I wanted to read some new Discworld books this summer, but I’ve also been meaning to re-read Night Watch. This was the first proper Discworld book I ever read. Technically I read Maskerade first, but I read it as a Phantom parody, paid no attention to the larger context, and despite madly loving it, I was somehow not inspired to go on to the rest of the series (can’t quite explain that).
So Night Watch is where it really started for me. I don’t recommend anyone else start here, as it makes absolutely no sense as a place to begin. More on that in a bit.
The book focuses almost exclusively on Sam Vimes, who remains my favorite Discworld character. He’s the head of Ankh-Morpork’s City Guard, and has been instrumental in making them into the force they are today (and weren’t a few books earlier). While attempting to apprehend a serial killer, Vimes is caught in a freak storm above the Library of Unseen University, where the wizards reside.
Vimes and the killer are thrown thirty years back in time. Due to complications and wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey technobabble, Vimes ends up taking the place of the copper who taught a young Sam Vimes how to be a copper–so it all becomes rather circular and you can’t think about it too hard (Vimes tries not to). If mentoring his younger self while keeping an eye out for that killer on the loose isn’t enough, Ankh-Morpork of the past isn’t the comparatively well-ordered place of today. Corruption is rife, plots are afoot, and a revolution is in the making. Vimes remembers how it all came out, but there’s no guarantee things can’t change, wiping out his own future.
It’s a slightly complicated plot, but somehow it works right along while you’re actually reading it. I think that was true the first time I read it too. I liked it even better on a re-read, because I knew who everyone was. Part of the fun of the book is seeing recognizable characters when they were much younger. Nobby Nobs is a street urchin (and as ugly as ever), Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler has yet to acquire his trademark phrase, and Vetinari is still in Assassin School. None of that means anything without reading other books, which is why it makes no sense to start here (funny how that’s always a topic when discussing Discworld, and so rarely one for any other series!)
I can even argue that you get an extra layer if you read later books first. The narration keeps referring to Vimes’ younger self as “Young Sam.” In the present-day portion, Vimes’ wife is very pregnant, and in later books we see that their son is called (wait for it) Young Sam. So there’s definitely a father theme going on that becomes much clearer when familiar with later books. Discworld is so sequentially confused.
The best thing about Night Watch is that you get to see Vimes at his Vimesest. He’s a copper and he’s tough and he’s practical. He doesn’t seem to believe much in honor, while being very honorable. He believes in Law and he believes his job is to keep the peace and protect the ordinary man–while having no illusions about the nobility of your typical Ankh-Morporkian. He’s the kind of man who doesn’t fight a mob or yell them into submission. He steps out in front of the mob, lights a cigar, asks if they’re having a pleasant night and would they like to step into the Watch House for some cocoa, and if not they really ought to go on home, it’s getting cold. And it works.
Vimes understands Ankh-Morpork and its people, he knows the streets and he knows the crowds and he can handle all of it. I love this book because we get to see all of this. In some of the earlier books, Vimes is still evolving. Some of the later ones deal more with politics, and the most recent, Snuff, takes him out of Ankh-Morpork (which was a mistake, I think, and though I like the book I’ve just now realized this is why it wasn’t better than it was).
Night Watch is set in a different time so a lot of regulars and recurring characters aren’t in it. But that’s actually okay, because the result is that we get lots of Vimes instead.
My conclusion is, don’t start here, because significant portions won’t mean anything. But if you’ve read any City Guard books to give you context and if you like Vimes, this is a particularly magnificent installment in the series. It’s definitely one of my favorites.
Author’s Site: http://terrypratchettbooks.com/