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Watch with Terry
The Fifth Elephant - Terry Pratchett
Member Name: SWSt
The Fifth Elephant - Terry Pratchett
Advantages: Some excellent moments of comedy, particularly for Fred Colon
Disadvantages: Suffers from uneven pacing and splitting up the Watch
For me, The Fifth Elephant marks the end of the Discworld's "Golden Age" that period during the mid-late 90s when Pratchett could do no wrong. This era saw the likes of Maskerade and The Hogfather, brilliant titles which summed up all that was good about Pratchett's bizarre world. The new century however, marked a turning point where Pratchett started to turn out books which were still good, just not as good as those that had gone before them. The Fifth Elephant, arguably, marks that turning point.
The plot see Sir Samuel Vimes, Commander of the City Watch sent to Uberwald on a diplomatic mission. Accompanying him are Detritus the Troll and Cheery the (female) dwarf. Meanwhile back in Ankh Morpork, the Watch is left in chaos as Angua and Carrot resign for personal reasons, leaving the inept Sergeant Colon in charge.
The Fifth Elephant effectively sums up a problem with the Watch characters. Sam Vimes and his crew are very popular with Discworld fans who always want to see new adventures featuring their favourite hapless coppers. Unfortunately from an author's point of view, there are only so many times you can have the same characters solving a rather bizarre murder within the confines of Ankh Morpork before it becomes predictable and formulaic.
All too often the solution to this problem is to take characters out of their natural environment and off to someplace new. Almost invariably, this turns out to be a mistake as taking characters out of their natural environment diminishes them somehow, reducing the adventure that follows to a standard "fish out of water" comedy.
Such is the issue here. Sending Vimes out (more or less) on his own into the wilds of Uberwald is a bit of an error. Certainly, there is some comedy to be mined from the fact that Vimes is totally out of his depth in the world of diplomacy and that he still takes a perverse delight in rubbing people up the wrong way. Yet, this can only sustain the plot for so long.
Of course, you could argue that taking Vimes out of his natural territory is not really the problem at all. After all, Jingo did exactly the same and that worked out well. Unfortunately, it's not a case of second time lucky as Pratchett compounds the problem: not only does he take The Watch out of their natural element, he also splits them up.
This is really where The Fifth Elephant falls down. The Watch have always worked best as a group. Certainly, there are some members (Vimes, Carrott, Colon, "Nobby" Nobbs) who are more prominent and able to sustain some lone adventures. However, their real strength lies in the way they blend together. The bickering, constant misunderstandings and general ineptitude has provided moments of sheer comedy gold, giving rise to conversations which are so funny that they have that rare ability to make you disgrace yourself by snorting loudly with laughter in public. By splitting them up, and sending them here there and everywhere on different missions loses this sense of camaraderie and the real comic strength of The Watch dissipates.
That's not to say that the Fifth Elephant is not funny, rather that the comedy is a little more intermittent than in the titles which immediately precede it. Colon's inept attempts at "officering" and his obsession with the missing sugar lumps are priceless and capture that same absurd humour of earlier books. Pratchett also uses these moments to make his usual pithy observations on life and the world; particularly about what happens when people get promoted above their level of competence.
The introduction of a number of other new(ish) characters also provides some compensation for the loss of The Watch. The return of Igor, the lurching, lisping henchman first seen in Carpe Jugulum is great fun and his manner of speech is inspired; poking fun at the clichés of old horror movies, whilst simultaneously acting as an affectionate homage. There's also a welcome opportunity to discover a little more background information about some familiar characters, including a glimpse at Angua's family, which adds some depth to existing characters and enhances our understanding of them.
Sadly, though, the plot is rather pedestrian and dull at times. Many of the book's funnier moments occur in the first 100 pages or so and after that it becomes rather uneven. As noted above, the funniest episodes surround Colon's attempts to run the Watch in Vimes' absence; yet a strong opening, Colon virtually disappears. In fact, you almost wonder whether Pratchett has actually written the wrong book; instead of following Vimes to Uberwald, should he have remained in Ankh Morpork to focus on Colon's incompetence?
It's not that The Fifth Elephant is a bad book it's simply that by the standards of the preceding titles it's rather average. There are moments that will make you laugh, plenty of Pratchett's trademark cynical observations on life and lots of amusing footnotes. In other words, all the elements that made previous Discworld novels so successful. The real issue is that there are not enough of them and the void they leave behind is filled with a rather dull plot which never really engages or excites much interest.
On the plus side, the book can be picked up brand new for about a fiver, and second hand for considerably less. Whilst it might not be quite of the calibre of some of the previous Discworld outings, there's still more than enough for fans of the series to enjoy. If you're a newcomer to the Discworld, though, I wouldn't advise starting with this one, otherwise you might just wonder what all the fuss is about.
The Fifth Elephant
© Copyright SWSt 2012
Summary: Marks a turning point in series where books go from Great to Good