Monday, April 23, 2012

S is for Snuff

It's been nearly three decades since Sir Terry Pratchett graced us with the first of his Discworld books, a series of humorous fantasy novels poking affectionate fun at common fantasy tropes while engaging in various levels of satire and social commentary. The books often have one real-world topic and one or more fantasy element. Pratchett has taken on vampires and modernity, witches and the Phantom of the Opera, wizards and shopping malls, dwarve werewolves and racism, dwarves troll and ethnic conflicts. Snuff, the thirty-ninth of the Discworld books, takes city watch commander Sam Vimes and his wife the lady Sybil out of the metropolis of Ankh-Morpork and into the countryside for a yarn involving goblins, racism, and slavery.
It has elements of a classic fish-out-of-water type of tale, but with Pratchett's keen understanding of relationships and social structures. And, or course, it wouldn't be much of a book if Vimes didn't find crime, old secrets to uncover, and wrongs to right against the poverty-stricken, much-abused goblin race. We end with the beginning of a new understanding as Vimes and Sybil lead  people to the realization that there is more to the goblins than people had imagined. It's a positive enough message, even if a bit heavy-handed and obvious.  What disappointed me is that Pratchett dealt with the same issues of racism and prejudice to much better effect in earlier works, most notably in Thud, which forced Vimes to reexamine his own prejudice against the silicon-based troll race. In Snuff we get very little of this kind of thing from any of the viewpoin characters; those we've come to know as "good guys" through the series remain good, and on the side of rightiousness. Any setbacks or obstacles are quickly and easily set aside, giving the whole book a quick, breezy feel.
There was one moment in which Snuff appeared to reach to be something deeper; while questioning a crime suspect, Vimes called upon something called the Summoning Dark - a malevolent presence which had lodged inside of him since events in the aforementioned Thud. In the earlier book there was real tension as to how this would effect Vimes and a bit of a surprise - although a satisfying one - in how he escaped it. Here there's no real repercussion or even a credible temptation. The Discword series is inccreasingly feeling like a series in which the author has too much affection for his supercompetent, super-honorable characters and is no longer willing to see them do anything wrong or have anything bad happen to them.
Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed the book while I was reading it. Pratchett remains as funny as ever, and as much fun. This one was just a bit of a letdown after the stellar highs we got near the middle of the Discworld series.

Three stars.


  1. I've been a huge Pratchett fan for years, and have difficulty deciding if the Watch series or the Witches are my favourite stories. That being the case, I was eager to get hold of "Snuff" when it came out. It felt a bit like watching "The Phantom Menace". I could see the flaws that everyone else was mentioning, but I loved it anyway because it has Sam Vimes doing what Sam Vimes does. It wove in a lot from the previous adventures, and as you say, it has that Pratchett stamp of humour.
    My fear is always the death of beloved characters, and as Sir Terry is fighting Alzheimer's (and a variant that makes typing and reading almost impossible) I worried that this would be the last Act in Sam Vimes' career - and maybe the last chapter in the story of the Discworld. I wouldn't begrudge him the chance to kick back after so many great stories, but they've been a big part of my life and literary influence.

    1. Thanks Damian!

      That's an interesting parallel with TPM. I can see how, while both are flawed works, both are entertaining and capture at least some of the spirit of the original. I might post about it at some point when I have nothing more current to discuss, but suffice it to say that I don't have the hatred for it that others do.

      There were definitely highs in the Discworld series, and this isn't quite one of them. Still, you're quite right: Vimes is Vimes and that, by itself, is worth the price of admission.