Wherein I find that Terry Pratchett disappoints me

At some point, when I was fourteen or fifteen years of age, someone said to me, “If you like Piers Anthony, you really should try Terry Pratchett!” This recommendation resulted in my avoiding Pratchett for ten years.

I did eventually discover that this comparison was misleading, and gleefully tore my way through Pratchett’s immense corpus, in no particular order. Pratchett’s books are generally self-contained, and as a rule, it is not necessary to read a book’s prequel in order to appreciate it. Pratchett’s Discworld books were fantasy with a post-modern sensibility, self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, and Pratchett rarely left any dark underside unexposed; in fact, he seems much more interested in the overlooked bits of fantasy conventions than he is in the fantastical bits. As a rule, Pratchett is more interested in the scullery maid, than the princess.

I generally find Pratchett extremely satisfying to read, from a feminist perspective. Discworld isn’t a gender-blind utopia, but then again, Pratchett is entirely aware of this. Monstrous Regiment in particular rips through the chauvinism of the fantasy genre with glee, and Pratchett is one of the rare male authors (in my experience) who has multiple authentic female voices, and is capable of writing women of every sort, even unattractive ones!

All this by way of setting up my review: I finally got around to reading the first story in which Sam Vimes appears, Guards! Guards! At this point, Ankh-Morpork’s watch has no women in it, and very few men. Lady Sybil Ramekin almost makes up for it though. Spoilers follow.

Lady Sybil is a dragon fancier and breeds swamp dragons: poor, attenuated cadet-members of an otherwise extinct species. When an extinct dragon, apparently unaware of its status, begins terrorizing the city, Lady Sybil is called upon for her expertise. She is a whirl-wind of enthusiasm for this homicidal reptile, shows no awareness that her life is indubitably in danger, and attempts to control it (after witnessing its murderous appetite) by looking it in the eye and speaking firmly. (I should note that she is otherwise not insane, but is perhaps slightly overfond of dragons.)

And reading Guards! Guards! disappointed me; Lady Sybil shows up in later books– in fact, she’s a regular. But I do not recall ever seeing this Lady Sybil again. After this book, she seems to become a smaller, tamer woman. She’s described as “sensible,” and “patient.” She does show enthusiasm on certain subjects, and to be fair, she’s quite willing to do battle to protect what she cares about. But somehow, she doesn’t seem to get the chance to do that much; after this, it’s all Sam. I miss the Sybil in this book, and would have liked to see more of her.

Guards! Guards! is a splendid book, and a slight disapointment, because now I know what I’m missing.


  1. harlemjd says

    Ha! My first thought when I started reading this was, “You LIKE Piers Anthony? WTF?!?!”

    Yeah, more Sybill would be nice. I think she gets overlooked because, while Pratchett can write women, he really can’t write romance (or maybe just doesn’t like to). Now that she’s married to Vimes, it’s hard to write for her without having to write their relationship. A book about the mad adventures of the dragon-fancy society, in which the guards make only fleeting appearances, would be awesome, but probably won’t happen now that Pratchett’s health isn’t so great.

  2. says

    I dunno. I think that the fact that they now have a child has tamed both Lady Sybil and Captain Vimes. Neither is quite the same character. And, if I remember correctly, Lady Sybil had a realization near the end of Guards!Guards! that maybe, just maybe, there was danger involved in what she had been doing.

    It was a very late and mild realization since Pratchett was commenting on the (ig)nobility of the British Empire’s class system. This might be missed by a lot of people.

    Now, I was disappointed in the last book – but I think it might very well be because the man was already starting to suffer from Alzheimer’s. It is not a pretty disease and, unfortunately, we are about to lose one of the English languages great modern fantasy/satire writers to it.

  3. says

    Sybil has some great scenes in other books, frex Thud including one where she faces down an assassin with a flamethrower where Sam is completely helpless, and often has day-saving intellectual skills demonstrated (Fifth Elephant, Thud) but I agree it would have been nice to have had her be a focal character of at least one Watch book.

  4. Pipenta says

    What harlemjd said, only more so. I so loathe Piers Anthony’s books, that I didn’t even try the Discworld books for years because covers reminded me of the Xanth books and I wanted to stay the hell away from that crap. I haven’t read any Xanth books since they first came out (yeah, I’m oooooold) and only got past the first one because my sister loved them. I seem to remember them being trite, the humor forced and on top of it, they were a bit sexist.

    The thing about Pratchett is, he GETS people. You care about his characters, warts and all. Not all of his books are great, but damn, he’s written a lot of books. He isn’t sexist. He’s thoughtful, intelligent and empathetic. And not every character he writes is all that interesting. Some people are a bit dull. I never cared much about what was up with Sybil. I’d much rather read about the witches than some member of the Discworldian Junior League. If I hanker for that sort of thing, I could always go read Barbara Pym.

    Pratchett isn’t focusing on intense and terrifying injustice the way, say Sheri Tepper, did for so many years. He’s not Margaret Atwood. He isn’t the writer that Atwood is, but WHO the fuck is? Discworld is fun fiction, not literature. But for all that, Pratchett’s pretty damn good, IMO.

    He gets out of his own skin and can write from a point of view that is not his own.

    Truth be told, my absolute favorite Pratchett book is “Hat Full of Sky”. You’ve pretty much got nothing but strong female characters in that book and it is terrific. What’s more, there’s not a dragon to be seen in it, which is a bonus. Dragon fiction almost always makes me queasy.

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