Not a review so much as a recommendation: Terry Pratchett’s The Fifth Elephant

It’s hard to review a Terry Pratchett novel.

After all, it’s a lot easier (or at least more entertaining) to dig into the flaws of a book. But to just goob out and go “you guys this book is so good,” borders on blind fanboyishness.

Even still. You guys, The Fifth Element is so good.

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I only started reading Pratchett about ten years ago, and even then I got somewhat of a slow start. See, my problem was, I started reading the Discworld novels from the beginning … which was a mistake.

Writing’s a skill like any other– the more practice you have, the better you get. Lucky for the world at whole, Pratchett was a very prolific writer. And luckier for me specifically, I haven’t read all of his books just yet. The first couple of Discworld novels (like, say, Pyramids) are mostly silly fantasy pastiches. Which is fine! However, as the books went on, Discworld congealed into its current form.

The last few Discworld books I’ve read were good, sure … but they were also from early in Pratchett’s career. In comparison, The Fifth Elephant is Pratchett in his prime. On top of that, it’s one of the ‘Watch’ series, centered around Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh Morpork City Watch. Basically, a Watch novel is one part detective story, one part fantasy, and one part English farce, with a few other gags sprinkled in to taste. There’s even a little satiric riff on Chekhov (the playwright, not the Trek character) worked in just ’cause Pratchett thought it’d be funny. Spoiler alert: it is.

In an ironic little twist that I’m sure Pratchett would approve of, The Fifth Elephant is a better fantasy adventure pastiche (or really, just a better fantasy adventure) than earlier books like The Colour of Magic. See, in The Fifth Elephant, the hard-boiled Vimes gets sent off on a diplomatic mission to Uberwald– basically, Discworld’s version of Transylvania, complete with werewolves, vampires, and Igors. Oh, and dwarves, too, because fantasy.

See, there’s some political business with the coronation of a new dwarf king, and naturally things soon go to hell, with the expected murders and locked room mysteries and so on. Pratchett really delves (I will not apologize for that joke) into dwarven culture in this book, which is actually a lot more interesting than it sounds. Pratchett uses dwarves to kick around ideas about immigration, assimilation, religion, and even gender identity. Pratchett’s dwarves are traditionally mono-gendered, though more ‘cosmopolitan’ sorts like the Watch’s own Cheery Littlebottom have caused quite a commotion amongst more traditional dwarves by calling themselves “she” and wearing dresses and so on. I didn’t go into The Fifth Elephant expecting to draw parallels to something like The Left Hand of Darkness, but there ya go.

But it’s not all thoughtful ruminations on gender and predjudice and tradition! As again, this book is full of rollicking adventure and more than a little bit of ridiculousness. Oh, and there’s a small, horrible-smelling talking dog, too. Though this brings me to one of the other difficulties of reviewing a Pratchett novel, in that going on about the best gags or plot twists takes away the joy you (the prospective reader) would get from reading them yourself.

There’s really only a few things I can count against The Fifth Elephant. For one, Pratchett crams a lot of stuff into the book, so the plot comes off as a little pat. This book isn’t quite as intricately plotted as some other Pratchett books I’ve read, but that doesn’t make it any less readable. Also, I wouldn’t quite suggest The Fifth Elephant to be anyone’s first Discworld novel– it’s not continuity heavy at all, but the characters and setting are still built on a bunch of stuff from earlier books. At least read a few Watch novels, starting with Guards! Guards! first.

English Cover

Finally, I have to say, the American cover is really, really boring when compared to the English one. Admittedly, the English cover depicts a scene that doesn’t technically happen in the book, but it’s still more interesting than that blue thing up above. But hey, it’s not like you can put a picture of a sword or a dragon (or, in this case, a werewolf and a dwarf) on the cover for an American release! That would mean Pratchett is … genre fiction. The horror.

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