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Men at Arms & Soul Music by Terry Pratchett - Edit 2

Before modification by Rebekah at 15/12/2009 10:19:05 PM

Men at Arms
Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett
Captain Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is retiring and getting married in a few days. But an explosion at the Assassins' Guild attracts his interest, and soon a trail of bodies is forming. The Guilds don't want his help, the Patrician has ordered him to lay off and his fellow Watch members seem more concerned about the new intake of ethnic minorities (Lance-Corporal Cuddy of the dwarfs and Lance-Corporal Detritus of the trolls) than the mystery. But somewhere in Ankh-Morpork a killer is on the loose with a very powerful new weapon...

Men at Arms is the second Discworld novel to focus on the City Watch, introduced in the classic Guards! Guards! As told in that volume, the City Watch saved the city from a marauding dragon and at the end of the book the Watch gained fresh resources from a grateful city government. However, it is still regarded as a joke, as Men at Arms makes clear.

Pratchett once again uses the cliches and ideas of police procedurals to generate humour and satire, although this volume is much more of a hard-bitten (in some cases, literally) mystery novel. Sam Vimes is portrayed as the cynical, weathered old cop doggedly pursuing his case in the face of all opposition, whilst Corporal Carrot is his enthusiastic young sidekick. Of course, that would be a bit too cheesy, so Pratchett subverts this idea earlier on and takes the story in a more interesting and original direction.

The city of Ankh-Morpork comes to life in this book more successfully than in any prior volume, to the extent that Pratchett's playwright and friend Stephen Briggs was able to use information in this book (and the prior ones) to map the city so everything tracked and made sense (the results can be found in the spin-off product, The Streets of Ankh-Morpork). The city's ethnic make-up, the political structure of the guilds and the office of the Patrician are all portrayed convincingly. In addition, Pratchett aims high with his characterisation, with the most affecting death of a Discworld character to date and some brilliant development for Carrot and Vimes. There is even a reasonably well-portrayed romance and some (tastefully off-screen) sex, a first for the series. Men at Arms is Discworld aimed at a slightly maturer level than arguably any of the previous books bar Small Gods.

Which isn't to say that Pratchett doesn't bring the funny. The Colon/Nobbs double-act is excellent, the return of Gaspode the Wonder Dog (from Moving Pictures, but much better-utilised here) is genuinely funny and there is some fantastic material to be mined from the Cuddy/Detritus relationship.

Men at Arms ( ***** ) is Pratchett yet again firing on all cylinders, delivering a novel that is by turns brilliantly funny, genuinely thought-provoking and consistently entertaining. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Soul Music
Soul Music by Terry Pratchett
Imp y Celyn, trained as a musician in a druid society, arrives in Ankh-Morpork ready to seek his fortune. Instead, the city rapidly deprives him of the few riches he already has. Teaming up with the dwarf horn-blower Glod and the troll drummer Lias, Imp braves the wrath of the Musicians' Guild by playing without a licence. When he acquires a special guitar from a back-alley shop, Imp learns that he and his band are meant for greatness, for sex and drugs and Music With Rocks In (well, one out of three isn't that bad).

Meanwhile, Susan, the daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Sto Helit, is rather perturbed to learn that she is the granddaughter of Death, and when her grandfather decides to take some time off she has to step in and do the job. Which would be fine except that when it becomes time for her to collect the soul of a certain musician, she learns that music doesn't want him to die. At least, not until it decides the time is right...

Soul Music is the Discworld's take on rock music, essentially doing for music what Moving Pictures did for movies. In fact, Pratchett lampshades this a couple of times, with references to the events of that earlier book informing events (such as Ridcully becoming convinced horrible Things from the Dungeon Dimensions are about to break through the walls of reality at any second). The problem is that whilst he does this amusingly, Pratchett never really breaks away from the basic concept. He throws some great new ideas and characters into the mix, with the introduction of HEX (the Discworld's first AI-based computer), the Duck Man and the excellent character of Susan, who recurs in several future books, but overall it does feel like Pratchett is retreading old ground here. The Death storyline is also somewhat under-developed, with no real reason for Death suddenly taking a few weeks off being given. In fact, it feels very odd he would after the chaos this caused last time in Reaper Man (the events of which are also referenced several times, making Soul Music one of the most continuity-heavy books in the series).

Of course, as has been said in these reviews before, Pratchett on autopilot is still better than most writers at the very top of their game. Pratchett has a huge knowledge of music and lets the reader know it with references (both overt and subtle) to Buddy Holly, Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Meat Loaf, punk rock and The Blues Brothers roaring past the reader like bullets from a machine gun. The pace is fast, the narrative is tight and some of the cliches of rock 'n' roll are very cleverly used to set up and further the storyline.

The problem is that Soul Music is, whilst entertaining, lacks the spark of greatness that infused the three books that preceded it, and if read in close conjunction with the earlier volumes it does feel like a slight step down in quality. The new characters are not quite as memorable as those in the books which preceded it and the running gag with the Bursar's insanity and dried frog pills is starting to wear pretty thin by this point. Pratchett also has a slight problem with the cameos from the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, who in their own books get involved whenever something crazy happens in the city and eventually sort it out, but in other characters' volumes simply come across as useless and somewhat pointless, which seems a bit disrespectful of them after their fine achievements in Men at Arms.

Still, these are really minor problem. Soul Music ( **** ) remains a very entertaining and readable novel, and is available now in the UK and USA. An animated movie based on the book is also available in the USA (in a double-pack with Wyrd Sisters) on DVD, although it is currently out-of-print in the UK.
Men at Arms at The Wertzone

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