“To win you must play both sides. You must, in fact, be able to think like your ancient enemy…To study the enemy you have to get under his skin. When you’re under his skin you start to see the world through his eyes…And thus we wear down mountains. Water dripping on a stone, dissolving and removing. Changing the shape of the world, one drop at a time. Water dripping on a stone, commander. Water flowing underground, bubbling up in unexpected places.”
One unfair criticism of Terry Pratchett is that he can lay his social commentary rather thickly. I found this particularly strange during my rereading because I had trouble finding any real evidence for it. The only thing that was hammered home repeatedly was the importance of thinking. This gave us the likes of Small Gods, where Pratchett angrily argued against fundamentalism while also examining the benefits of belief, or Men at Arms, which attacked racism but shone a light on all of our prejudices.
Monstrous Regiment was the first book that seemed to have the heavy handedness that Pratchett has sometimes been criticised for. Its examination of gender roles and the subjugation of women was somewhat clumsy, before a reverse ferret in the final act challenged us to think about what came before. A clever piece of writing, granted, but it lacked the deftness that Pratchett usually practised.
Thud! suffers from a similar lack of grace, rather fitting given the title. One of the most enjoyable things about his Tiffany Aching novels is how light they are. They have the same intellectual curiosity and darkness of other Discworld books but with a plot that skips from page to page. Thud! is a step backwards.
For a start, there is a overbearing atmosphere. It echoes the beginning of Night Watch where it was very clear to the reader that *something* was not quite right. It pervades throughout the entire book here and strangles the plot as a consequence. While a lot of it is intentional, as I suggest below, it overpowers the novel. Much of the book’s key activity takes place underground or in darkness, whether within places or within people.
The key place in Thud! is Koom Valley, scene of a legendary fight between dwarfs and trolls centuries ago. Up close it was just another rocky wasteland in the mountains. In theory it was a long way away, but lately it seemed to be getting a lot closer. Koom Valley wasn’t really a place now, not any more. It was a state of mind….It was part of the mythology of both races, a rallying cry, the ancestral reason why you couldn’t trust those short, bearded/big, rocky bastards.
With the anniversary of Koom Valley looming, the Watch learn of murder in tunnels that are being built underneath Ankh-Morpork. Their construction comes as a surprise, as does the murder, with a subsect of dwarfs highly suspicious of those who live above the ground and choosing to run their subterranean society secretly. Dwarfs are convinced some of their own were murdered by a troll. Vimes is dispatched by Vetinari to solve the murder amid a period of high racial tensions.
At its core, Thud! is a criticism of fundamentalism and the danger of leaders using their own interpretation of history for their own ends. This is typified in the demagogue Grag Hamcrusher, whose murder sparks the events of the novel. He preached the superiority of dwarf over troll, and that the duty of every dwarf was to follow in the footsteps of their forefathers and remove trollkind from the face of the world. It was written in some holy book, apparently, so that made it okay, and probably compulsory.
Given its publication was in 2005, the novel could be viewed through the prism of fundamentalist priests and rhetoric that the world was “either with us or against us”. Not all grags are as bad as Hamcrusher – Grag Bashfulsson is a progressive who helps resolve the stand-off between dwarfs and trolls at the end of the novel. But it is the actions of these fundamentalists, the Deep-Downers as these dwarves are known, that are a danger to Ankh-Morpork. They are literally undermining the city and what it stands for.
The trolls don’t quite have the same range the dwarves have, which is probably why the novel feels less challenging than others. Trolls within Ankh-Morpork have largely slotted into society, although at the dregs. The (underused, in my opinion) crime boss Chrysoprase and drug addict Brick are two such characters. We hear of trolls who are as set on conflict as the dwarfs but the reader has less of a handle on them as their rivals. The reader is told of this, rather than shown.
