Guards! Guards! is the first novel in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series to centre around the City Watch, Ankh-Morpork’s police force. This was not, however, the first book I personally read about them. I can’t remember which one I started with exactly, possibly Jingo or Men at Arms. The highlight of the City Watch novels to me is Night Watch, which I first read at 13/14 and remains my favourite Discworld novel ever and features it’s own sort of origin story for the City Watch.
I’ve read Night Watch again and again over the years but I thought it was finally time to read all the City Watch novels in order, including rereads and new reads, so that’s why I’ve gone back to the beginning. Considering my passion for Sam Vimes as a character I have no idea why I’ve left it until now to pick up the first City Watch novel, especially since I had so much fun reading this!
What I love most about the City Watch novels is Sam Vimes. He’s such a brilliantly created and human character. Night Watch gives a glance of his time as an impressionable young man but Guards! Guards! takes you to the start of his story in terms of Pratchett’s writing chronology so it’s been an interesting experience for me, as someone who grew to love the character via later novels, to finally read how it all began.
Guards! Guards! introduces us to a drunken, disillusioned Captain Sam Vimes. Into his life tumbles an eager new recruit, a very angry dragon and the charmingly practical Lady Sybil. Vimes quite literally has to drag himself out of the gutter in order to save his precious city.
Whilst this book won’t be stealing the top spot in my Discworld favourites list, it’s still a fun book with plenty of stuff to love about it. Ever present, of course, is Pratchett’s wit and humour. Pratchett is such a wonderfully playful writer. I cannot emphasise enough how much Pratchett’s manipulation of character tropes and fantasy narrative tropes, witty dialogue, and satire fills me with pleasure.
In Guards! Guards! the main antagonist is the leader of a secret society who has hatched a devilish plan to overthrow the Patrician and install a puppet king. The main part of the plan involves summoning a massive dragon to terrorise Ankh-Morpork.
Now, if you’ve read a Discworld novel before, I’m sure you can imagine the charm and humour that comes with the Ankh-Morporkians reaction to the dragon. There are street vendors selling knock-off dragon hunting equipment, wandering heroes getting offended at the fact the Patrician can’t offer a daughter’s hand in marriage for killing the dragon (but maybe his dog will do?), amongst many other comic events that Pratchett spins out of his riff on the staple fantasy narrative: ‘dragon terrorises city only to be conquered by the rightful heir to the Kingdom’.
I particularly loved how the stereotypical hero figure that comes along to fight the dragon is stuffed so far into the background of the story that he’s practically just part of the scenery. Instead the misfits that makeup the Night Watch, who have been stomped to the bottom of the social hierarchy, take centre stage. They depend on their street smarts, the letter of the law and… well, a good bit of luck.
There’s so much more I could say about this novel and plenty of little scenes I would love to highlight but the bottom line is that I recommend this book.
Guards! Guards!, I think, would make a great starting point for people new to Discworld novels because it offers quite a nice introduction to Ankh-Morpork via Carrot’s strand in the story. Carrot, who is such an interesting counter-point to Sam Vimes, begins the story by traveling away from his adopted Dwarven family to take on the big city as a member of the Night Watch, believing it to be a prestigious choice of career. His encounters with the twisted politics of Ankh-Morpork as a naive outsider is great for easing the reader into the unique setup that underpins Ankh-Morpork, a city that deserves to be considered a character in its own right.