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Night Watch is considered to be the most somber book in the Discworld series, and for good reason. It has a much darker tone than the others and has fewer obvious jokes. Yet I would argue that despite this, or maybe because of this, it is Pratchett's greatest work.
Pratchett has parodied pretty much every fantasy pastiche in existence, so it was only inevitable that he would eventually tackle the idea of time travel (which he did one book earlier in Thief of Time, but in a different manner). Sam Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork Watch, is sent back 30 years into the past with the serial killer he was trying to apprehend, due to a freak magical accident. Carcer, the killer manages to escape Vimes' grasp and ends up murdering Sergeant John Keel, the man who taught Vimes everything he knows. It's now up to Vimes to mentor his younger self and make sure that he grows up to be the man he is in the future, while trying to subdue Carcer and bring him to justice. But that's not his only goal; he's been plunged into the middle of a revolution, and it seems that it's up to him to prevent civil war. Yet Vimes knows how it all turns out; he lived it, after all. And he knows that Sergeant John Keel died in these riots, trying to protect freedom. Can Sam Vimes fight fate, or is history doomed to repeat itself?
At first glance, it seems like a typical time travel plot; man goes back in time and needs to preserve the events of the past in order to save the future. But it's so much more than that. It's a homage to Les Miserables, complete with a corrupt Valjean, a heroic Javert, and a zombie Enjolras. It's a look at Ankh-Morpok's past and how one man reforms the Night Watch and creates law out of chaos. It's an insight into the nature of Man. But most of all, it's the compelling and surprisingly deep story of good versus evil, with tons of laughs, excellent characterization, and entertaining writing that will have you thinking long after you put the book down.
Pratchett is a literary genius; any of his works will show you that. But he truly shines in Night Watch, where he has the perfect blend of wit, drama, and insight that will keep you on the edge of your seat for the entire novel. Forget The Great Gatsby or Grapes of Wrath: THIS is the kind of book that should be required reading in schools.
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