Men at Arms
Feet of Clay
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.