Re-read recently — November 2015 II

Small Gods: a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett

This is one of the “solo” Discworld novels; not part of any of the sub-series’ within the main series. You do not have to read any other novels in the series to understand this one; nor do you have to read this one to understand the others. However, reading this one will enhance the books that come after.

It is worth mentioning that this is one of my favourite Discworld books.

Small Gods opens in the nation of Omnia, which is unique among the nations of the Discworld in a few ways. Whereas most of the Disc seems to regard religion as little more than a necessary nuisance, the Omnians are obsessed with it, and have built their nation around it. Also unlike most of the rest of the Disc, the Omnians are monotheists, worshipping the “Great God Om” (it would be fair to describe their church/state as resembling a version of the medieval Catholic church. It has priests and high priests and arch priests et al. It also has the Quisition). Finally, totally unique among the nations of the Disc, the Omnians believe that they live, improbably, on a spherical world, which orbits around the sun rather than vice-versa. No turtles in their cosmography. But some have begun to rebel against the church and the Quisition. They question the truth of the official cosmography. And their motto is, “The Turtle moves” . . .

The main protagonist of the novel is Brutha, who is a novice in the Omnian church and is likely to die a novice, as he is not too smart and none too good-looking. About the only talents he has are an eidetic memory and great faith in the Great God Om, which talents bring him to the attention of two powerful beings: Vorbis, the Exquisitor, who has a use for a man who cannot forget, and Om himself, who has a use for a believer. It seems that the people of Omnia have replaced belief in Om with belief in the church; and as belief feeds and powers the gods of the Disc Om is in rather dire straits. He set out a few years back to manifest himself as a giant bull or something and enjoy himself; he wound up a tortoise and for a while even forgot who he was. But he had the good fortune to be snatched up by an eagle that was planning to drop him on a rock to crack his shell. The eagle had bad aim, though, and Om landed in the compost heap next to Brutha (who was weeding the garden), and Brutha’s fierce belief restored Om’s sense of self.

Om needs Brutha to stay alive and himself; without a believer he will dwindle to a small god, one of the tiny voices in the wilderness who either used to be big gods or are fighting for their chance to become one. Vorbis needs Brutha to spread the worship of Om (or Om’s church–it’s all one and the same, right?), by fire and the sword, if need be (and need will be). The real question is: can Brutha keep himself alive, never mind his god?

Pratchett was an atheist, and it can be difficult for an atheist to write fairly about religion. To complicate matters, Pratchett set his stories in a world in which the gods were real, albeit often ludicrous. Atheists in the Discworld would logically be rare, unless fire- and lightning-proof. So what Pratchett has created here is less an atheist tract and more an example of how humans and gods could relate maturely. It’s also an above-average Terry Pratchett book, and as such highly recommended.

Introducing Garrett, P.I. by Glen Cook

This is an omnibus edition of the first three novels in Cook’s long-running series of fantasy hard-boiled mysteries. And it requires a substantial introduction to make sense of some parts of it.

Garrett is an investigator and confidential agent in the city of Tunfaire, Capital of the Karentine Kingdom (I phrase it that way because I don’t think we ever see the full name of the Kingdom spelled out in the books; only the adjectival form. It could be Karenta, Karent, Karenti, hell, it could be Karentine. I’ve no way of knowing). Actually, though it’s technically a kingdom it’s really run by powerful nobles and wizards. In fact, it’s technically part of an empire, but there are no more emperors.

The Karentines are currently at war with the Venagetti over a territory known as The Cantard. There is no doubt a nominal reason for the war, but what it really comes down to is that the Cantard has rich deposits of silver, and silver is needed for the powerful wizards who (as noted above) basically run both kingdoms to use their magic. The war has been going on for quite a while, but neither side can either pull off a victory or extract themselves from the mess (a former Venagetti leader named Glory Mooncalled has recently (as of the first book) turned on the Venagetti after they betrayed him somehow and is now hunting down their leadership in the Cantard. This gives the Karentines some hope of victory).

One side-effect of the war is that every male human between certain ages is expected to serve at least one term of five years in the armed forces. Quite a few don’t come back, for various reasons. Garrett served his five in the Marines, and we eventually learn that during a period in which his unit was pinned down on certain islands they were all assumed to be dead. The Forces sent his mother the news and, his brother having already died, she assumed she was alone in the world and died.

Since all the young men (and many of the older men) are away (and many of them are not coming back), a great number of non-humans (elves, pixies, ogres, etc) have moved into the city and taken on the jobs that humans used to do. This is not popular with a lot of the humans left in the city, but the jobs need to get done. Also, there’s been a lot of cross-breeding between those species that are compatible, with the ensuing prejudice against the offspring.

Garrett describes himself at the start of Cold Copper Tears, the third book in the series, as “low thirties, six feet two, two hundred pounds, ginger hair, ex-Marine–all around fun guy.”

