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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Pratchett’s Women VI: Pole Dancers, Goblin Girls, and the Family Man

December 30th, 2011 at 12:15

Thud, by Terry Pratchett
Snuff, by Terry Pratchett
(spoilers for both abound below)

I know I read Thud when it came out. But this was the early days of motherhood when my memory retention was out the window, and the days of re-reading were gone forever… I know I read this book, but I’m pretty sure it was a speedy, uninvolved reading. It had to be. Because there is no other excuse for me not realising before now that this is SO GOOD.

For a start, this is the best Angua novel since Feet of Clay – and I think it might actually be better, in the attention given to her character. I like that she and Carrot have been allowed now to settle into a comfortable relationship without any stupid plotty dramas being thrown in to artificially shake it up. I also like that her main plotline for this novel revolves around a relationship/wary dislike/friendship with another female character.

But Sybil also gets to shine in this book, despite her new motherhood which can often cause a female character to disappear into the background, or lose all characteristics apart from those to do with her child (as, for instance, happens to Magrat in the Witches novels).

Then there’s Cheery, who doesn’t get a subplot or even a subplotlet to herself, but remains awesome, cute and gets to play with the other girls.

Discworld Doodles I, fan art by AndLatitude

There are two new women of note introduced in Thud, of which I assume one is going to be a continuing character, and the other probably isn’t. Salacia Delorisista Amanita Trigestrata Zeldana Malifee (etc.) von Humpeding, Sally for short, is the first vampire that Vimes has allowed into the Watch, and I was really pleased that he decided to do this plotline with a female character. Sally is a good contrast to all the other female characters in and around the Watch and I thought it was particularly interesting that, while she looks young, her age was cited as 50 (most vampires tend to be a lot older or a lot younger in fiction) and it seemed to me like her apparently effortless confidence could as easily be because of her age as much as being a vampire.

Angua finds herself reacting badly to Sally, and at first I was wary about the female jealousy/competitiveness trope being trotted out here, but Pratchett was at pains in the narrative to show that this is very much about a natural werewolf reaction to a vampire, rather than anything gender-based. Still, a lot of cliches about the ‘new girl’ do flit through the story, particularly with Sally’s attraction to Carrot.

However, the depth with which we see Angua’s reactions and her thought processes go beyond the usual ways I see this trope carried out in fiction. Angua is constantly interrogating how she feels about Sally, and Sally is as it turns out, neither a completely innocent sweetheart, nor a vixen out to steal Angua’s man. She’s just a person. I was particularly impressed that Pratchett showed us Carrot’s attractiveness through Sally’s eyes, as that’s usually the final hurdle of straight men trying to write the female gaze, and depicting female lust for a hot bloke is a rare thing in a) fantasy fiction generally and b) the Discworld in particular.

fan art of Angua by rubendevela on Deviant Art

Sally and Angua’s partnership and the uneasy alliance between them made for great reading, and I couldn’t believe that I had in fact forgotten this entire character development, or indeed the character of Sally altogether.

The other new female character we have, Tawneee, Nobby’s pole dancer girlfriend, who comes to the aid of the women in the Watch, and consequently becomes far more integral to their story to that of Nobby. When Sally takes Angua, Cheery and Tawneee on a girl’s night out to thank Tawnee for her assistance, they get to know her as a person, and deal with the elephant in the room, which is basically how a strange little person like Nobby (whose bizarre appearance is really nothing compared to his bewildering personality) could attract, well, such a hot girlfriend.

