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Snuff: Oppression and prejudice, meet Sam Vimes
Terry Pratchett is easily one of my favorite authors ever. Each of his Discworld books are masterpieces of both humor and storytelling, and his City Watch books in particular are reckoned to be some of his best.
I therefore greatly anticipated Pratchett's most recent book, which revolves around one of the Discworld's greatest characters, the commander of the Ankh Morpork City Watch, his grace the Duke of Ankh Sir Samuel Vimes. As the book opens, Vimes has been forced to take a vacation along with his wife Sibyl and son Young Sam to Sibyl's family's old ancestral manor in the countryside. Being a city boy and originally from common stock, Vimes is uncomfortable being away from Ankh Morpork in a place where he is technically landed gentry.,However, he brightens when he begins to notice the people seem to have something to hide. When a man who wished to pass on information to Vimes disappears and young girl is found murdered, the game is well and truly afoot.
However, there is a complication: the girl is a goblin, a race viewed by pretty much everyone else as vermin, and so no one else seems to care. Other Discworld books have used fantasy races to represent prejudice, but this book is probably the most explicit about it: because goblins act, think, and express themselves differently from humanity they are viewed as primitive pests who steal chickens and eat their own children. This is despite the fact that as the book goes along it becomes clear that goblins are just as intelligent and creative as anyone else, and they can produce works of great beauty and cleverness if given the chance.
However, having this kind of message this late in the Discworld series seems odd. After more than 30 books wherein dwarfs, trolls, golems, gargoyles, vampires and the like have pulled themselves up and shown themselves to be the equal of humans, it seems strange to have such blatant prejudice in this book, especially when that prejudice comes from the mouths of characters who should be enlightened. This is not helped by the fact that as soon as Vimes or someone else says "but goblins are people too" to a bigoted person they generally change their mind on the spot. It seems like clumsy writing, like Pratchett wanted to make a commentary about prejudice but didn't know how to in the Discworld of today.
With all that said, the goblins themselves are very well done. They seem very much non-human, while still remaining possible for humans to sympathize with and understand them. They are very much not just short filthy humans, but are creatures both unique and fascinating, with their own interesting culture that Vimes and Co. need to figure out in order to catch the murderer.
The human characters are great as well. Vimes is his same prickly self, in this book frequently musing to himself about the limits of being an officer of the law-- some of these limits he ignores, while with others he refuses to allow himself to even contemplate stepping over the line (for example, killing a suspect even if he's a dangerous and obvious murderer). It is a great treat, as always, to spend a book stuck in his head. We get more emphasis in this book on Sibyl, Young Sam, and particularly Vimes' butler Willikins, and this book really shows how much Vimes depends on all three in order to keep himself sane. Wilikins is particularly interesting, as he is a deliberate contrast: unfailing polite and formal, whilst also being a former street thug and incredibly dangerous fighter who has none of Vimes' qualms about breaking the law. Finally, we have Feeney Upshot, the local constable of the district where the manor house resides, who serves as a sort of protege to Vimes to impart his wisdom about the contrast between what is "lawful" and what is right. He is a relative innocent, but although he follows Vimes' lead throughout most of the book, he shows himself to be a quite capable young man.
All in all, this is a great book. While its not one of the all-time great Discworld books (what with having a somewhat anvilicious message), Pratchett once again writes a book with great humor, beautiful writing and interesting characters , and this one is well worth a read from Discworld fans. As an introduction to the series I wouldn't recommend it, as there are many references to the stories that came before (especially "Thud!"), but for people who know Sam Vimes as well as they know any character, it's a real treat.