At the start of Sweet Silver Blues, Garrett is trying to sleep in his office, without a lot of success because it is early morning and someone is pounding on the door. Garrett had spent the night before tracking a guy from bar to bar and is, consequently, hung-over. It is sort of implied by circumstances that Garrett is not just sleeping in the office because that’s where he happened to be at the end of the night, but because he has no other home.

The people pounding on the door are a small group of small people; they turn out to be members of the Tate family, relatives of Garrett’s friend Denny. Denny was another survivor of the Cantard, but they didn’t meet until they got back and they weren’t close. Which means that while he’s sad to find out that Denny is dead, he doesn’t see why the family has sent for him, as the death was a genuine accident.

It turns out that Denny has named Garrett one of the executors of his will (the other being Denny’s Uncle Willard, head of the clan). In the basement under his apartment in the family complex, Denny has left his legacy: a fortune in silver, far more than anyone could, in Garrett’s opinion, amass legally. And he’s left it to a woman: a woman he’s been corresponding with, who he met in the Cantard and who is still there. A woman with a name very familiar to Garrett.

The Tates want Garrett to go back to the Cantard, find the woman, and let her know that the money is hers if she wants it. Willard would really like to meet the woman who so turned Denny’s head that he would cut out his whole family for her. The Cantard is the last place Garrett wants to go — he barely got out alive last time — but he also wants to see this woman again (it is, I think, spoiling nothing to say that she was his lover) and the Tates are willing to pay him the whole Executor’s fee–a massive amount of money, given how much silver Denny accumulated. Garrett seeks the advice of the Dead Man.

The Dead Man doesn’t play a big role in this story, but he does in the rest of the series, so it’s worth taking a look at him. Garrett describes him thus:

He’s called the Dead Man because they killed him four hundred years ago. But he is neither dead nor a man. He is a Loghyr, and they don’t die just because somebody sticks a bunch of knives into them. Their bodies go through the motions — cooling out, rigor mortis, lividity — but they do not corrupt . . . . The Dead Man is four hundred fifty pounds of mean, a little ragged around the edges, where the moths and mice and ants have gotten to him. He was parked in a chair in a dark room in a house that pretended to be both abandoned and haunted.

The Dead Man has massive psychic-esque powers (they may be magic powers that have the same effects as psychic powers, eg: allowing him to speak to Garrett mentally, read people’s minds, telekinesis) and is a genius (just ask him), but just as we see little of him here we see little of his abilities (Garrett pays for his consulting services by delivering flowers and black candles, occasionally cleaning up and, oh yeah, paying the rent on the house). His main advice to Garrett is not to play the lone wolf in the Cantard: take help.

Garrett takes Morely Dotes. Dotes is a half-dark elf thug; he operates a vegetarian restaurant that is basically a cover for his thuggery. All the servers are thugs who work for him. Dotes wants to go with Garrett because he owes a lot of money to the Kingpin–Dotes bets on waterbug races, which is an elf thing–and it would be good for him to get out of town for a bit. Of course, he couldn’t have any other motives for going, could he?

The book also introduces two more characters who will be part of the series as it goes on: Saucerhead Tharpe, an extremely large, tough man who makes his living doing low-level thuggery. In this case, he’s hired to beat Garrett up at one point in the story; later he’s hired to take an unexpected trip or two. The other character is Tinnie Tate, Denny’s cousin, who becomes Garrett’s on-again, off-again girlfriend through most of the series. She also takes an unexpected trip, with her cousin Rose, who’s also good-looking but obnoxious (she’s the one who hires Saucerhead to beat up Garrett).

Basically, the trip to the Cantard does not go smoothly: there is obsfucation when it comes to finding the girl, peril from both the Venagetti and the Karentine forces, not to mention the natives of the Cantard, and betrayal. Garrett uses his share of the executor’s fee to buy the Dead Man’s house, becoming his partner’s landlord.

Which sets up the second book, Bitter Gold Hearts. Garrett’s new office is in his house, across the hall from the Dead Man’s room so he can pop in for a consultation (if the Dead Man isn’t asleep, something he can do for months at a time. One sure way to find out if he’s faking is for Garrett to bring a woman over; the Dead Man takes that personally, for some reason).

So this one begins, as so many of Garrett’s cases will, with a beautiful woman at his door. It seems that, while the Stormwarden (powerful, powerful wizard) Raver Styx has been in the Cantard, fighting the Venagetti, her family (husband Karl, son Karl Jr., and daughter Amber) have been cooling their heels (or kicking them up, depending on the person) in Tunfaire under the watchful eyes of Domina Willa Dount (Domina is her title). Sadly, young Karl Jr. has been kidnapped. Garrett has a good reputation for safe kidnapping negotiations, so Domina Dount sends the lovely Amiranda Crest (Dount is aware of all of Garrett’s reputations) to get Garrett on-side. She doesn’t want him to do the negotiations, though: she just wants him to be seen and thus give everything the benefit of his good reputation.

