Snuff: A Novel Of Discworld

  • Terry Pratchett
  • HarperCollins
  • 398 pp.

In a fantasy world of werewolves, gnomes and vampires, a police officer sets out to seek justice for the death of persecuted goblins.

Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark

Snuff is the 39th of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, which have sold more than 45 million books worldwide. The Discworld series defies genre classification, even to the author, who says, “It started out as a parody of all the fantasy that was around in the big boom of the early ’80s, then turned into a satire on just about everything, and even I don’t know what it is now. I do know that in that time there’s been at least four people promoted as ‘new Terry Pratchetts,’ so for all I know I may not even still be me.”

The books are a series, not a serial, so they can be read in any order. There are characters who recur often, and some who have so far appeared only once. Central characters in one novel may be minor characters in another. Snuff centers on Sam Vimes, commander of the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork, and combines elements of a thriller and a police procedural, as well as Pratchett’s usual social satire and rollicking humor. Vimes appeared in an earlier book as one of three inept officers, all human, who comprised the entire City Watch, and he has built the City Watch into a competent, functioning force that includes trolls, dwarfs, golems, a werewolf, a vampire, a gnome, a zombie and a Feegle, a species Pratchett invented. The series has seen Vimes struggle with his own prejudices and those of others as each of these species has been admitted to the Watch, and in Snuff one issue is to get decent treatment for goblins.

As Snuff opens, Vimes — who is now Duke of Ankh, Commander Sir Samuel and so forth — is on his way to his wife’s stately home in the country for a vacation. This was not his idea; his wife and his employer (the city’s Patrician, Vetinari) have maneuvered him into it. Soon he discovers the mutilated, eviscerated body of a goblin woman. In trying to solve her murder, he finds out that the goblins have been victims of genocide, and rounded up to be shipped away as slaves. In fact, Vimes is one of the few humans who consider the killing to be murder; other humans regard the goblins as vermin, even though they have a complex language, use many tools and create exquisite music.

The killer, it turns out, also murders humans, and Vimes’ search leads him onto a large riverboat (named the Wonderful Fanny) powered by oxen (electricity and internal combustion engines do not function on the Discworld, although magic does). The riverboat is towing one barge loaded with enslaved goblins and another carrying a gentleman named Praise and Salvation False, along with his complicated chickens who lay square eggs. Vimes doesn’t know what the murderer looks like, but he knows the murderer is somewhere on the boat. The river, named Old Treachery, is rapidly rising, and a buildup of trees and rocks damming the river upstream is about to break and sweep them all away. Vimes is on “a floundering boat on a black and treacherous river in thundering, steaming darkness,” and although the tension is briefly broken with a perfectly timed fart joke, the tension rapidly builds again, and the yarn spins on, taking the reader with it.

There are multiple threads in this story, such as 4-year-old Sam Jr.’s fascination with poo of all descriptions, Vimes learning to be a member of the gentry though he grew up on the mean streets of Ankh-Morpork and a family of local gentry with a different twist on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The title Snuff is not only a reference to the death of goblins, but also to the snuffbox Vimes carries, and religious artifacts the goblins use — artifacts that present a very hard fact of their marginalized life.

Pratchett fans are likely to be delighted yet again with Snuff, although they may find that Vimes’ manservant Willkins, who is not only a perfect gentleman’s gentleman but also preternaturally skilled in the use of many weapons, turns out in this story to be a little too much of a deus ex machina. Readers who are not yet Pratchett fans may enjoy this story, too, although they may get more out of it if they start by reading an earlier book, such as the first one in the Discworld series, The Color of Magic, or the first book that featured Sam Vimes, Guards! Guards! Both are widely available, but they may be shelved under fantasy, science fiction, satire or general fiction.

Susan Storer Clark, a former broadcast journalist and retired civil servant, has been a member of the Holey Road Writers for more than 10 years and contributes frequently to The Independent. She has completed her first novel, with the working title “Arising From Infamy,” that is set in 19th-century America and features as the central character the fictionalized daughter of a real person, “the infamous Maria Monk.”

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