Steam.

      I love this next chunk of books. From Fifth Elephant up until Monstrous Regiment, he is writing some of the best work of his career. There’s not a poor one in there.

      Like

      Reply

      1. Well, also unlike me you’re actually disciplined about reading things. I haven’t read that many books by ANYONE since October!

        Going by memory, I don’t love this next chunk of books! I was underwhelmed by The Truth, unimpressed and annoyed by Thief of Time (despite being a Susan fan), bored by The Last Hero, frustrated by Monstrous Regiment (which starts great but ends up terrible), and so-so about Going Postal. I haven’t read Maurice or WFM yet. And while Night Watch had some good bits, I was much less thrilled by it than everyone else was.

        Of course, that may change on a re-read. I was probably burned out with Pratchett when these books first came out, and also less understanding of how his style changed over time. But unfortunately, having reached The Fifth Elephant, I don’t think I have any more favourites to look forward to from here on in. [I do, however, get the pleasure of seven novels I haven’t read yet – the five Tiffany books, Maurice, and Raising Steam. So that’s something.]

        Like

    2. It’s odd syncronicity, because I also decided to re-read all of the Discworld books last autumn (including the few most recent that I’d not caught the first time around). I wonder what prompted so many people to have a re-read at the same time?
      I did kinda know though, when I finished Raising Steam a few months ago that there wasn’t much chance of me ever reading a Discworld book for the first time again, and now I know it for sure 😦

      Like

      Reply

      1. You’ll have one more: “The Shepherd’s Crown” is out in autumn.

        My own re-read began a while ago, and Adam over at the Wertzone began one a few years before, and I’ve seen glimpses of others online as well (including one that used to have a big well-organised site for all their reviews and nothing else, but I don’t know where that’s gone now).

        Partly this is just that he’s such a major author that there will always be a bunch of re-reads going on at any given time.

        But I think it’s also because we saw Pratchett’s death coming. Some of us were probably inspired by that to re-read, or prodded into it by his high profile in recent years (due to his campaigning, and public sympathy). Personally, I had an indirect motivation. I read Unseen Academicals and was very unimpressed, and then read Snuff and was cautiously pleased by comparison, but not overjoyed. So I started to doubt myself: how good was Pratchett ever, really? How much of it was just my nostalgia? But I read ‘Hogfather’ and that was great. And I’d seen Adam’s attempt at a readthrough and thought ‘I should do that sometime’, and when I saw Nathan (www.fantasyreviewbarn.com) have a go, at a time when I had been nudged into wondering how good the earlier books really were, and perhaps with the background of Pratchett’s impending mortality hanging over me, everything clicked and I decided to go for it.

        I suspect similar issues (dissatisfaction with recent installments, plus that retrospective mood that is so easily inspired by recent or imminent death – not that I had any idea Pratchett would die so soon, but in recent years it’s been impossible to think of him without the foreshadowing of death in the back of your mind) have encouraged others to take the same path.

        Like

  2. I just wanted to say how much I’m enjoying your readthrough – I’m doing something similar ATM (though I’m reading the books thematically, ie. all the watch books, all the witches books etc. in a row – really interesting to see the characters and style evolve over rime) and it really has underscored for me both how good Pratchett was and the sheer scale of his imagination.

    Your readthrough has underlined this for me – as well as reminding me of how his writing evolved. Yes, there are poorer books (though never dire ones) but each has redeeming qualities. At the very least they’re consistantly inventive and subversive.

    As for your, earlier, question about how you don’t mind him reusing his plots – I’d say thats no suprise. I’ve always thought it was the skill with which the plot is constructed is what’s important rather than the plot itself. The Sharpe novels, for example, essentally have the same plot each time (Sharpe is in a battle, he meets girl, he meets enermy, adventure, sex with girl, big battle, gets rewarded) but are well loved because of the atmosphere they create.

    Pratachett is the same. Yes, often he recycles plots and tropes. Every author does from Dickens to Rowling – just look at Shakespeare! But he does it, at his best, with such verve, originality and intellegence that it simply doesn’t matter. The plot is well constructed and tightly drawn. The characters are sharp and the wisdom’s there. The actually nature of the plot doesn’t matter – its only when the book itself is sloppy that you notice the repeated tropes and plots.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    1. Let me know if you are blogging the readthrough – drop me a link.

      I’ve probably used the image before but I see the repeated plot use as an itch. It’s like he knows there is something there, so he writes what he can and then tries again until he can get rid of it. Thief of Time is probably the best example – I’m not a huge fan of the Death novels, although he is a tremendous supporting character, but he kept plugging away until the premise delivered one of his best books.

      Like

      Reply

  3. Sadly not – though maybe I should start.

    That possible – he does seem to repeat themes until he’s properly addressed them.

    Are you going to move on to his other books – just finished Nation and its truely exceptional.

    Like

    Reply

  4. Not for now. I finished Raising Steam last week and have plenty of non-Pratchett books to be getting on with. I’ll definitely do The Shepherd’s Crown when it is published but it’s unlikely I will read anything else by him beyond Good Omens for a while yet.

    Forty books by the same author since October does leave you with a desire for some variety!

    Like

    Reply

  5. It’s interesting that you found yourself in two minds about this book, as I remember missing seeing things from Magrat’s point of view the first time I read it and struggling with a Witches book featuring Magrat where the main point of view is Agnes’. I understand why Pratchett did it (as you say in your review of L&L, Lords & Ladies is the culmination of Magrat’s story, and it doesn’t need to be reopened), but it is still strange to read about Magrat but not know what she’s thinking.

    However, the thing I really like about Carpe Jugulum is Granny and Mightily Oats. Pratchett has been hinting at the darkness Granny has faced for some time, but this is the darkest he has gone. Granny’s memory of the child-murderer who kept the child’s shoe and how she chose to let him be hanged is worlds away from the comic Pratchett world of a few books ago. Pratchett’s been exploring this idea for a while (as when Granny says to Jason Ogg in Lords and Ladies, “The price of being the best is always having to be the best, and you pays it, the same as me”, or Mrs Gogol in Witches Abroad saying “I stand between the darkness and the light, but that no matter because I AM between”), but here he lays bare the toll witchcraft takes on the witch, something that he picks up again in the later Tiffany Aching books.

    Carpe Jugulum also contains one of those Pratchett observations which makes you think long and hard – up there with Vimes’ “Boots” theory of socioeconomic unfairness: Granny and Oats’ discussion about sin, where Granny tells Oats that sin starts with treating people as things. It is a simple observation, but one that rings brutally true.

    I also love Oats’ journey from self-doubting priest to someone with a clear sense of purpose and vocation. When Oats takes his holy book and “makes a great light” (putting practicality above doctrine, in one of Pratchett’s favourite themes), and at the end when he tells Granny “Everywhere I look, I see something holy” (paralleling how the Magpyrs react when they have been Weatherwaxed because the Count has taught them so many religious symbols), I had a lump in my throat.

    Anyway, I have rambled on for long enough! TL;DR – I share your opinion that CJ isn’t perfect, but think that the good bits of Carpe Jugulum are so good that they lift the rest of it being good into great.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s