Terry Pratchett’s The Fifth Elephant

0c2ec983eeac22f17f-1Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld novel, The Fifth Elephant, presents something of a thorny problem for the reviewer. As much as the dedicated Pratchettian (such as myself) may wish to rush into reading the story, the book itself demands attention, and causes consternation as well.

It’s painfully clear from the packaging the novel receives that Pratchett’s publisher has decided that The Fifth Elephant is going to be Pratchett’s breakout novel in the United States. (Apparently the revelatory news that Pratchett is responsible for approximately 1% of all books — you read that right, all books — sold in the UK isn’t enough; he’s going to be a mainstream monster here, too.) It’s been released in conjunction with a bargain price re-release of the first books in the Discworld series, and the jacket is spangled with quotes from reputable literary folks like A.S. Byatt talking about how marvelous Pratchett’s writing is. (Byatt’s quote, however, does not reveal how the illustrious author feels about supporting characters like Cohen the Barbarian or Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler. This, in and of itself, should be a warning.)

The book design is careful not to betray in any way, shape or form that this is a fantasy novel. Instead of Darrel K. Sweet illustrations, or even the delightfully rough iconic illustrations of recent titles like Jingo or Carpe Jugulum, we get a melon, yellow and aqua ensemble that’s eerily reminiscent of the color scheme on your average James Hall or Carl Hiaasen caper. (Don’t get me wrong: I have the utmost respect for Carl Hiaasen. However, Carl Hiaasen novels work because he is so good at capturing a particular rhythm and feel with his prose, and anyone expecting that same rhythm in a Discworld book is in for one hell of a shock.) Instead of funky fantastic art, we get five rather odd-looking elephant icons. And instead of the familiar, herky-jerky title font, we get something subdued and *shudder* artsy.

It’s pretty clear: They want to sell a lot of books with this one. More to the point, they want the book to catch the eye of the passerby (with fishhooks if necessary) without reminding him at all of the last ten titles in the series which said passerby ignored. The hook is now the fact that Pratchett’s a well-respected British humorist, and the fantastic element is swept neatly under the rug.

That being said, more power to them if the tactic gains Pratchett a wider American audience. He’s sustained a quality and longevity that other fantasy humorists can only shake their tiny fists at, and done it without being preachy or nasty. Still, the packaging does give one a little pause as one cracks open the volume for the first time. After all, if this happened to the outside, what’s happened to the inside?

The answer to that question has to be a quizzical “I’m not sure.” Is The Fifth Elephant a good book? Certainly. Is it a good Discworld book? That’s not quite as clear. The Fifth Elephant certainly starts in ye olde familiar Discworld vein. We have the fish-out-of-water setup (Captain Vimes of the Guard getting packed off to the dank ‘n’ gothic Uberwald as a diplomat), the wacky supporting characters (the familiar Watch types, along with a whole slew of Igors out in the boonies), and so forth.

But there’s also a series of interludes early on that are cut from a different cloth, namely, passages detailing a man’s flight through a forest from something rather wolfish. Are the passages well-written? Certainly. Interesting? Yes. But are they funny? And the answer there is “not in the slightest.” What we’ve got is a savage murder that isn’t the teensiest bit hilarious, amusing or even droll. In other words, this is not your typical Discworld novel.

What we get next is, for lack of a better word, odd. Many of Pratchett’s favorite touches are there, from a cameo by a bemused Death to a series of the legendary Pratchett footnotes, but their use is restrained and almost minimalist. Instead, we get what is (apart from a hysterical side trip into the lives of some disgruntled Chekov characters — don’t ask) essentially a well-written mystery that just happens to be set on Discworld. It’s the classic locked room conundrum, only the locked room is set underground and is guarded by angry dwarves. An accomplice turns up dead; its just that inevitable that the accomplice makes condoms that double as rain slickers for belligerent gnomes. And so it goes.

The other profound change from the norm is in the characters. Pratchett’s heroes have always been lovably desperate bumblers. Starting with Rincewind, a wizard who can’t cast any spells and is tied to the Discworld’s first tourist like a two-legged luggage tag, Pratchett has given us a never-ending stream of accidental Deaths, incompetent wizards, too-earnest guardsmen and the like. All of these characters share a basic goodness, a basic innocence and a basic streak of luck the size of the Cuyahoga River. They need all of these things because by the end of chapter 3, it’s clear that they’re in so far over their heads that they could tap dance on stilts and still not face their troubles eye-to-eye.

With The Fifth Elephant, however, things change. Sam Vimes of the Guard (also His Excellency the Ambassador to the Uberwald and a freshly minted Duke as well) is most emphatically not innocent or lucky. He’s damned good, as in “fast enough to pull a knife on a member of the Assassins’ Guild” good. While it’s nice to see a hero acting, for lack of a better word, heroically, the fact that Vimes is so bloody competent means that it’s almost less fun to cheer for him.

We also see the return of the insanely competent Carrot, who’s coincidentally off to the Uberwald as well. Why? Well, he’s after his runaway werewolf girlfriend Angua, who just happens to be a scion of one of the baronial families that Vimes must visit, while back home the dwarves are rioting, and, well, the whole thing’s a bloody mess.

Pratchett handles it with style, but it’s almost as if Vimes and Carrot are too good. They win through wits, strength, determination and guile, as opposed to sheer dumb luck and bloody-minded persistence. It’s a new thing for Discworld, and one that may well give long-time readers pause.

What Pratchett has really given us is a noir, complete with ethnic tensions, a hard-boiled detective (and one who’s more sunny side up) and all of the good old Hammettian trappings. It’s a funny noir, and it’s certainly funnier and more absurd than even the wackiest things Hiaasen has produced, but at the same time, it’s much more reserved than anything else in the series. (The odd jab that makes the villainous werewolves seem rather Nazi-like, for one thing, is a real shock. Even critters from the Dungeon Dimensions were never quite so, well, grim.) Readers new to the series may find the humor delightful, but the extensive backstory and odd setting to be too much. Long-time fans may well be pleased to see Sam Vimes and Carrot in action, but wonder why there’s so much action there. It’s a delicate balance, and one can only applaud Pratchett’s willingness to break from a safe formula. On the other hand, just because a step is laudable doesn’t mean it necessarily comes without some trepidation on the part of the reader.

Does The Fifth Elephant, as a whole, work? It does, but it works better if you avoid comparing it mentally to other Discworld books. It’s not necessarily better or worse than they are, but it is different, and the difference is best served by stepping back from the rest of the series a bit before reading it.

(HarperCollins UK, 2000)

Richard Dansky

The Central Clancy Writer for UbiSoft, Richard Dansky has worked in video games for 17 years. His credits include over 40 titles, most recently Tom Clancy's The Division. Richard has also contributed extensively to the World of Darkness tabletop RPGs, and is the developer of the 20th anniversary edition of seminal horror game Wraith: The Oblivion. The author of six novels, including the Wellman Award-nominated VAPORWARE, he lives in North Carolina.

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