Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett

One-line summary: An irredeemable swindler gets redeemed in a funny fantasy farce that proves some series can go on forever without getting stale.

HarperTorch, 2005, 394 pages

Suddenly, condemned arch-swindler Moist von Lipwig found himself with a noose around his neck and dropping through a trapdoor into...a government job?

By all rights, Moist should be meeting his maker rather than being offered a position as Postmaster by Lord Vetinari, supreme ruler of Ankh-Morpork. Getting the moribund Postal Service up and running again, however, may prove an impossible task, what with literally mountains of decades-old undelivered mail clogging every nook and cranny of the broken-down post office. Worse still, Moist could swear the mail is talking to him. Worst of all, it means taking on the gargantuan, greedy Grand Trunk clacks communication monopoly and its bloodthirsty piratical headman. But if the bold and undoable are what's called for, Moist's the man for the job -- to move the mail, continue breathing, get the girl, and specially deliver that invaluable commodity that every being, human or otherwise, requires: hope.

I've somehow avoided becoming a regular fan of Terry Pratchett, despite the fact that the few novels of his I've read, I've enjoyed. That includes the two or three Discworld novels I've read; I liked them, but they were light entertainment, good for an afternoon, but not enough to make me go out and read all the rest. (Actually, it was because I didn't want to feel compelled to go read all the rest, because there are like a million of them.) Nonetheless, I know a fair amount about Discworld just because it's been around so long and is so popular in fandom circles. But you don't really have to know anything about it to enjoy this book.

So, Going Postal is Discworld novel #29 or #33 or something like that (different lists rank it differently in the chronology), and usually when an author has been writing one series for 30+ books, it's kind of like eating Big Mac #33... you're not expecting a lot of originality or variation. Pratchett (according to his fans) somehow manages to write something new and interesting in every Discworld novel. Not having read that many of them, I can't say whether Going Postal retreads old ground or not, but it was a damn good book for what it was, which is humorous light fantasy that's warm and witty and even has surprising depths. Okay, not deep, deep depths, but even between the jokes and one madcap event after another, Pratchett manages to insert more character development and insight than I've seen in a lot of denser, more serious works.

The main character, Moist von Lipwig (yes, that's actually his name) is a master criminal. He's an arch-swindler who lives for the con. And his transformation into a hero is one of the most convincing redemption stories I've ever read. Yes, this is light fantasy fare, but Pratchett's characters still act like real people with real emotions and real motivations, and they handle cognitive dissonance and moral dilemmas the way real people do -- not very well.

"Do you understand anything I'm saying?" shouted Moist. "You can't just go around killing people!"

"Why Not? You Do." The golem lowered his arm.

"What? I do not! Who told you that?"

"I Worked It Out. You Have Killed Two Point Three Three Eight People," said the golem calmly.

"I have never laid a finger on anyone in my life, Mr. Pump. I may be -- all the things you know I am, but I am not a killer! I have never so much as drawn a sword!"

"No, You Have Not. But You Have Stolen, Embezzled, Defrauded, And Swindled Without Discrimination, Mr. Lipvig. You Have Ruined Businesses And Destroyed Jobs. When Banks Fail, It Is Seldom Bankers Who Starve. Your Actions Have Taken Money From Those Who Had Little Enough To Begin With. In A Myriad Small Ways You Have Hastened The Deaths Of Many. You Did Not Know Them. You Did Not See Them Bleed. But You Snatched Bread From Their Mouths And Tore Clothes From Their Backs. For Sport, Mr. Lipvig. For Sport. For The Joy Of The Game."

Lipwig doesn't like seeing himself in the mirror his golem "parole officer" holds up to him, but he can't unsee it. Of course, his reformation is not immediate. It comes bit by bit, as he's forced to face victims of his previous crimes... including Adora Belle Dearheart, who hires out golems, carries a crossbow, smokes like a chimney, and terrifies drunks and Mr. Lipwig:

Miss Dearheart gave him a very brief look, and shook her head. There was movement under the table, a small, fleshy kind of noise, and the drunk suddenly bent forward, color draining from his face. Probably only the man and Moist heard Miss Dearheart purr: "What is sticking in your foot is a Mitzy 'Pretty Lucretia' four-inch heel, the most dangerous footwear in the world. Considered as pounds per square inch, it's like being trodden by a very pointy elephant. Now, I know what you're thinking: you're thinking, 'Could she press it all the way through to the floor?' And you know, I'm not sure about that myself. The sole of your boot might give me a bit of trouble, but nothing else will. But that's not the worrying part. The worrying part is that I was forced practically at knifepoint to take ballet lessons as a child, which means I can kick like a mule; you are sitting in front of me; and I have another shoe. Good, I can see you have worked that out. I'm going to withdraw the heel now."

Discworld is an odd creation. It's got everything and the kitchen sink in it: dwarves, trolls, vampires, werewolves, wizards, Thieves and Assassins Guilds, temples to various deities, and all the other trappings of a traditional fantasy setting. But trappings is all they are. Pratchett throws whatever cultural elements and inventions he needs into the story. The Post Office is up against the Grand Trunk clacks monopoly ("clacks" being a Discworld version of telegraphs), and there are jokes about government workers, Dilbert-like managers, corporate greed, capitalism, organized religion, hackers, higher education, and anything else that's good for a punchline. What is remarkable is that none of the jokes fall flat, and many of them come with barbs.

They'd saved the city with gold more easily, at that point, than any hero could have managed with steel. But, in truth, it had not exactly been gold, or even the promise of gold, but more like the fantasy of gold, the fairy dream that the gold is there, at the end of the rainbow, and will continue to be there forever - provided, naturally, that you don't go and look.

This is known as Finance.

Even knowing that of course this story has a happy ending, Pratchett manages to keep the tension high and the humor bubbling all the way to the climax, and while Lipwig does benefit from quite a lot of luck, at no point does a deux ex machina get pulled out of the author's ass; everything his protagonist does is genuinely clever, albeit frequently desperate.

Going Postal was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2005, a worthy nomination for a book that was just the latest installment in a venerable series. I still don't feel impelled to go out and read every other Discworld novel out there, but I'm pretty confident that any one that I stumble across, I'll probably enjoy.

There was a 2010 movie adaptation, but sadly, it doesn't appear to be available to us Yanks yet. :(

Verdict: Don't worry about it being the bajillionth book in a series; Going Postal works just fine as a stand-alone novel. If you're in the mood for something light and fun with a stand-up-and-cheer ending, this book delivers more bang for the buck than it has any right to. Terry Pratchett is a go-to author for books that don't require a whole lot of intellectual engagement but aren't stupid, and are guaranteed to cheer you up.
Tags: books, fantasy, reviews

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