In the tenth part of The Fifth Elephant, Vimes meets the future Low King. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
I wouldn’t say that I’m that well-versed in fantasy. I’ve mentioned this before, but I grew up reading mostly science fiction. Part of that was just due to circumstance; SF was simply what I was exposed to earlier than other genres, and it’s what I developed a love for. I did read some YA fantasy growing up, and I experimented with it over the years, but I had such a difficult time dealing with fantasy fans that I stayed away from most of it. So, unlike a lot of my peers and probably a lot of you, I never really developed much of an interest in the mainstays of fantasy. If it was horror, then sure, I was into it. But as for things like orcs or faeries or dwarfs or wizards or mages or whatnot… I’ve never really been super into them. I’ve never sought out books with these things in them, and it was only through Mark Reads that I started realizing there was a whole lot more out there than I previously thought, that even these stories themselves weren’t what I thought.
I think that through this project, I’ve gotten more genre-savvy when it comes to fantasy, but even then, I struggle with the fear that I don’t know enough. The next book I’m working on is looking to be a secondary world fantasy, and that same fear hangs over me. Trust, it’s not stopping me from doing what I’m doing, but it still haunts me. Yet as I was reading this long scene, I realized how often I don’t really talk about Pratchett as a fantasy writer. I see him as a satirist and a humor writer first, one who just works within this specific genre. I also appreciate him for his ability to write such complex, believable, and relatable characters. But you know what? I need to acknowledge what a good fantasy writer he is, too, and I don’t think I’ve done that enough over the last few years. (Christ, how did we all miss the three-year anniversary of me starting to read the Discworld books???)
I am in awe of the world that Pratchett creates in this sequence. There’s very little humor here, aside from Vimes’s diplomacy. Instead, Pratchett manages to craft a dense, complicated universe under the ground of Bonk, and it’s so fucking cool. I mentioned on video that what we’d learned of the dwarfs prior to this was through Carrot, Cheery, and some tertiary characters. This, however, is immersion, and that is not an easy thing to do! I say that because I’m already struggling to think of enough things to create a world that seems full, and this comes off as effortless. Thus, it was smart that Inigo stayed behind to take care of other diplomatic matters. Since we’re seeing this all through Vimes’s eyes, the only other context we get is from another dwarf, one who is from Uberwald herself. So we get this wide-eyed, nervous perception from Vimes, and then Cheery grounds us.
And oh my god, I love so many details here. The candles on the helmets. Vimes being unable to understand the scope of the cave and thinking he went “too far” and popped out of the other side of the Disc. THE SOUND. Oh my god, the use of sound here is just so brilliant, y’all, from the deafening roar of conversation echoing off the walls to the use of it later in Dee’s office to bring about tension. I know that’s another reason why I liked this so much: I am a huge fan of writers being able to pull of tense sequences. Here, Pratchett has Vimes sense that something is deeply wrong in this mine, but he can’t put his finger on what it is. His instinct is screaming at him that something happened, but the dwarfs around him are merely going about their business, as if nothing is wrong, which makes the sensation all the more eerie.
Yet if Vimes’s conversation with Dee was alarming, his conversation with Albrecht, the dwarf who was runner-up, is even worse. I can’t quite guess what that horrible word means, but suffice to say that Pratchett has created a slur that hits Cheery real hard, which is why I loved this reaction a great deal:
“Then you can tell the creature that if he used that word again in the presence of myself or any of my staff there will be, as we diplomats say, repercussions. Wrap that up in diplomacy and give it to him, will you?”
I am not normally interested in stories about redemptive bigots, not because that’s a story that shouldn’t be told. I think there’s a context for most stories to work. It’s just that often, these stories about growth at the expense of other people, which are usually the people most hurt by the bigot is doing. It’s happened in this very community, too! Someone used me to become more “enlightened” about social justice issues, but they did so by repeatedly being a piece of shit to me and others. So who did the emotional labor there? Who is centered in that narrative? The person causing the most harm.
Pratchett more or less escapes this by not making Vimes the constant center of attention. I probably would complain about him if he were the sole POV character for the Watch books, but getting to see so many varied perspectives changes that for me. Someone recently reminded me (on the site? YouTube??? I CANNOT FIND THE COMMENT) of where Vimes began: in a gutter, drunk. It is not easy to pull off this transformation, either. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t criticize Vimes or the way he was written, but I don’t find myself annoyed by this story at all. Instead, I see someone genuinely changing, genuinely learning that the things he thought of the world were wrong, genuinely standing up for people in situations where maybe they can’t. And I saw that in this scene because Cheery was terrified. Who can blame her??? These dwarfs are terrible to her, and it’s not like it’s out of the realm of possibility that they might hurt her, you know?
But let’s talk about the soon-to-be Low King. Y’all. I WASN’T READY. The Low King is mostly an outsider, but he’s a shrewd one, well aware of the political nightmare that he’s been thrown in to. However, I was most blown away by the tense moment he has with Vimes regarding Ankh-Morpork. It’s perhaps the most complicated segment of this whole part. It’s not easy to parse what the actual reality is, at least not yet. But to the Low King, Ankh-Morpork is a “vampire,” a place that siphons away the best dwarfs to live in “squalor.” I suppose that to the Low King, “squalor” means something much different than it does to Vimes, and I’d be curious to know how Ankh-Morpork dwarfs felt about their lives being described as such. And I don’t know the answer to Vimes’s question either: what is it about Uberwald that sends so many dwarfs running away to another city?
At least now I have a better grasp on these miniature cultures within the larger one. Cheery’s backstory about the knockermen helped as well. (It’s also one of the most starkly written sections in the whole book, so bravo on that, too!) Ultimately, that’s the point I wanted to make about the tenth part of The Fifth Elephant. It’s just straight-up good fantasy, and that’s a thing worth commending all on its own.
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