The Night Watch was the 29th novel in Terry Pratchett’s extraordinary life’s work, the Discworld series.
The regular publication of Pratchett’s novels formed part of the background pulse of my life (and I am sure of many others), a predictable and reliable event that one looks forward to, like birthdays or Christmas. Although like all the novels in the series it can be read as a stand alone text, it is not a good entry point for those new to Discworld. This is later Pratchett, more serious, and it assumes a level of knowledge of the characters and their traditions without which some of the jokes won’t work. An example of this happens when Sam Vimes meets Cut My Own Throat Dibbler. Dibbler is one of the numerous well realised characters who people Discworld and bring it to life. Travelling back in time, Sam meets CMOT when he is just starting out in the pie trade, and accidentally gives him his nickname. This joke doesn’t work if the reader isn’t already familiar with CMOT and his infamous ‘pies with personality.’
‘Night Watch’ is one of the darker novels in the series (although in interviews Pratchett disputed that label). Sam Vimes, commander of the Ankh-Morpork police (the Watch) is pursuing a serial killer, when he is caught in an accidental time warp, and travels back to thirty years earlier when he first joined the Watch. He mentors his younger self, teaching him all the tricks of the trade. The time travelling aspects of the story are handled adeptly, and although as with all time travel stories it won’t stand up to much scrutiny, it is cleverer than most. It is written with love for the characters and the world they live in, not least Sam Vimes the world weary copper, trying to keep the peace and do the job in front of him, struggling with the moral complexities that sometimes presents him with.
Vimes’s time travelling accident happens on the 30th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution of the Twenty-Fifth of May, a small scale over by lunchtime affair in which seven watchmen lost their lives. Each year the battle of Heroes Street is commemorated by those who were there by wearing lilac sprigs in their lapels, and visiting the graves of the fallen. This poignant memory echoes through the novel, as the inevitability of history reasserts itself, despite Sam’s interference with the events of the past. We also meet a much younger Vetenari, an apprentice of the Assassin’s Guild, who goes on to command the City. As a cleverly constructed prequel the novel is really mostly aimed at Discworld fans, rather than new readers. I have huge affection for the whole series, and pretty much everything Pratchett wrote, and his tragic death in 2015 deprived us of one of our great comic writers. But his characters are so vivid and well realised that they live on in our imaginations. In the unlikely event you haven’t discovered Discworld before now, and I know there are huge numbers of fans in the blogging community, then I can’t recommend these novels highly enough. Start at the beginning with ‘The Colour of Magic’, and just enjoy!