I was in two minds about this plot, because it relied on a lot of cliche aspects that I feel are a bit dated, or should remain in US sitcoms, and I was a bit uncomfortable with the way the girls were so quick to suggest that Tawneee basically could do better than Nobby. (The main topic of their girls night out is the “jerk” syndrome, whereby some women are so preternaturally attractive that no “normal” man is likely to get up the nerve to ask them out, so only shrubby guys are are too dumb or “jerky” to know the girl is out of their league will ask them out, and by that stage the girl is so lacking in self confidence that she’ll take anyone)

Yeah. It’s all a bit… Sex and the City, and I raised my eyebrows a lot about it. Ultimately, though, the way that Tawneee and Nobby resolved their relationship made me feel better about it, and it was kind of nice to see the women of the Watch bonding so successfully. I hope to see lots more of Sally in future! [note, I wrote this before reading Snuff, in which it turns out she's not a continuing character at all, or at least one of note in the City Watch books. Damn it!]

Sybil sadly was not invited to the girl’s night out, but that’s perhaps understandable as she has a baby to deal with. As with the previous book, the presence of Young Sam is more important to Vimes’ character development than anyone else’s, he being the main character. Thud in particular has a tight focus on Vimes’ changing priorities now that he is a dad. I was a little bit irritated on Sybil’s behalf that we are shown how he still ducks and weaves his responsibilities as a husband, while being so utterly awesome about his responsibilities as a dad. On the other hand, once you have a baby that’s kind of the way around you’d choose to have it… and Sybil herself tends to figure out ways to balance her husband’s time constraints with her own needs, as shown at the end where she gives up on the idea of a painted portrait and goes for a photograph instead.

Still, Vimes is an excellent dad, and the exploration of how he balances his workaholic ways with his commitment to reading The Story to his son at bedtime is emotionally compelling. Pratchett released a gorgeous picture book, Where’s My Cow? that ties in with Thud and became my partner’s official Daddy book to read to our daughter for a good couple of years – and basically is all about the importance of reading to your kids.

Sybil doesn’t disappear into mumhood, either – I very much liked how her intelligence and insight is raised repeatedly through this story, and how her own cultural interests prove to be so useful to the plot – her knowledge of dwarf language is mentioned again, and her teenage fascination with art and geometry proves vital to the resolution of the story. She insists on joining Sam on his journey towards the end, not just because she wants herself and Young Sam to be near him, but also because she’s not going to let him go off to Koom Valley on his own when it has been a lifelong dream of hers to go.

I also liked the way that Sybil sees herself as a robust woman. This was something I enjoyed about her previous appearances, when Vimes first wondered whether her pregnancy was likely to be safe, and she gave him a lecture on how her family were basically bred to breed successfully. Sadly this was dented a little back in Night Watch when her robustness was sacrificed for a bit of narrative ‘WOMAN IN LABOUR PANIC’ for the sake of tension.

Here in Thud, when Sybil and her son in particular come under attack, she is shown to be vulnerable but strong, and again cites the traditions of her family. Considering how often aristocratic women in history and fantasy are portrayed as frail, fainting waifs, who can barely survive a cold (as opposed to those rough, tough peasant women with babies on their backs) I always enjoy it when Sybil relishes her own family history as precedent for her own resilience, strength and general awesomeness.

When I first heard the title of the latest Pratchett novel, Snuff, I did wonder if it might be the last. Sadly, every time a new Discworld novel comes out now (and I do think there will probably be at least one more) we’re going to be thinking that.

This one would certainly have been worthy, if it was. It feels as much as an epilogue and coda for the Vimes (and guards) novels as I Shall Wear Midnight was for the witches. It’s very likely that this is the last City Watch novel, given how few new Discworld novels we can hope for now (though I would be delighted to be proved wrong).

It’s a very good Sam Vimes novel, and takes his character to new places, something I wouldn’t have thought possible. It is also, quite excellently, a good Sybil Vimes novel, and I was intrigued to see that Vimes’s love, desire and respect for his wife is articulated more clearly in this novel than previously, where his actions have mostly spoken for his feelings.

