I always loved the City Watch books of the Discworld series almost as much if not equally to those of the Lancre Witches. Vimes is a wonderful character, someone who has been utterly broken down by life when we first meet him, and gradually pulls himself up by his bootstraps, though he never loses his deep cynicism about the world. The books are packed with lovable, memorable characters: Nobby Nobbs who is basically a big mass of personality quirks mushed together into a smelly vest, cautious Sergeant Colon with a quip for every occasion, and the utterly adorable Carrot, a man so damned GOOD that bluebirds sing whenever he walks down the street. We also get some of the best appearances in the Discworld of the Patrician, one of the most compellingly pragmatic evil overlords ever to exist in fiction, and some of the best stories centred around the city of Ankh-Morpork. All this and some clever, airtight plots, mostly based around police procedural or murder mystery structures. All up, pretty good stuff.
But what about the women?
Guards Guards, the first book featuring the City Watch, is pretty light on when it comes to female characters. The most central woman in the whole story is Sybil Ramkin, dragon expert, whom I love deeply, though it has to be said that she emerges as a fascinating, fully realised and complicated female character despite every attempt of the narrative. Each time she appears, she has to wade through a sea of fat jokes, aristocrat jokes, lonely spinster jokes, and in some cases, all three at once. On more than one occasion she is described vividly as something monstrous or other than human, including scenes from the point of view of the man she will marry in later books.
Every time she opens her mouth, though, Sybil proves herself to be awesome. She’s not just posh and dragon obsessed and lonely and less than slender, she’s also smart, brave, funny, generous, and a good person. I don’t know how to feel about the final scene in which Vimes capitulates to her romantic expectations – it’s gorgeously written, and terribly clever, but I did rankle at him only belatedly admitting that he finds her attractive, and the fact that she is pretty much described as a perfumed siege engine rather than a person. But I love her, I love him, and I do find their later relationship one of the best things about these books (gosh I hope it still is, better brace myself for the visit of the suck fairy) so I will forgive Pratchett for giving Sybil such a problematic debut.
The rest of the women in Guards Guards are largely invisible. We are told about Carrot’s mother, his old girlfriend Minty, his new sort-of-girlfriend Reet, and his innocent friendship with the local brothel madam Mrs Palm and her “many unmarried daughters,” all through scenes in which they don’t actually appear, through dialogue or in his letters home. Likewise Mrs Colon is referenced but we don’t meet her. The entire plot, about a man who uses another bunch of men to summon a dragon and overthrow the Patrician in favour of a fake king to rule them all, and the men who stop him, is one big cockforest. But to put it into context, this is a very early Discworld book, one which had (mostly) not yet accepted that women could play roles other than sexy love interests, funny-because-not-sexy love interests, landladies and witches.
As I discussed in the original Pratchett’s Women post, later Discworld books are far more inclusive of female characters, and that holds true for the City Watch volumes.
The most interesting gender-related aspect of Guards Guards is the matter of dwarf sex. In the early days of the Discworld, we get several throwaway jokes about the issue of dwarves, and why people only ever see the ‘males’ of the species (ie the gruff little men with large beards and pick-axes). Here, as I think in several other early books, we discover that the female dwarves are all over the place, but are physically indistinguishable from male dwarves when clothed. While this is basically one extended bearded woman joke, Pratchett is to be credited in that he a) noted how often in fantasy we do indeed see whole magical species which appear to be 100% male and b) eventually took that joke about the tact required in dwarfish romances much further, exploring gender presentation, femininity and cultural norms surrounding sex.
Sadly none of that is in this book. Here it is notable only in that Carrot’s relationship with Minty is deemed inappropriate (because he’s human, though adopted by dwarves, and more than twice her size) and that the whole matter is dealt with in an incredibly patriarchal way – while their mothers are referenced, it’s dealt with by the fathers. Pratchett has not yet worked out how a truly blind-to-gender society might function, and is falling back on default settings.
Speaking of defaults, the matter of dwarf sex is mirrored in a final revelation about the mighty dragon tormenting the city, which is that she’s a girl. In light of the other gender issues of this book, I did find the handling of that revelation problematic, not least because we get several fat jokes about the dragon INSTANTLY upon discovering her gender. Gender also should not actually make any difference to the fact that this is a monster we have seen not only wantonly destroying people and property (as is her nature) but psychologically tormenting several other people. As soon as we learn that the dragon is female and that Errol the tiny swamp dragon isn’t fighting her so much as courting her, we’re supposed to go awwww and laugh about the variation in their sizes (as is mirrored with jokes about Carrot/Minty and Vimes/Sybil) and everything’s okay. Sure, it’s nice for Errol and all that he escaped which his mass murdering girlfriend, but I remain troubled by that particular statement about gender.
Men at Arms, the second City Watch book, is notable for the introduction of Angua the werewolf. Which is good, because Sybil’s role has been diminished, and there’s still no interesting exploration of dwarf sex going on.
