Terry Pratchett is still capable of knocking out better books than most of his peers, but he has been coasting for the past few years. It's not that he's been writing bad books as such, but when you look at his ever-expanding list of titles, the really good stuff is starting to feel like ancient history. I suspect he is devoting more attention to the Young Adult Discworld series, which I don't particularly like, but then I'm hardly in the target demographic. Who can blame him: at least the YA books receive awards and critical recognition; the regular series only rakes in yet more cash, and he's probably got enough of that by now.
The latest Discworld book, Thud!, at first seems like another solid, unspectacular series entry: funny, morally serious, briskly plotted. And it pretty much is a solid, unspectacular series entry, but there is something about it (several things about it) that got on my nerves.
The first problem is: it's a Watch novel. Perhaps I am in a minority amongst the Pratchett fan-base, but I am sick to death of Watch novels. Commander Sam Vimes, who along with Granny Weatherwax is/was Pratchett's most interesting protagonist, is now little more than a mouthpiece for Pratchett's increasingly grumpy moralising. The rest of the Watch are trapped in a kind of Groundhog Day-esque routine, and since there's so damn many of them now the routine sometimes threatens to overtake the entire novel. I'd be happy if Pratchett would give the Watch, and perhaps Ankh-Morpork itself, a break.
The other main problem with Thud! is the story. It is typical of Pratchett's present malaise that the tale spun in Thud! is largely non-fantastic. The incidental fantasy trappings remain in place, and there is a vague plot thread involving a malfeasant supernatural entity, but mostly Thud! reads more like an airport thriller in fancy dress thanks to Pratchett's insistence on pontificating about the real world. Now, Discworld has always been partly a satire and critique of our own world, but the tendency of recent books towards a kind of "realism" - of theme and style - has been worrying. Recent Discworld novels tend to be structured around one or more Big Themes, and these are not handled lightly. Thud!'s big theme is sectarian conflict, and you don't have to look too hard to spot the real world parallels. It's all rather obvious and bland, and, as more than one reviewer has noted, pointing out that hatred and bigotry are stupid is hardly a bold insight. There's rather too much editorialising going on in Thud!, bogging the story down. If the cliche is true, and satire fails when the satirist takes him or herself too seriously, then Thud! is a poor satire indeed.
The Watch novels used to be fantasy novels dressed up as crime thrillers or whodunits; with Thud! the reverse is true, and sadly Pratchett is no crime novelist. One of Pratchett's strengths has always been his underlying realism - people really get hurt or killed in his books; there are always consequences to actions; emotions are ever present - but by allowing this element to take over he has reduced the effectiveness of his writing. If I want gritty, introspective police procedurals, I can get them by the bucketload at any bookstore. Discworld was, and perhaps still is, an amazing place to read (and presumably write) about because within it anything was possible. Like few other popular writers Pratchetts can combine fantasy and humour and satire and emotional realism - think Lords and Ladies, think Reaper Man. In comparison, Thud! feels limited, lacking exuberance and daring.
Doubtless Pratchett will have another book out before Christmas, so we will see if Thud! is merely an aberration, or the beginning of a genuine slump. Not that it will matter to most Discworld fans, who will lap it up, whatever the quality. I may or may not be among them.