Vimes feels done at this point, as a character. His interactions with Feeney Upshot, the young local constable in the village of Ramkin Manor, are notably different to his previous mentoring stories, because Upshot already has the right ideas in his head – largely because he has read Vimes’ speeches from afar. The character’s legend has spread to the point where he isn’t necessarily needed in person to make change in the world – and of course, as we see, he’s not always the right man for the job. He can, on occasion, take a holiday. Even if it’s a policeman’s holiday. I suspect this is where we will be leaving him, and if so, it’s a good place to end.

fan art by Tregetour on Tumblr

Once again, Vimes’ developing relationship with his son Young Sam is front and centre in the story, with added bonus male bonding with Willikins the butler, a character who has developed dramatically since his first appearance, and whose friendship with his ‘master’ is now essential to these stories.

Snuff does, however, give us little of the usual supporting characters – it notably offers an epilogue style resolution for Sgt Colon and Nobby, but hardly uses Cheery, Angua, Carrot or any other City Watch characters. Sally isn’t even mentioned. But then it’s not, actually, a City Watch novel at all – it’s a Vimes one. Despite that, we’re a long way from the male-centric Guards! Guards! Apart from Sybil’s splendid contributions, Snuff also offers a wealth of varied and interesting female characters in supporting roles.

The theme of Snuff ties in with what has basically has become the signature theme of all Vimes novels from Men At Arms onwards: Vimes learns to overcome his prejudices about a particular type of person/creature and subsequently becomes their champion in the universe. In this case, it’s goblins.

We meet Miss Beedle, a thinly veiled avatar of a certain Ms Rowling (with perhaps a side helping of Andy Griffiths) in our universe, an acclaimed children’s author who has taught kids everywhere to be fascinated with poo. When not writing famous novels, though, she is secretly tutoring the young women of the much despised goblins in the ways of civilisation so that they can hopefully pass things on to their children and change the world.

The local toffs have their own smuggling operation, and as well as supplying deadly drugs for trolls, they are also responsible for treating goblins as vermin and shipping them out of the village as slaves. While the son of recurring villain/antagonist Lord Rust is supposed to be the main antagonist of this group of aristocrats who believe they are above the law, it’s actually the ruthless female magistrate “Mrs Colonel” who comes across as the most compelling, creepy and awash in her own entitlement of the group.

As Vimes discovers the horrible way that goblins are treated, his way of dealing with it is by law, arresting people, upsetting the upper classes and generally causing havoc. But while he is desperate to make the world bend to his newly found perspective on how people the goblins are, it’s Sybil who actually goes about making change, while her husband is leaping around on riverboats, pursuing slavers and murderers.

Snuff fan art by alicia-mb on Tumblr

Very quietly, with mass writing of letters and gently persuasive words, Sybil stages a public event in Ankh Morpork, attended by aristocrats, culture lovers and ambassadors of all kinds, and displays the beautiful music played by a young goblin woman. Tears of the Mushroom breaks all manner of hearts, affecting even Lord Vetinari, and a great thing is achieved.

The combination of Sybil and Vimes, in other words, is where things really get diabolical.

I also enjoyed, in Snuff, the casual drive by female characters, the type that never seemed to turn up in the early Discworld novels unless they were sexy or scary. The gaggle of daughters waiting for husbands, to whom Vimes gives a lecture about finding a useful path in the world, could have represented an awful and patriarchal mansplaining situation, but I felt it was mitigated by the fact that the girls’ mother and Sybil had orchestrated his presence precisely so that his plainspoken habits could put a bomb under the crinolines.

There was a sly moment at the end where, Vimes having got rid of Lord Rust’s corrupt son, Vetinari not happy about him being replaced as heir by his sister Regina: “Frankly, I was looking forward to dealing with the son, who is an ignorant, arrogant, pompous idiot, but his sister? She is smart!” I also took pleasure in Vetinari’s on going (silent) battle with the lady who designs the crossword puzzles in the Times. Considering that he is a character usually surrounded by other men (except with the Aunt in Night Watch and when Lady Sybil decides to have a firm word with Havelock) it was nice to see him have a female nemesis for once. Too much to hope this is foreshadowing for the 40th Discworld book?

