Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Another species brought into the fold

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, humor

When the book opens with a report detailing the goblins' cult of unggue, followed by a vignette involving Sam Vimes's wife and son, you can be sure they are central to the plot. Interestingly, though early on a hermit named Stump is introduced, he is a bit player at best. Tobacco smuggling is more central to the plot, and provides the title, Snuff, by Terry Pratchett. The actual contents of the tobacco barrels, however, include some lethal recreational drugs.

For anyone unfamiliar with Discworld (a trademarked name), it is the setting of more than thirty novels by Pratchett, a disc-shaped planet that does indeed rest upon the backs of immense elephants standing on a turtle, as Hindu mythology would have it. At the center of the disk is the festering metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, and all is ruled over by the tyrant Lord Vetinari, while the city police force (the Watch) is governed by Commander Samuel Vimes.

In this novel, Vimes is taken out of his element, literally and figuratively, by the combined machinations of his wife, Lady Sybil Ramkin, heir to a large country estate, and Lord Vetinari, who does indeed have a heart in there somewhere. While "on holiday" in the countryside, Sam Vimes manages to return at least in part to "his element" when a sudden murder leads to the uncovering of a number of more significant crimes. So significant, they lead to a shift in the social order.

In earlier novels, Vimes has had a hand in bringing various species into function as members of the Watch: vampires, a werewolf or two, trolls, golems, dwarves and zombies. This book centers on goblins and the ages-old prejudices against them. Goblins are legally animals and treated like vermin. As it happens, Vimes is host to an unlikely entity, which he thinks of as a kind of demon, a gift from the king of dwarves, called the Summoning Dark. He can see in darkness and understand the languages of the underground creatures, including goblins. Goblins, though considered ugly and stinky (where have we heard that before?) have the loveliest names, and one goblin girl is named Tears of a Mushroom. I will forebear to describe how she wins the hearts of a populace. She, sponsored by the Lady Sybil, and trained by a novelist, is central to a change in the social order and the conferring of rights upon the goblins.

And what of unggue? Is it pronounced UN-gyoo or un-G'WAY? Probably the latter. Unggue pots are small vessels the goblins make to keep their fingernails, snot and certain other parts shed from their bodies. These shed parts and the pots are central to their religion. The pots also have certain magical qualities, and the beauty of the pots has led to some amount of raiding and theft by humans (there are strong parallels here to the past treatment of the Navajos for their art).

The action and dialog are conveyed in a style all Pratchett's own, an admixture of understatement and sly misdirection, frequently quite hilarious. I have long considered Asimov the master of dialog, and for sheer volume of good material, he is unsurpassed, but I now consider Pratchett's writing, at its best, rises higher, particularly in dialog that delights, surprises and amuses all at once.

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