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MEN AT ARMS by Terry Pratchett


All right, the short of it is I really liked the book. The long of it is, I’m very annoyed at Terry.

Those of you who have been following things here know that I just sold the ALCATRAZ books to Scholastic. They’re essentially humorous fantasy—evil librarians running the world and all that. I wrote them because I was a little frustrated at the market. I could find funny books (Snicket) and I could find books with good worldbuilding (Pullman) and I could find books with clever pacing and plotting (Potter.)

What I couldn’t find was a series that had both amusing text AND engaging characters. They all seemed to sacrifice one for the other—which is fine. After all, Douglas Adams didn’t give much of a hoot for compelling characters, and look where he went. Still, I wanted something with both. And, as it turns out, I happen to write books for a living. Hence, the ALCATRAZ books were born.

Turns out that Terry has been doing this for years. At least, he has been if MEN AT ARMS is a good example. (Note—I realized all of my examples above were YA, and this is adult, but if you can’t make a forced metaphor once in a while, then what’s the good of having a literary license in the first place?)

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the book—perhaps as much as everyone told me that I would . Now, my Pratchett experience is limited. I tried COLOUR OF MAGIC when I was younger (I’ve since learned that it is a poor representation of the series) and have read GOOD OMENS (which was brilliant, and which ultimately led me to give Discworld another go.)

I guess the reason I liked MEN AT ARMS was that balance. It was funny—and not in a cheap way either. It was funny in a clever, scholarly, satire sort of way, with an occasional bad pun or lowbrow shot to keep you on your toes. But, somehow, Pratchett still managed to make me care a great deal about his characters. (Thereby stealing my great, wonderfully original idea for the ALCATRAZ books—that of giving people character arcs.)

How well Terry did this is still a little dumbfounding to me. All of his characters seemed pretty single-sided at the beginning. And, they didn’t really get that much deeper as the story progressed. Yet, they became irresistible.

Good tension in books is based, in my opinion, on making the reader care about the characters. Any book will feel fast paced if the characters are in danger. And, Terry is obviously a very good craftsman, with excellent pacing beyond his character drama.

So, anyway, it’s a fine book. If you, like me, have been living in a hole and ignoring Pratchett, then this is a good one with which to start.