The premise of Men at Arms (quite apart from the plot, which is all about assassins, clowns, gentlemen and the Patrician, most of whom are male characters) is that the Ankh Morpork City Watch are undergoing two major administrative changes: Vimes is stepping down to marry Sybil and become a Gentleman of Leisure, and the Patrician has brought in new reforms which demand a greater representation of diversity among the guards. Thus the new guards are A Troll, A Dwarf, and A Woman. Though of course Angua being female is a red herring – while Carrot and those readers not paying close attention would assume this is why she is there, she was actually hired because she is a werewolf, and thus a representative of the Undead.
Though it is certainly played for laughs, this inclusion of nonhumans in the City Watch is to become a vital aspect of their identity in future books, and some of the ramifications are explored substantially, through the growing tolerance/friendship of Lance-Constable Detritus (troll) and Lance-Constable Cuddy (dwarf) but particularly with the friendship and romance of Angua and Carrot. On my recent reread, with this essay topic in mind (and because she is generally the first person most readers cite as an Awesome Discworld Woman), I found myself scrutinising the portrayal of Angua. She’s handled quite unevenly in Men at Arms which was a surprise to me as coherent characterisation is one of Pratchett’s great strengths, and I remembered this as being her book. But it felt at times like he hadn’t decided what she was there for – there is far too much reference to how knock out gorgeous she is, and the descriptions of her fall of loose blond hair were quite irritating for the same reason I get annoyed by the presentation of Olivia Dunham on Fringe. The character is practical – she’d tie her damn hair back. Likewise the number of times we are encouraged to think about Angua naked – sure that’s a side effect of being a werewolf, but I was put off by the snigger-snigger tone of these scenes.
Angua’s point of view doesn’t enter the book until quite late in the narrative – at first she’s just part of the crowd, and it bugged me how she alternated from being the one who was sharper than everyone else (getting the dirty joke no one else does, for instance) to being the one who needed to have something quite simple explained. Her personality shifts for narrative convenience But once her point of view finally arrives, and we learn about how she functions as a werewolf and her bemused thoughts about how Carrot behaves, her character comes beautifully to life. She’s smart and snarky, and her vulnerability about being a werewolf is countered by her resentment and sense of injustice. She really is a fantastic character, I was just surprised how long it took for us to get there.
Another problem I had with the narrative was Carrot’s blatant anti-undead sentiment. He as a character has been so untroubled by any other form of bigotry up until now, even those ingrained in him from being raised a dwarf. It seemed odd that he was weirded out by Mrs Cake and her lot, but didn’t bat an eyelid about trolls being people too. So Angua wasn’t the only one whose character didn’t always make sense!
Their romance is handled quite effectively, and I liked that it was very much about the meeting of two equals who see the world entirely differently, and don’t fit together perfectly. The sex scene, which like all other Pratchett sex scenes is handled with so much discretion that you could almost blink and miss it, is cleverly conveyed and says a lot about both of them as people. Despite my reservations about parts of this storyline, I love the bit where Carrot has to suck up and deal with his prejudices – not just about the undead, but about women. In the end, getting his head around Angua’s strength and invulnerability is probably a bigger deal than her spending a few days a month as a canine.
Angua doesn’t have to learn anything because she’s already pretty great, but that does rather relegate her to supporting character rather than protagonist, and from the point that she decides to sleep with Carrot, we don’t get to see inside her head any more, as the story goes back to being about his reactions. It’s far more of a practical romance than a soppy one, and doesn’t provide any perfect happy ever after kind of solutions. Worth noting that Angua’s friendship with Gaspode the Wonder Dog brings out far more of her natural personality than her romance does…
It’s disappointing to me that Sybil took such a back seat in this novel, in which gender is at least an important sub-plot, especially considering that her wedding to Vimes is part of the climax of the story. Without dragons being important, it is only her roles as his future wife and aristocrat that are relevant here, and considering how traditional she is in this regard, she is pretty much background to Vimes’ crisis about how to fit into her world. We don’t see them talk about, for instance, the fact that she has signed over her entire fortune to him (he finds this out from her bank manager), or that he has quit drinking to make her happy. I think it’s a shame that it’s Carrot, and not Sybil, who comes up with the idea of making Vimes a Knight and putting him back in charge of the expanded Watch. Mostly she worries about him, from afar.
By the time Feet of Clay comes along, the third City Watch book, Sybil has disappeared entirely. Like Mrs Colon, she is an invisible wife, referred to when relevant, and staying entirely out of the plot. The only consolation for this is the development not only of a far crunchier and more interesting relationship between Carrot and Angua than suggested in Men at Arms, but also the long-awaited matter of DWARF SEX and the introduction of one of my favourite female friendships of the Discworld series.
Feet of Clay is a really excellent book – certainly better in plot and emotional depth than the two previous City Watch books. It has a really wonderful police procedural plot concerning a not-quite-assassination attempt on Lord Vetinari, and the community of golems in Ankh Morpork, and along with all the twists and turns of the mystery itself, the narrative also contains a meta-commentary on police work in general. Everything Guards Guards and Men at Arms did well, Feet of Clay builds upon, almost perfectly.