Dount delivers de ransom and Karl Jr. is returned safely. But then he runs off to a bad part of town and apparently commits suicide. Amiranda is killed while under the protection of Saucerhead Tharpe, who himself is hospitalised: the killers were a group of Ogres and half-ogres (if it can be bred with, someone in Tunfaire will breed with it), too much even for Saucerhead. And the Stormwarden’s daughter, Amber, determined to get out of the oppressive atmosphere of her home, hires Garrett to find the gold paid for the ransom for her. And a street gang of ogre breeds tries to kill Garrett, for no reason he can see.

It becomes clear that the Ogres that attacked Garrett and the Ogres that attacked Saucerhead and Amiranda are the same group, and that they are somehow involved in the kidnapping. To get at them, Garrett and Morley need help from Chodo Contague, the new Kingpin (the old Kingpin learned a valuable lesson: don’t back Morley Dotes into a corner (take the obvious Dirty Dancing joke as given)). Chodo, a paraplegic in a wheelchair who is still the most feared man in the series, will play a big role as the series goes on.

And then the Stormwarden herself comes home.

In the end, the question is no longer will Garrett find the killer and the gold; the question instead becomes, will he and his friends make it out alive, and at what cost?

Cold Copper Tears, the third book in the series, opens with Garrett feeling lazy. He’s been working so he’s got money and he doesn’t want to do anything but talk over the current ongoing religious scandals with friends. So when a beautiful blonde, and actress (there is some debate throughout the story as to whether “actress” is a euphemism for some other career. It turns out it is) named Jill Craight seeks his help, claiming that an important friend (or rather, “friend”) gave her something to hold for him and now people are following her and watching her apartment (or may be breaking into it; Jill can’t seem to keep the story straight) he sub-contracts the job to an acquaintance. Later, a high-ranking churchman tries to hire Garrett to find something specific for him; he believes there is a conspiracy of some sort to cast the church into a bad light (which will, in turn, be bad spiritually for the people). Garrett passes; the guy doesn’t take offense.

Later, Garrett goes to visit Morley and a gang tries to kill him (not ogres, this time). It seems that someone has put a price on Garrett’s head. Chodo Contague, who now believes Garrett did him a favour in the last book, puts a counter-price out on the person trying to get Garrett. This makes things complicated, especially since Garrett doesn’t want people associating him with the Kingpin, but as the investigation gets complicated, he needs the force which the Kingpin’s clout can bring to his questions. Moreover, Chodo has the entire gang that tried to kill Garrett killed, though he leaves one man alive for Garrett to interrogate.

It seems that the gang was hired by a “Brother Jerce” (accent on the last “e”) and paid in privately minted religious coins (Tunfaire allows people to strike their own money, but they must buy the blanks from the Royal Mint). It seems that an ancient death cult has returned to take advantage of Tunfaire’s current religious issues to accomplish something bad: releasing their destroyer-god from his tomb and ending the world. This is bad, but not in itself an intimidating thing: Garrett has Morley Dotes, the Dead Man, and as much as he doesn’t want him, Chodo Contague on his side. The bad guys have a bunch of farmers who, no matter how fanatical they might be don’t know anything about fighting . . . and angry, powerful avatars of their god that appear from nowhere and kill without discriminating. Okay, this one might be tough.

But the real reason to read the book is Maya. Maya is . . . well, where many series’ on TV have a “monster of the week” encounter, Garrett has a “girl of the book” encounter. Mostly, he’s in a long-term relationship with Tinnie Tate, but as she is a stereotypical fiery redhead they are often on the outs and that leaves Garrett some time to play (what Tinnie does while they’re not dating is not covered in the books). Maya is this book’s girl. When we meet her she is the 18-year-old War-Leader of the all-girl gang called “The Sisters of Doom”, or “The Doom” for short. Garrett first met her some years before when he helped her escape a sexually abusive family situation (this not dealt with in detail, but it is there); now he keeps an eye on her and occasionally makes sure she gets a good meal and such. He drops in on her this time and she starts following him around, wanting to see how he works. She intends to become an investigator herself and, she informs him, to marry him. He, however, keeps thinking of her as a kid until she cleans up, at which point he’s unable to resist for long.

Of all Garrett’s women (at least, for most of the series), Maya’s my favourite. She’s smart, strong, and able to hold her own both in a fight and in sassing Garrett. She would make him a good partner, both in business and romantically. Sadly, she only appears in the series one more time (which, to be fair, is one more time than most of the women Garrett romances do).

Maya raises another important issue: this is the same Glen Cook who wrote The Black Company (here). While this series is by no means as grimdark as that one, it is still low fantasy, and abuse, both sexual and otherwise, does happen sometimes and is addressed.

Overall, I’d call this one recommended for fans of hard-boiled detectives and fantasy mysteries.

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