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Book Review: Snuff by Terry Pratchett

By / March 3, 2012 / no comments

The most recent and supposedly penultimate book in Sir Terry Pratchett’s almost forty book Discworld series is a crime thriller with a generous dose of his trademark fantasy/comedy combination.

Snuff is in many ways like all of the Discworld books, telling familiar and almost allegorical stories of people and cities so like our own that it is surprising when we close the book and there aren’t wizards and trolls living just around the corner. The Discworld has developed into an almost immoveable conceptual structure within the modern fantasy genre whose roots reside in the sheer strength and realism of its characters and their emotions.

This particular book tells the story of Lord Sam Vimes, Commander of the Ankh Morpork City Watch, whose wife nags him into visiting her family’s manor house to take a holiday from the life of a high ranking, constantly endangered detective.

Unsurprisingly Vimes feels most out of place in the small village of his wife’s childhood and quickly – and not entirely by accident – finds himself involved in a complex mixture of murder, smuggling and a bizarre civil rights movement.

After Vimes is framed for a murder that no one had committed he takes up with the local Chief Constable, a young man hilariously named “Upshot” who inherited his truncheon from his father and whose mother is more of a force to be reckoned with than he is. Yet the rather upsetting and disturbing nature of their investigation helps Upshot quickly learn what being a policeman is really all about. The central story revolves around the vicious killing of a goblin girl who witnessed other members of her tribe being carted off like hapless cattle and sold into slavery in distant and exotic lands. The intricacies of the smuggling story line are unfolded individually, revealed so slowly that those accustomed to the crime genre are likely to get irritated quite quickly when they find themselves thinking miles beyond the detective himself.

Yet this book is not really about the central crime that anchors the story in place, Snuff is about far more than that, it has a depth and intellectually intriguing aspect that the average crime thriller can only dream of. Vimes, a well established and familiar character to fans of the Discworld series faces several complex and difficult subjects in this book that reflect very nicely into many of the issues of our modern society. Throughout the novel Vimes struggles to bring the goblin killers to account for their crime as the humanoid creatures are currently not recognized as sapient beings that deserve the same rights as the humans, dwarves and trolls of the same society. As such killing and trafficking goblins is considered similarly to the death and smuggling of cattle, creatures must be declared for tax purposes alone.

Unfortunately the book is missing a lot of the traits traditionally associated with Pratchett novels: there is a distinct absence of magic and only rather mild and predictable humour. The characters however, still shine fantastically bright, allowing even the most mundane jokes to be carried off with ease and enough style to bring a smile to the readers face. Young Sam and Commander Vimes “gentleman’s gentleman” Wilikins are both fabulous, obvious and yet somehow iconic characters, with some of the best lines and both having a rather ingenious ability to sneak out the unexpected, tongue in cheek., allegorical humour Pratchett fans have come to know and love.

What the book does do is give Pratchett the chance to demonstrate his writing skills, particularly in his description of the harp music played Tears of the Mushroom, that, quite impressively, manages to encapsulate that indefinable and yet highly moving and awe-inspiring feeling that can be evoked by a beautiful piece of music. It is when reading excerpts like this that you truly realize how talented Pratchett is and why for more than twenty years now his novels have been capturing audiences attention, creating a dedicated, widespread and ever growing fan base.

Pratchett really digs into this subject, making it unexpectedly painful and moving for the reader, yet Sir Terry doesn’t let go of the subject easily, and really dwells on it and the tiniest and most disturbing parts of it with no shame or fear, rather he challenges his readers to reflect on a difficult subject and develop their own personal opinions. In many ways Snuff is one of the most intellectually challenging fiction books of the year, and although in many ways it falls short of its predecessors (lacking in much of the laugh out loud and blindingly original comedy of the earlier books in the series) it is also one of Pratchett’s greatest achievements to date.

The ending of the book has an exquisitely beautiful and mournful tone, epitomized by the indiscernibly enchanting music played by that particular goblin girl with a knack for the harp. Pratchett, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2007 and has been open about his consideration of assisted suicide, seems to have gained a great insight and depth over recent years; not that he was lacking in such things previously. Yet his more recent publications have had a distinctly moral core and spoken, often through the slightly inarticulate and ridiculous inhabitants of the Discworld, with an honest and adult voice.

Though Snuff is far from one of Pratchetts funniest or most memorable books, it is by far the one that has moved me the most.

About the author

Ben

Blog editor, admin and founder of BestFantasyBooks.comYou'll find me on the BestFantasyBook forums and spending my spare time reading fantasy books and writing lists for this site. In fact, I have no spare time -- running this site IS my spare time!

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