The unsatisfactory and at times uneven portrayal of Angua in Men at Arms is made far more noticeable by her much more substantial portrayal here – we learn who she is and what kind of life she comes from, but only in small, telling details which don’t detract from the main plot. Her central concern at the beginning of the novel is pretty much the same as it is by the end – she is certain that her relationship with Carrot has no future, and that she has to leave him soon, before it becomes too hard. But she can’t. It’s never clear whether the reason she can’t is because she loves him (as a woman), or because she is loyal to him (as a dog), and it is not resolved.
Which would have been immensely frustrating, if that was the only thing she did or thought about in the novel. But it’s not, because along comes Cheery Littlebottom, whose friendship with Angua lights up the pages in amongst the golem angst and clever Vimes-related plottery.
We are introduced to Cheery as a male dwarf. Even the pronoun ‘he’ is used, which is not a cheat, because we have learned in previous books that all dwarves say ‘he’ as their default. But Cheery, as Angua with her werewolf nose spots instantly, is female. (it’s not clear why Angua decides to make a thing of this for this dwarf in particular when there are other female dwarves in the Watch, nor why Cheery is terrified people might know, but I don’t care because it kickstarts my favourite ever sub-plot)
Cheery is an alchemist, hired by Vimes to be his forensics expert, even though he is pretty much making the job up as he goes along – and indeed, so is Cheery. She is deeply unhappy when we first meet her, largely because of her own perceived failures as a dwarf. She doesn’t fit in with the traditional dwarfish culture, and feels alienated from them because she feels drawn to traditionally feminine pastimes. Female dwarves are equal to male dwarves in every possible way – but only because they look, act and appear exactly like male dwarves. Which, of course, is not quality. Angua draws a parallel to being a woman in the City Watch – you are allowed to be one of the boys, but only if you act just like them (or, rather, just enough like them to be part of the group, but not so much like them that they get intimidated).
With Angua’s help and assistance, Cheery begins the process of coming out as a female dwarf. She experiments with gender presentation, and while this is largely played for laughs as the bemused male characters like Carrot and Vimes react to her jewellery, makeup and/or the wearing of a skirt, there’s quite a serious theme behind the humour. Cheery, or Cherie, or Cherry, as she sometimes chooses to be called, is certainly deadly serious. There’s a quite wonderful scene in which she faces off against a group of her fellow dwarves for the first time, bravely dealing with their disgust and disapproval, only for one to hang back afterwards and beg to try her lipstick. Because, of course, she’s not the only female dwarf in the Watch, and by leading the way, she is able to give other dwarves the opportunity to present as female, if they want to.
She never contemplates shaving off her beard, of course. Because… it’s her beard. And she wants to present as female on her own terms, not mimicking what human women do.
There’s also a running theme about the strength of women – another favourite scene of mine has some angry, violent criminals in a tavern grab Angua as a hostage. The tavern is full of her fellow Guards, who calmly watch, knowing just how well she can take care of herself. Even Carrot, who loves her, merely reminds her quietly not to kill anyone. It’s rather lovely that Carrot has learned to overcome his natural chivalry because of who Angua is – and this is mirrored later by his concern for Cheery in the field, where he would not have been so protective of a dwarf who presented as male.
Cheery’s aversion to the undead, and Angua keeping the secret from her despite knowing it is inevitable she will one day find out, makes sense in so many ways (in stark contrast to Carrot’s prejudice in Men at Arms) and I liked that there was plenty of time devoted to the ramifications of this deceit, even in the middle of the more epic plot. The way that this female friendship had to overcome serious obstacles was given the kind of priority in the story that is usually devoted to a romance, which makes a pleasant change.
Also, I love that the first forensic scientist of the Discworld is a woman – and in amongst the issues to do with her coming out story and gender performance/presentation, we see her high level of competence at her job. Vimes learns to rely on her for her alchemical skills and her ability to be flexible, coming up with new tests and techniques to match his crazy and inventive ideas for what policework should involve. The running gag about Cheery/Cherie wearing earrings, or a skirt, or so on, could have detracted from this, but it never does. Vimes takes it in his stride, and you get the impression that he would have done as much if it was Sergeant Colon or Nobby who turned up to work in a frock.
Well, I’m pretty sure nothing about Nobby could surprise him.
So far, then the City Watch books have three interesting, complex and thoroughly different female characters across the first three books. Not bad really for a series that is primarily about the agency of male characters – about the push-pull of Vimes’ relationship with the city and the Patrician who rules it, about Carrot the uncrowned king, who is genuinely interested in everyone and wants to help them, but doesn’t seem aware of the power of his own charisma, of Nobby and Colon, Shakespearian clowns if ever there were any, and many more.
These are not books about women. But the women in them have so much potential and so much to say. I am heading now into less familiar territory, with several City Watch books I never read more than once (I loathed both Jingo and The Fifth Elephant, and don’t remember a word of Thud) but I am hoping very much to find a book which gives me Sybil, Angua and Cheery all at once. Possibly it doesn’t exist, but we’ll see!
Other posts in this series:
Pratchett’s Women: The Unauthorized Essays, by Tansy Rayner Roberts – now available as an ebook from Fablecroft, Amazon and many other great e-retailers. The e-book contains all nine essays from this blog plus an essay exclusive to the collection: “Socks, Lies and the Monstrous Regiment.”