“Snuff is the 39th novel in the prolific Discworld series by the late Sir Terry Pratchett”

NO MAJOR SPOILERS

Ask a reader about Sir Terry Pratchett and they are bound to mention fantasy. This is not incorrect, the Discworld is full of phantasmagorical creatures – werewolves, vampires, trolls, dwarves, wizards, witches and, of course Nobby Nobbs, who has never been categorised. However, Pratchett’s books are much more than this. Despite the Discworld being flat and resting on the backs of elephants, who themselves stand on the back of the Great A’tuin, a gigantic turtle, it is essentially planet earth, viewed through a slightly distorting  glass.

Reading any Discworld novel is simply to read a description of our own world. What concerns us concerns the inhabitants of the Disc. Each novel is a well crafted fantasy centred around different characters. Rincewind, a wizzard; the witches Granny Weatherwax,  Nanny Ogg, Tiffany Aching, and several others; the wizards of Unseen University; Moist von Lipwig, crook and genius at reviving failed businesses; Death; and Sam Vimes. I’ve chosen to review a Sam Vimes novel, Snuff.

Sir Samuel Vimes, Commander of the Ankh Morpork Watch, Duke of Ankh Morpork, Lord Vetinari’s Terrier (though not to his face) and Blackboard Monitor, is basically a copper. He views the world around him as a crime scene, and where ever he goes he is not mistaken. Snuff sees Vimes away from the streets of Ankh Morpork, reluctantly on holiday at the ancestral home of his wife Sybil’s family. Yet stuck out in the country he finds crime aplenty – murder, corruption, smuggling, and more. The story is built around these themes, but there is an underlying thread, the eternal conflict between poverty and wealth.

Sam was a son of the streets. He was born and raised in the Shades, an area that probably looked up at the slums as somewhere to aspire to. Much later in life he is one of the most important people on the Disc, though he usually fails to recognise this. When he does, it disturbs him, but as his wife, Lady Sybil, points out “…if you were killed the chanceries of the world would be in uproar and, Sam, regrettably they would not be perturbed at the death of a housemaid.” Sam is important and very rich, whether he likes it or not.

Unlike others in his position, he knows what it means to be unimportant and poor. Pratchett sums this up nicely in a passage that brings back so many memories of my grandma:

“Cockbill Street got scrubbed so often that it was surprising that it wasn’t now at a lower level than the ground around it. The doorstep was scrubbed, and then whitened; the red tiles on the floor inside were scrubbed and then polished with red lead; and the black cooking stove was blackened even further by being rubbed ferociously with black lead. Women in those days had elbows that moved like pistons. And it was all about survival, and survival was all about pride. You didn’t have much control over your life, but by Jimmy you could keep it clean and show the world you were poor but respectable.”

This passage, the first time that I read it, reminded me of the ladies of my grandma’s generation. To them, poverty was a fact of life, but there were still choices to be made. Allow poverty to drag you down, or rise above poverty and take pride in the little that you have. I remember a friend’s grandmother’s house, still with its shiny white step; the red tiles in the hall, kitchen and outside toilet; in pride of place, gleaming with black lead, the Workwell cooking range in the front room. In my own home, if you look closely it is still possible to see the ghostly outline where an identical range stood. This is the power of Pratchett’s writing, at least for me, he speaks loudly of a past that I understand.

A major part of the cast of characters of Snuff are the goblins. For them poverty has ground them down to the point that they have almost, but not quite, lost hope. They are not so much interested in survival, but in simply existing. Not for them the white step, red tiles and black grate. For the goblins it is a case of barely hanging onto existence with the tips of their rather filthy fingers. Treated as outcasts by the rest of society, the goblins live down to the perceptions of everyone else. They are at the bottom, subhuman and unwanted. That is how society sees them. That is how the see themselves, except in the matter of names. They have poetic names. Then along comes Sam Vimes who actually asks what a dead goblin’s name was. He has all the prejudices about goblins, and indeed about everyone else he meets (with the exception of Lady Sybil, young Sam, Willikins and, perhaps Captain Carrot), but he treats them with respect.

