Not Quite Up To Snuff: The End of Terry Pratchett’s Magic

by / March 26, 2012

When I was first told that the last Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book was going to be a disappointment, I refused to believe it. “Douglas Adams was a genius,” I claimed defensively. No further argument was required in my eyes.

But I did end up reading Mostly Harmless, and it was a disappointment. That was an important lesson for me–even the most brilliant writers make mistakes (an idea reinforced when I later realised that, at some point in history, Herge sat down and decided that Tintin in the Congo was a good idea).

Snuff, the 39th and latest novel in Terry Pratchett’s insanely good Discworld series, was an unfortunate reminder of that lesson.

Its plot follows city watch commander Sam Vimes, who is sent on a relaxing vacation to his country manor, where he (being a policeman, and this being natural evolution of events) discovers a crime. As per the norm, Pratchett keeps his literary tongue firmly in cheek as he plays with this clichéd plot, detaching
the reader from the story and allowing us to view his characters firmly through the lens of deconstruction. Unfortunately, Pratchett’s ability to playfully mock genre conventions while using them to tell a great story never reaches the heights of his earlier novels – gone is the medium awareness that made Carpe Jugulum and The Last Hero so enjoyable, to be replaced by a deeper exploration of character relationships and motivations.

This is where Snuff shines, it fleshes out characters in a far more complex manner than ever before – such as the relationship between Sam and his butler Willikins, who are both rough, streetwise men displaced in the upper class. We see every step of their thought process as they try to unravel the many mysteries they uncover, and it adds a realism to a story that should make readers care about them as characters.

Pratchett also seems to be developing a greater sense of continuity between the books than in his previous works. It’s interesting to compare the continued influence of the Summoning Dark from Thud in Snuff with the disappearance of the “eighth spell” that resided in Rincewind’s mind in The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic,which hasn’t been mentioned in the last 37 books. This lends to the feeling of a cohesive world that develops in a realistic way.

Despite this, it’s often difficult to be drawn in by the characters in Snuff. At no point in the story do the characters feel vulnerable or threatened. Vimes wins every fight he gets into, while none of the criminal characters in the story manage even a single, lasting victory after Vimes gets onto their case.

Pratchett’s overuse of repetition is the novel’s greatest weakness. In Snuff, Pratchett presents us with the goblins, a race that is legally considered vermin, and therefore allowed to be brought or sold or mistreated in whatever miserable fashion the humans can think of. The concept of a mistreated fantasy race that is an obvious metaphor for real world minorities has been thoroughly explored in previous novels such as Feet of Clay, in a much more subtle and thought-provoking fashion than herein.

Certain characters seem to have been lifted from previous novels, given a new name, and dropped unaltered into Snuff – one villain is essentially a carbon copy of a certain homicidal maniac from Night Watch. When this is coupled with the repetition of lines and jokes that have been used throughout the series (such as the many jokes stemming from Willikins status as a very proper, respectful butler who is nevertheless ridiculously deadly), it leaves a feeling that Pratchett has written Snuff several times already.

Snuff’s greatest flaw is its lack of polish compared to Pratchett’s previous work – a problem that is understandable due to Pratchett’s suffering from the late stages of Alzheimer’s, which has robbed him of his capacity as an editor. Snuff’s plot is loose and erratic – Sam’s problems with fitting into country society are forgotten when he runs off to chase criminals, despite being an important foundation of the story’s conflict, and while I was bemused for the most part of reading the book, and cracked a grin at a particularly clever pun or two, I don’t recall ever laughing out loud as I did reading his older books.

Snuff is Pratchett’s Mostly Harmless. It’s not a terrible book, or even a bad one – it simply lacks the elements that made his earlier work great. Give this one a miss, and pick up one of his older books instead.

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