The politics of integration are handled much better, particularly the excellent scene where Vimes meets Mr Shine, the troll “king” made of diamonds. He runs a club where trolls and dwarfs play Thud!, the titular board-game where both species face off against one another. He forces each species to play as the other and is responsible for the quote that opens this post. That way each gains an understanding into the other and is able to progress, both in the game and in wider society. It’s a nice scene – it reminded me of the arc of Dennis Wise’s boxing gym in The Wire.
The alternative is living in the dark as some of the dwarfs do. Similar to eskimos and snow, dwarves have countless ways to describe the darkness that they live in. The worst is the Summoning Dark, the evil summoned when the dwarves murder one another. This happens because it is dwarves who are responsible for the murders that opened the book. Some of the Deep Downers wanted to hide the truth of Koom Valley, that it was an attempt to broker peace between both species. Rather than the war that became the legend, both factions were swept underground and frozen by a freak flood.
There is an attempt to show us what this darkness is capable of. Vimes cuts his hand while underground on a door touting the rune of the Summoning Dark. It is clear he is infected by *something* but the plot strand culminates in the Dark being “imprisoned” by Vimes’ internal watchman. The question of “Who watches the watchmen?” is explored to an extent during the novel, with the Watch under audit by AE Pessimal. But this resolution feels a bit pat, a bit easy. Vimes is hardly challenged, nowhere near to the extent he is in Night Watch.
I’ve been largely negative about Thud!, which is more because the good in the novel is a case of “this happened. I liked this” rather than giving the reader something weighty to discuss. I liked the subplot of Nobby unexpectedly wooing an exotic dancer or the hilarious scene where Cherry, Angua and Sally, the new vampire recruit to the Watch, get utterly shitfaced and try to put their differences to one side. One area that I can talk about is that this book is Sybil Ramkin heavy and Vimes’ family life is an area that works wonderfully.
Pratchett has largely avoided romance, usually opting for a fast-talking screwball approach like in Going Postal or Moving Pictures, but has been good on love and partnership. Sybil is yet another fantastic female character in the Discworld and there are some wonderful character moments that describe a happy marriage. Not an easy one but one that both members work hard at to make it an enjoyable one.
He watched her, dully. She was darning his socks. They had maids in this place and she darned his socks. It wasn’t as if they didn’t have so much money that he could have a new pair of socks every day. But she’d picked up the idea that it was a wifely duty, and so she did it. It was comforting, in a strange sort of way. It was only a shame that she wasn’t in fact any good at mending holes, so Sam ended up with sock heels that were a huge welt of criss-crossing wool. He wore them anyway, and never mentioned it.
Similarly lovely is the relationship between Sam and his son and how he must read to him every night. When he’s with young Sam, the world goes soft. What is a bit odd is how Vimes shuts down the city in order to get home one night to read to his son. Regular readers have seen how Vimes has literally pulled himself from the gutter in Guards! Guards! to become one of the most powerful figures in Ankh-Morpork. But his abuse of his power is oddly out of character and smacks of the ignorant privilege that Vimes that spent his career kicking against. I’m not the only one to notice this.
Thud! is a rarity among Discworld books in that it’s somewhat forgettable. Pratchett at his best slides in a neat paradox or sliver of ambiguity that means the book sits with you as you try and wrestle its contradictions. He continually underlines how life isn’t simple, it isn’t like a book, there are things that don’t make sense or aren’t fair. These barbs in his best books give them a longevity that Thud! lacks.
It’s not a bad book by any means, I didn’t dislike it when I read it, but it’s a difficult one to enjoy in hindsight. There’s little to hold onto. This is my shortest post for some time and it’s precisely because short of a list of things that I liked, there’s not much else to chart. It’s interesting that the three books Pratchett has used to explore war – Jingo, Monstrous Regiment and this – are among his most flawed.
No matter. Tiffany is back next week and she’s got an admirer. Two admirers, in fact. But Tiffany is staying focused on living up to her potential as a witch. Isn’t she? See you next week.