Volume 15, Number 04, Fall, 1997

Feet of Clay

By Terry Pratchett

(HarperPrism, $5.99, 357pp, pb).
Cover by artist.
Reviewed by Claire Wolfe
October 1997

Okay, I admit I'm a glassy-eyed Pratchett fan. He's one of the few authors I'll buy in hardbound. I fall in potholes because I read his books while walking my dogs. He inspires giggles and heartfelt sighs of admiration for his craftsmanship.

But my glassy eyes aren't rose-colored.* There are times when Pratchett is on and times he's off. A couple of years ago, about the time he wrote Soul Music, I really thought he had exhausted his long-running, fantasy-parody Discworld series. I thought he might be getting bored with it, that he was practically writing in shorthand, and that we might not see any more great Discworld novels.

I'm so happy to be wrong.

In Feet of Clay, Terry Pratchett has produced one of his best, most complex, funniest, and most lovable Discworld stories yet. It's also one of the most explicitly anti-authoritarian, which should bring a warm little glow to libertarian hearts.

For those who've been off trying to fix computers on Mir for the last decade, the Discworld is a deliberately improbable planet that sails through the universe on the backs of four elephants, who are in turn carried upon the shell of a giant turtle. It's flat (What else?) with an eternal waterfall cascading off its edges. The laws of magic operate upon an often-puzzled and put-upon populace of dwarves, trolls, wizards, sorcerers, witches, werewolves, not-quite-garden-variety humans, and the occasional talking dog or off-world tourist.

The capital city, Ankh-Morpork, where Feet of Clay takes place, is a fetid sink, populated largely by thieves, assassins, and "seamstresses" (prostitutes), all organized into guilds.

This book focuses on the guards of the watch, whom we have met before: the thoroughly decent Commander Vimes; Carrot, who is secretly the rightful heir to the throne of the city; Angua, vegetarian by day, werewolf by night; the cretinous and amoral Nobby; and a few newcomers. (They are newcomers because the guard has grown; this teeming capital city now has all of 30 policemen!)

Feet of Clay is, at once, a charming farce, an intriguing murder mystery, and a surprisingly complex morality play dealing with contemporary issues.

Pratchett takes on questions of race and sex as only he could. A dwarf, struggling with her sexual identity, pours out her troubles to her new best friend. The dwarf, who detests werewolves, is unaware that her thoughtful confidant is of the lupine persuasion.

Humans look down on dwarves who look down on trolls, who look down (literally) on everyone. A Committee for Equal Heights defends the interests of dwarves but is itself accused of sizeism. The shape changers look down on the undead ("Excuse me…the differently alive.")

And everybody looks down on the unalive—that is, the golems, manufactured from clay and animated solely by words on paper inside their heads.

The golems are the chief suspects in a pair of murders being investigated by the guards. The ignorant readily believe the golems capable of anything, while the more savvy Investigators are puzzled because they know golems to be incapable of murder.

Meanwhile, Conmaander Vimes who has—much to his discomfort—married into wealth and title, is sent by his wife to apply for a coat of arms. The 500-year old vampire who guards Ankh Morpork's precious records of pedigree turns him down, however, because Vimes' distant ancestor personally beheaded the city's last king.

During this same encounter, Vimes (who is quite proud of his regicidal ancestor) learns that his own slithery subordinate, Nobby, might actually be a lord of high degree, entitled not only to arms, but to obsequy.

The plot, it goes without saying, thickens.

Questions of race, sex, social position, wealth and poverty, political authority and general human (and nonhuman) decency chase each other all over the book, as the guards puzzle out the murder mystery. The book's conclusion offers some warmly satisfying notions of what constitutes moral choice and ethical action, and how we are all, to some degree animated by "the words, in our heads."

The guards aren't exactly libertarian heroes. Their idea of a "search warrant" is a sledgehammer. But by the end of the book, when a guard decides to commit a rather un-libertarian-yet highly liberating-deed, you'll probably be cheering him on, inspired by such anti-anthoritarian Pratchett gems as:

"Royalty was like dandelions. No matter how many heads you chopped off, the roots were still there underground, waiting to spring up again… Whoever had created humanity had left in a major design flaw. It was its tendency to bend at the knees."
"Vimes reached behind the desk and picked up a faded copy of Twurps Peerage or, as he personally thought of it, the guide to the criminal classes. You wouldn't find slum-dwellers in these pages, but you would find their landlords."

And,

"I AM DEATH, NOT TAXES. I TURN UP ONLY ONCE."

Feet of Clay is a fast-paced, fun read—so fast-paced and complex it might take you a while to sort out the characters and actions. But stick with it. This book would be successful as a mystery, or as a parody, alone. It's a great plus to discover it's also ever-so-slightly profound.

*sorry. That was pretty bad, wasn't it?

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