Monday, May 24, 2010

Review of "The Fifth Elephant" by Terry Pratchett

Over the years, no author has been recommended to me as often as Terry Pratchett. My geek circle loves him. His Discworld series has spawned thirty-seven novels and a GURPS supplement, so it's obvious that many feel the same way.

I tried the first book a few years ago, "The Colour of Magic", and was unimpressed. I found it very difficult to read, it was boring, nothing was happening, I didn't care about the characters. I wrote off Discworld as something I just wasn't going to get. Then, one night, my wife plugged her iPod into the car stereo and began playing an audiobook of "Thud!", one of his more recent novels. I was instantly enchanted. The characters were all funny, quirky and well-developed. The pace of the story was great. It seemed like a book tailored for me, specifically, to love.

I decided that Terry Pratchett needed more investigating. As I loved the subject matter of "Thud", it was natural for me to seek another book in the same series about the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Hence, The Fifth Elephant, the 24th Discworld novel and the 5th about the City Watch.

Ankh-Morpork is a town which reminds me of the Italian city states in the Renaissance. It has no King, but is ruled by a Lord. It is filthy, depraved and smelly but a hub of culture and science. It draws people from the countryside with its opportunities, forcing ancestral enemies to live and work side-by-side. It is hated but needed by its neighbors. It is huge, complicated and crime-ridden and the only people who can sort it out are its police force, The City Watch.

At the centre of these stories is the Commander of the Watch, Samuel Vimes, who also happens to be the most interesting and complex character. Most of the time, his role is that of the straight-man who must control the madness around him, always ready with a caustic remark, an intimidating scowl or just furious rage. Yet underneath his crusty exterior beats a sentimental heart and schemes the keen mind of a detective.

By the fifth book, he has married the Duchess of Morpork, and is therefore the Duke. He is sent to the forbidding land of Uberwald, a country run by an unsteady confederacy of Dwarfs, Werewolves and Vampires. His mission: secure a trading contract for the fat mined in the region. The residents of Uberwald all hate each other and like Ankh-Morpork even less. It's a political minefield and, well, if Sam Vimes was to tread it perfectly it just wouldn't be an interesting novel.

It's an good story with an exciting plot. It just takes wa-a-a-y too long to get rolling. The book jacket describes Sam fleeing a pack of werewolves alone in the night. It's a great scene, but it happens three-quarters of the way through the book. The previous three-quarters is pretty much all exposition. Pratchett spends pages and pages describing Uberwald, Vampires, Werewolves, Dwarfs, the mindsets of each race, local politics, dwarf ceremonies and it just goes on and on, sapping interest from the story.

For instance, the book introduces Igors, a race of identical hunchbacks that recycle each others' body parts. A funny idea, to be sure. Pratchett just takes up a lot of story-time building the mystery around various hunchbacks disappearing and reappearing in places they couldn't possibly be before Sam finally figures out what's going on.

By contrast, in "Thud!", an Igor is working at the watch and the concept of Igors as a race is addressed very briefly and without ceremony, then story moves along. I wonder how much of the exposition in the Fifth Element would have been better just told rather than shown, specifically the exposition unimportant to the plot. Yes, I know all writing teachers say to show, not tell, but it's a lie. A good writer knows what to tell to save time.

The wife tells me that the exposition problem is an issue with all Terry Pratchett novels. I'm prepared to put that theory to the test: I recently purchased Night Watch, the 7th City Watch novel, which I will read at a later date. For now, I'll say that the Fifth Elephant is full of funny quips and hilarious concepts, but the plot languishes under layers of flabby information, piled like so much elephant fat.

2 1/2 cynical remarks out of 5