Terry Pratchett published his first Discworld romp, “The Color of Magic,” in 1983, and his newest satirical fantasy, “Snuff,” is his 39th. Bounding between a wealth of settings and scenarios, Pratchett has forged a wicked roster of heroines and heroes, including several members of “the occult community” and Sam Vimes, a policeman who has risen from the slums of Ankh-Morpork to a dukedom without ditching his street smarts.
As they do their best to extricate themselves (and sometimes the entire multiverse) from disaster, Pratchett’s players offer up droll takes on matters both serious and absurd. In “Snuff,” for example, Vimes can acknowledge the bravery of a braying “fierce old warhorse” while remaining aware that “this would have been absolutely tickety-boo were it not for the suicides of those poor fools who followed him into battle.”
Vimes has long been Pratchett’s chief voice of reason (and rage), and Ankh-Morpork’s second in command has his hands full. How could he not when this melting pot’s minorities include combustible dwarfs and trolls as well as “the differently alive” — zombies, say, or the odd golem? Then there are the complications of assimilating female werewolves, dwarfs and vampires into a crime-fighting unit that’s “egotesticle” by nature.
As the number of Discworld novels reached the mid-30s, readers could see no end of such moments, and “Making Money,” published in 2007, found Pratchett in fine, rude form. It may not have featured enough Vimes for some, but it offered scads of whip-cracking observations, clever wordplay and irresistible banter. No one, then, could have expected the announcement Pratchett made three months later: that at 60, he was suffering from a rare variant of Alzheimer’s. Since then, the author has been open about his condition and fierce about his desire to die “before the endgame looms.” He also has continued to surpass readers’ expectations.
A full-on Vimes vehicle, “Snuff” begins with a shock as our hero is chucked out of his office. Happily, this is only a matter of a two-week stay at his wife Sybil’s stately home. Unhappily, he loathes the countryside.
If only some crime would crop up amid all the “allegedly glorious fresh air.” There’s certainly enough suspicious behavior around, and yokels and aristos alike get noticeably shifty every time the conversation swings around to goblins. Foul-looking and worse-smelling, these creatures have an off-putting religion “founded on the sanctity of bodily secretions” and are resigned, their only champion laments, “to undeserved and casual death.”
One such murder leads Vimes to uncover a vast, twisty conspiracy. As he tries to bring the villains to justice, “Snuff” daringly links the demonization of goblins to two of the worst crimes in human history: slavery and the Holocaust. Some might be offended, but Pratchett doesn’t make such connections lightly. His first Discworld book may have been a frolic, but his magic has long since been set in strong moral mortar.
Fried has written for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications.
By Terry Pratchett
Harper. 398 pp. $25.99