Review: Carpe Jugulum, Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's Discworld series is one of my favorites. The Discworld is generally a good place for stories, especially as the books reveal new nooks and crannies of the world with their characteristic wit and style. Partly because of this exploration, I consider Carpe Jugulum, the 23th in the series, one of the best yet.

Lancre is a small and mostly vertical country that tends to produce highly successful people, particularly witches and wizards. In Carpe Jugulum, we learn more about neighboring Uberwald and its inhabitants: King Verence II of Lancre has invited vampyres (same as vampires, only they can't spell) [1] to the christening of his and Magrat's first child—much to the displeasure of the Lancre witches, and eventually, the whole country...

Though the plot is similar to Lords and Ladies, in which elves tried to take over Lancre, there are some important differences. In Lords and Ladies, one of the elements stressed was how elves were different from current popular conceptions by their nature; here, the vampires have deliberately remade themselves—into considerably more formidable enemies. As a result, the role of folklore (a subset of narrative, a frequent theme in Pratchett's books) is correspondingly adjusted.

The novel stirs in elements from the brilliant Small Gods by featuring a priest of Om, who personifies the continued development and divisions of Omnianism. In addition, the need to continually challenge the pre-established characters—and when Granny Weatherwax is involved, the challenges required are formidable indeed—raises the stakes and the suspense. I found the resulting dark edge (possibly the darkest to date in the Discworld books) compelling, carrying me past the potential qualms about plot parallels to Lords and Ladies. Other people might find the similarities more problematic.

These darker plot elements also produce terrific momentum; the stakes and difficulties, plus the quick pace of events, combine to make Carpe Jugulum a compulsive read. Pratchett's traditional wit, cleverness, and humor grease the skids of the book; they are particularly noticeable in the dialogue. For instance, consider this conversation between two vampires, a father and the daughter he has trained to resist many of the classic weaknesses:

"Isn't it all worth it?"

"There'll have to be something really good to make up for those garlic pillows you used to make us sleep on."

"Will it be enough to know that the world is your oyster?"

"Why should I want it to be some nasty little sea-creature?"

"Because they get eaten alive. Unfortunately I doubt if we can find a slice of lemon five hundred miles long, but the metaphor will suffice."

"We-ell . . ."

"Good. I like to see my little girl smile. Now . . . who shall we have for breakfast?"

There is also the rather unobservant highwayman who tries to rob Death ("'Who are you?' I'M DEATH. AND I REALLY AM NOT HERE TO TAKE YOUR MONEY. WHICH PART OF THIS DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND?" [2]), the naming of Lancre's newest member of the royal family, and other small comic grace notes among the larger seriocomic themes and confrontations.

Not only is the book funny and compelling, it is also unashamedly moral. The motif of the book is black and white, which plays out in one of the book's several themes, the relationships between faith, religion, and morality:

"It's not as simple as that. It's not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray. . . ."

"There's no greys, only white that's got grubby. I'm surprised you don't know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is."

"It's a lot more complicated than that—"

"No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won't like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts."

Carpe Jugulum avoids the dangerous slide into sledgehammer propaganda, but a very clear moral sense comes through (as in many of Pratchett's other books) to add substance to the novel.

Pratchett's books make up much of my "frequently re-read, especially in times of stress" list, thanks to their strong and well-drawn characters, fast-paced plots, eye for the absurdity inherent in much of life, wit and humor, and simple bedrock humanity. Carpe Jugulum has gained a high place on that list and is strongly recommended, though ideally it should not be an introduction to the Discworld.

[1] Their motto is, of course, "Carpe Jugulum," which translates as "Go for the throat."

[2] I'm aware that those lines should technically be in small caps; however, the effect can't be achieved by straight HTML, and Netscape does not support the {font-variant: small caps} property for style sheets. I bow to a small inaccuracy in quoting in order to avoid a larger confusion.

%T   Carpe Jugulum
%A   Pratchett, Terry
%C   London
%D   1998
%G   0385 409923
%I   Doubleday
%O   hardcover
%P   285pp

Copyright March 1, 2000 by Kate Nepveu. Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written.

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