Earnest Words

Terry Pratchett’s Snuff: A Short Review

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First, a review within a review: My wife got me a kindle for Christmas. I have been skeptical of the kindle – because I have never had one before. I now have one. It is a novel way to read; the real advantage is that there are hundreds of books that I can borrow for free (1. because I have Amazon Prime, again via my wonderful wife, and 2. because there are many excellent books in the public domain). My free book for December is Guns, Germs, and Steel. I will try to review it when I am done with it.

So, a kindle is valuable to me in that I have access to several million titles for $150 (the price of my version, obtained via Google) from anywhere with 3G access. I can carry one item, with these 5 bazillion titles, and write notes about interesting items of text, such as Deuteronomy 20:19-201:

When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls. (ESV)

So, when you are Jewish and besieging a city, don’t cut down fruit trees because “trees are not people and you are not at war with them.” I wonder if C.S. Lewis was considering this passage, among others, when he was writing The Magician’s Nephew. Anyway, I found it extremely interesting and read it this morning on my kindle – I just wanted to share. Tomorrow morning, I will read the next chapter in Deuteronomy and learn the specific applications of Jewish law when it comes to Atonement for Unsolved Murders and Marrying Female Captives.

Anyway, end review within a review. Here’s my take on Snuff.

Terry Pratchett’s new book, Snuff, is good – it’s written by Terry Pratchett, so it should be good. However, I have the same problem with it that I had with Unseen Academicals, his previous new book: I had trouble following it.

I always understood what was going on, plot-wise, but there were a few moments in both Unseen Academicals and Snuff where I felt disoriented. Everything was mapped but there were some big spaces left unfilled by helpful drawings of dragons or medusae or mermaids. It was like the CD had skipped a couple times.

For the most part, Snuff was very very very good. Snuff deals with prejudice and humanity and definitions of humanity and Sam Vimes. There is a crime that is solved. There is a very brutal villain that Sam Vimes puts away neatly. There were some humorous moments, although the Night Watch novels have changed from laugh-out-loud funny to very intense, meticulously plotted detective novels with satire that is trying to branch out from ridicule to new material. I also became very angry at how difficult it was to select and read footnotes on a kindle touch but that is not the author’s fault. That is probably my fault for using a kindle to read an author who uses footnotes extensively2.

Anyway, Snuff was a good book and the fact that none of the characters faced any kind of developed crisis was a minor pratfall. Or at least, it would be minor if this weren’t Terry Pratchett, the author who regularly has the anthropomorphic personification of Death decide to become a farmer, who has a major character allow herself to be eaten by vampires3 because nothing else allows her to achieve victory, who has a major character who has to deal with rage, a drinking problem, self-loathing, and his own prejudices. In Snuff, none of the fictional characters changed in a meaningful way. The Night Watch novels have a habit of forcing people to confront their own prejudice, usually via the noble and sympathetic and prejudiced brain of Sam Vimes.

Usually, Pratchett uses literary and fantasy tropes to effect this change in the characters. In the previous Night Watch novel, Thud!, Pratchett has an alien entity attack Sam Vimes psyche, ostensibly causing him to break out into uncharacteristic outbursts of rage. Obviously, this speaks to the very human need to blame our faults on something, anything else. And here’s Sam Vimes with something that he can blame.

But he doesn’t. He already has rage in abundance. And how much is the alien entity, anyway? He’s just able to keep control but only because there are other people who watch him and prevent him from acting (which severely complicates some of Sam Vimes’ own rationalizations, because Sam Vimes operates under the heavy burden of being his own authority). He keeps control. Just barely.

Contrast this with Snuff. Sam Vimes can see in the dark and talks to the Summoning Dark, that same alien entity that is now his friend and gives him a witness statement to a crime. The fun of the fantasy detective novels that Pratchett produces is that they don’t have this deus ex machina.

I am not sure what Vimes’ character arc was, which disappointed me because Sam Vimes is one of my favorite characters. In this novel, Sam Vimes doesn’t even get hurt. He is never in peril. Even the guy that attacks his child doesn’t get beaten to death or even threatened by a deranged Sam Vimes; instead, the villain gets a chummy “You are thick, aren’t you, buddy?” speech from Sam Vimes, which is used in several other places en lieu of demonstrative and characterizing exposition.

Additionally, the book does not have an established villain. Pratchett uses psychopaths as villains because they represent the depth of human evil. But this novel’s psychopath is very poorly portrayed. It’s almost as if Pratchett was going for a sparing vision of a Hitchcock-ian, periodic-fleeting-glimpse-of-the-monster entity, only he forgot to show the villain at all.

Finally, I wasn’t sure what Pratchett was satirizing. The wholesale butchery and dehumanization of Goblins would have been very sad if it were better shown – but I felt like I was missing something. Also, Pratchett usually creates some aspect of sympathy about his villains, which was lacking in this novel.

In general, this story felt told and not shown. That said – it’s still a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, which means it is told better than just about everything else out there. It’s a much nicer read than Guns, Germs, and Steel. It’s just sad that Snuff wasn’t as good as Thud!.

1 Well, if I actually wrote notes in books.

2 I also secretly hope that the kindle was what was making the story difficult to follow.

3 These are vampires before Twilight. You know, the original kind.


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