I’m heading back to the witches for my next Pratchett’s Women post, then probably looking at the Susan Sto-Helit books. But if you have a favourite you’d like me to consider reviewing soon, let me know!

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Other posts in this series:

Pratchett’s Women: The Boobs, The Bad and the Broomsticks
Pratchett’s Women II – Slash! Stab! A Lesson in Practical Queening in Lords and Ladies
Pratchett’s Women III – Werewolf Glamour and the Sexing of Dwarves in Guards, Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay
Pratchett’s Women IV: His Henpecked Voice in Jingo & The Fifth Elephant
Pratchett’s Women V: The Seamstress Redemption in Night Watch
Pratchett’s Women VII: A Wonderful Personality and Good Hair (Maskerade & Carpe Jugulum)
Pratchett’s Women VIII: Has Scythe, Will Teach School (Soul Music, Hogfather, Thief of Time)

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6 Responses to “Pratchett’s Women VI: Pole Dancers, Goblin Girls, and the Family Man”

  1. =Tamar Says:

    Aside from the Beedle name reference, I don’t think the character is Rowling. There is at least one series of books for small children which really are all about poo, snot, etc.
    Basically, I just want to thank you for observing that Vimes’s interactions with Feeney are different from his previous mentoring situations.

  2. tansyrr Says:

    Oh yes, I do think it’s an amalgam of pretty much every successful children’s author everywhere. But the name is cheeky. *grins*

    Feeney is a great character, precisely because he looks like more of the same but proves to be of much more interesting mettle. And I forgot to mention it, but his mother is AWESOME.

  3. Roz Mosis Says:

    I agree with you on the lady-lust thing, I actually found the description of Angua’s ‘accute awareness’ of the way Carrot’s arms moved when he opens a heavy door particularly… interesting. Another great example is from Nation, where Daphne is fascinated by the way Mao’s back muscles move and how he almost dances when he makes his way through the jungle. A strangly accurate way of portaying a teenage girl’s first um, stirings, shall we say?
    I hadn’t noticed the ‘Beedle’ thing in Snuff, I assumed she was a shout out to a lot of popular children’s authors who write about gross stuff, the lady who wrote the Horrid Henry books springs to mind.
    Also, I loved the bit where Sybil gets so angry about the way her fellow aristocrats would assume she thinks the way they do because she is a ‘Lady’ that she nearly hacks up a rose bush. It’s a real progression from a similar train of thought in Fifth Elephant, where she hates that Lady Serafine assumes that Sybil would agree with her racists/specist opinions. I did find the sole focus on Vimes a bit disappointing in Snuff, but I really ought to read it again and perhaps I’ll think better of it.
    As for whether we’ll see Sally again, with any luck, she’ll turn up in the TV series when it (hopefully) sees the light of day. Vampires are still ‘in’ at the moment (sorta) so there’s a good chance they’ll include her. The series is intended to be an in-canon continuation of the Watch books, so with any luck there’ll be some more opportunity for Sally to team up with Angua. There’s plenty of fan-clamouring for it!
    Another brilliant article as always! I love these essays, thought provoking and fun!

  4. tansyrr Says:

    I am very excited by the possibilities offered by a City Watch series! Apprehensive, of course, but excited. If it’s done with some of the quality offered by the recent Going Postal movie, it could be fabulous (and I love the appearances of Angua in that, even though it’s basically just a cameo)

  5. Galactic Suburbia: now half a century old « Randomly Yours, Alex Says:

    [...] The Freedom Maze, Delia Sherman; Beauty Queens, Libba Bray; Snuff by Terry Pratchett, Going Postal (TV) – Batman (animated) & My First Batman Book by David Katz, David [...]

  6. brian Says:

    theres to be a Night Watch TV series…
    http://www.bleedingcool.com/2011/03/14/terry-pratchetts-discworld-being-adapted-to-crime-of-the-week-mystery-tv-series/

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