Ankh-Morpork, the Great City of Discworld, is proud of its "multiculturalism". Except here, it's "multi-speciesism". Trolls, dwarfs, golems, even a werewolf have been incorporated into city society. They are represented in the ranks of the City Watch, that bastion of law enforcement. Once scorned as ineffective, the Watch, under Commander Sam Vimes, the Duke of Ankh-Morpork, is now considered an exemplary force in the City. "All are just coppers" is one of Sam's litanies. Except when it comes to vampires. Yet, once again, Pratchett forces Vimes to confront his prejudices. And we readers to face up to ours.
Into the quietly seething mixture of Ankh-Morpork peoples there arrives a new element. For years, the dwarfs have scrambled up out of the deep dark of their mines to emigrate to Sam Vimes' city. They've become the city's largest "minority group". While boisterous, dwarfs are generally well behaved. Clashes with their ancient enemy, the trolls, have taken little real toll of either group. The deep dark of those mines, however, contain a secret. A secret treasured and sought by elements of dwarf society who consider themselves guardians of its value - the "grags". Nothing offends a grag as much as encountering someone who has "seen the light". These guardians scorn the "short humans" who have abandoned traditional dwarf values in Ankh-Morpork's materialist environment. One of those "traditional values" is the cause of the ancient clash in Koom Valley.
A Discworld legend in its own right, the Battle of Koom Valley is one of those "We won!" - "No, we won!" myths so many societies possess. Each side ambushed the other. Both sides shamefully ran away at its conclusion. Legends inspire spin-off myths and Koom Valley is no exception. There's even a massive painting depicting the confrontation. And a "sign" is supposedly hidden away in the daubs of paint. Or someplace. It's hard to tell, however, since the 50 feet of canvas has been taken from its frame. Vimes, who might be goaded into solving that crime, hasn't the time. He's busy investigating a murder that didn't happen. And learning to cope with a new recruit - one representing the last minority group entering his City's population.
It takes a split personality to appreciate Pratchett fully on a first reading. One side can inhale the wit and surprises Pratchett produces in all of his stories. The other side can take pause and note the graceful nuances that represent deeper human values. Are the grags just fantasy characters? Or are they mullahs, rabbis or even ministers from the Southron Baptist Convention? If dwarfs, golems and trolls in the City Watch are "all coppers", are the citizens of Ankh-Morpork just citizens? Should the distinctions and customs of various groups be allowed to set aside or modify the City's Law? How meaningful are "ethnic traditions" and who is allowed to decide what these shall be? Pratchett, with astonishing frankness, wraps these questions within his usual framework of wit and hilarity. But when you've recovered your breath from laughing, you will find the questions still there.
Those who are new to Pratchett may find this book a bit confusing. The characters, developed and portrayed over many volumes, have clearly depicted, individual personalities. The new reader, along with Mr A.E. Pessimal, may well ask "What is Corporal 'Nobby' Nobbs for?". Many of us are still wondering. But no Pratchett reader would give up the man who carries a certificate to prove he's human. And all will welcome this new, worldly, version of The Auditors. The new reader will meet Angua and may puzzle over her reaction to Sally. The established reader will gain an entirely new view of this officer - and be reminded that Gaspode forecast aspects of canine behaviour several books back. All these twists and arabesques demonstrate once more, if it needed buttressing, that Pratchett, even after so many Discworld books, remains a master of innovation and surprise. New and faithful readers of Pratchett will combine to applaude this outstanding work. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]