Not-So-Indie Spotlight: The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett - Book Review
Right, this isn't exactly an Indie Spotlight, and it's not exactly a timely review either when you consider this lovely book came out a meagre twenty-four years ago.
Pardon me while I vomit at that thought.
But let's talk about Discworld and the incomparable Terry Pratchett, master of comedic fantasy, imagination, satire, parody, and existential melting pots, because this one's a doozy.
If you aren't aware, The Fifth Elephant is the 24th novel in Terry Pratchett's seminal, celebrated Discworld series and you'd be forgiven for asking "Jesus... why's he starting a review at this point in this weird world's bibliography?"
I skipped a few, didn't I?
The fact is, I wanted to write about this book in particular because a) if you can't tell, at 23 books deep into the series, I fucking love Discworld and the awesome places, ideas, characters, and often biting comedy Pratchett is famous for, and b) I thought this book was worth discussing specifically, because although I've enjoyed every entry into the series thus far, I think it's fair to say that once they started creeping towards the high-teens mark, I started to feel that some of the original sparkle, inventiveness, and unpredictability had faded from the world of Rincewind, Sam Vimes, and Mistress Weatherwax.
And before Discworld fans string me up, what I mean by that is, while the stories still had plenty of wit, fun, and bite to them, they'd kind of settled into their formula, completely comfortable with their characters, their world, and the style of story deployed across the various in-world series.
From about the time of, well, Interesting Times, right up until Carpe Jugulum, it felt to me like the series had found a happy but pretty undemanding groove, content to pump out new stories that introduced new locations as silly parodies and let the characters run around doing silly, sterotypical things with the locals (ala the aforementioned Interesting Times, The Lost Continent, or even Jingo) or simply relying on fun gimmicks to shake new life into well-worn characters (gimmicks such as "Hey, what if Death... was also Santa?!)
I think it's fair to say that The City Watch series is among the more popular stories in Discworld, with Sam Times often battling it out with a certain Headology expert for the crown of most beloved character on the Disc. So, I was particularly deflated when I'd finished Jingo and Feet of Clay back to back, and found I wasn't itching for the next Watch story. While fun, clever, and topical, I didn't feel those books held much of a candle to the earlier Guards! Guards! or Men at Arms, and if I'm honest, I thought we'd kind of seen all there was to see from the Watch and their escapades in Ankh-Morpork.
To get right to the point, The Fifth Elephant made me realise that was all a load of absolute bollocks and Pratchett still had plenty in the tank for Vimes, Carrot, Angua, and the whole rabbling bunch.
Unexpectedly, this book made me fall in love with the Watch, and the titular Vimes, all over again, abandoning Ankh-Morpork, gimmicks, and topical stories to launch us into a pretty refreshing and character-focussed fish-out-of water political mystery, with an emphasis on Vimes' character development especially, who seems to excel as an anchor when forced to operate without any of his usual resources, support, or territory, while also taking a welcome mature approach to relationships (Vimes and Sybil get some well-needed attention, and there was a very welcome sense of stakes and progression to the Carrot/Angua romance that up to now, felt like it was simply happening nicely in the background.)
Another element that felt like a new lease of literary life was the crafting of a story that was less mystery-of-the-week and instead went for something more personal for our lead, leaning on his distain for politics and diplomacy as well as his flaws as a character (such as his prejudice against the undead, especially Vampires), that also wrote a bit of a love letter to fantasy and horror genres, rather than relying on location parodies and one-time gimmicks to fill its pages.
I suppose to cut a long-winded story short, The Fifth Elephant reinvigorated my hunger for more Discworld and more Watch. It made the series essential reading again after a number of good but not great entries. It's brimming with great humour, meaningful character development, wonderful new players who sort of sneak up on you in terms of their depth and charm, and a top tier lead who put to great use within this fish-out-water political mystery.
If I had to criticise anything, the sub-plot that checks in regularly with the Watch members who don't go on the road with Vimes and are left to their own (and the new Commander's) devices felt... unnecessary, and sometimes, they became kind of skippable.
But other than that, The Fifth Elephant is a brilliant return to form for Pratchett, Sam Vimes, and Discworld in general.