Throughout the book there are characters who represent the main players in the modern world. Lord Rust and his family are the plutocrats who believe that they have the right to do as they please because they have wealth and breeding. Lady Sybil represents the philanthropists who try to use their wealth for good, but realise that they can do only a little. Chief Constable Feeney, the local and very ineffectual policeman, is shown, by Vimes, that the law is paramount, and that no one is above the law. There are many other characters, too many to describe, but Pratchett was a master of creating the ideal representatives of different sectors of modern society and placing them within his fantasy setting.

It is perfectly possible to read Pratchett’s books purely as fantasy stories. They are well crafted page turners that will often set you laughing. However, they are also witty and telling portraits of the big issues of our own society. As such, amongst the giggles will be a few scowls. I usually find myself agreeing with what Pratchett does not say openly about our society.

If you have never read Pratchett because he is ‘only’ a fantasy writer, think again. You are missing out on some erudite discussions on wealth, poverty, sexism, social class, war and many more topics of vital importance to our world and our times, but all with a good dose of humour. Snuff is, in my opinion, one of Pratchett’s best, though in all honesty none of them are less than excellent – even the much criticised The Shepherd’s Crown is of a standard most others writers would love to achieve, though it lacks the polish of the others, being his last book before his untimely death. Although the Discworld books are chronological, I agree with those who say that it doesn’t matter where you begin. Snuff is as good a place to start as any. It is a good read, a strong story, amusing and a good introduction to Pratchett.

Give it a try even if it’s not your usual genre.

 

Reviewed by:

Philip Meers

Added 25th March 2017

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Philip Meers

 

NO MAJOR SPOILERS

There’s a problem with goblins…

Sam Vimes is off to the countryside for a much-resisted family holiday. Needless to say, his unerring nose for a crime ensures that he can crack a few heads, right a few wrongs, lean on a few upper class nobs and generally mix business with pleasure…

This is Terry’s 39th Discworld outing and they do just keep getting better. I have strong recollections of his earliest works and I think, if you lay Snuff alongside something like The Colour of Magic you really can see how his style has matured over the intervening 30 years (THIRTY YEARS! Gods!).

Now, I know that there are plenty of fans who bemoan this progression and who yearn for the early days, but I used the word “matured” fairly carefully. So, Snuff is, like most of his more recent works, serious, dark, ironic and relevant, in comparison to the parodical, humorous and, yes, rather childish early novels. That’s to be expected – he is really a far better author now than he was then; but let’s be very clear, even the early Pratchett was a far better author than any of the current crop of popular fantasy authors (ahem – and authoresses, I shall name no names).

In any case, despite now being a “grown-up” author, Pratchett easily manages to retain enough of his trademark humour that reading Snuff is still fun for readers of any age, despite the serious messages he is trying to convey. As evidence, I submit Sam’s introduction to the game of Crockett…

…”Vimes died. The sun dropped out of the sky, giant lizards took over the world, and the stars exploded and went out and all hope vanished and gurgled into the sinktrap of oblivion… And there, magically reincarnated, was Vimes, a little dizzy, standing on the village green looking into the smiling countenance of an enthusiast”

However, it seems to me that Snuff is about the protection and emancipation of the downtrodden (by no means a new theme for Sir Terry) and who better to take the mantle of emancipator than Sam Vimes? liberator of golems, employer of zombies and trolls, protector of dragons and honorary blackboard monitor. Ironic really because, as head of the City Watch, Vimes is really Ankh Morpork’s most powerful oppressor* and perhaps Terry has another message for us here. Who can say?

All in all, this is typical, archetypal Pratchett. Beautifully written, intelligent and thoughtful but, most importantly, it is entertainment of the first order.

And watch out for the homage to Pride and Prejudice.

* You might suggest that Lord Vetinari holds that title. I’m sure he would be most eager to discuss the allegation with you. At length.

 

Reviewed by:

Campbell McAulay

Added 29th March 2015

More Reviews By
Campbell McAulay

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