Supposing 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.
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.