December 7, 2009


by Terry Pratchett
416 pages, HarperTorch

Review by Kate Kasserman

It isn’t that I get tetchy and obstructionist, although I do. I don’t really know, actually, why it’s taken me so long to read Terry Pratchett, despite the frequent pokes (sometimes presented as a cheerful recommendation, sometimes intoned with the Glazed Eyes of the Saved) I’ve had insisting that I really, really ought to do so.

Anyway, I finally remembered my many-years-delayed duty while wandering through the bookstore, and looked him up. YE GODS, there were about seven trillion books under Pratchett. I almost gave up right there. I am easily confused! But I flipped over a few random samples, and upon discovering the comforting phrase “AN ESPECIALLY FINE ENTRY POINT TO THE SERIES” on the back cover of Going Postal, I grabbed it. And I must admit – having finally made up my mind to act, I was very, very curious. Seriously, a LOT of people love this guy. They say he is fun. And I like fun!

I have now determined: yes, it is fun. There, settled!

So anyway, to get a bit ahead of myself, I am going to read more of his work – and when I do so, I will come up with and tell y’all what I suspect will be a better recommendation for AN ESPECIALLY FINE ENTRY POINT TO THE SERIES; Going Postal is plenty entertaining (and obviously sold me on Pratchett as an author) – but I couldn’t help shaking the sense that this is nevertheless not necessarily the book where he was at the top of his form.

The rough outline of the story is thus. Moist von Lipwig, charming peripatetic con-man, has finally been caught – well, and he gets hanged, too, but not quite to death – and is given one last chance to make good: Lord Vetinari, the absolutist ruler of the city of Ankh-Morpork, needs a postmaster, and has decided that von Lipwig is the man for the job. Vetinari can’t get someone respectable for the task…nor really someone non-disposable, because the post office has been out of operation for several decades, is hopelessly superseded by the technology of “clacks” (a sort of semaphore system), and also somehow manages to kill everyone who’s assigned to run it.

Of course von Lipwig tries to get away instanter, but a golem watchdog straightens him out right quick on that score (I am loving the golems massively in this book, BTW); and then the questions become: can our poor thoroughly trapped von Lipwig make the post office work; why does Vetinari want this very extra dead institution to come back; and will von Lipwig, along the way, redeem himself and go straight.

But, you see, the plot isn’t really the interesting part. It doesn’t hold any meaningful surprises – not in its main thrust, anyway. What is deliciously fun here is the sheer amount of raw invention and the tangents (pin collecting – secret societies – academia-style jostlings with our wonkish magic-masters – I could go on pretty much FOREVER on this score!), and the loving attention paid to both – and particularly the wry outlook. Sometimes it is funny (although not really the apoplexy-and-incontinence-inducing sort of hilarity that I’d been led to expect – maybe that’s the case in other books in the series – but consistently dry chuckle-worthy), and often it is rather melancholic.

The reason I suspect that this is not Pratchett’s best work is that he can be so very deft with the amusing and pointed characterizations (even within the scope of caricature, which is NOT an easy trick) – and yet the villain of the piece doesn’t add up to being more than a “profits über alles” corporate robber baron type (who runs the clacks operation, having pulled some sharp tricks to steal it from its techno-geek inventor). Sure, there are some funny lines about and from Reacher Gilt. Here’s an example where Gilt makes a wee request of his management team, the first time said lesser monsters realize that they may be in a smidge over their heads:

He surveyed the faces of men who now knew that they were riding a tiger. It had been a good ride up until a week ago. It wasn’t a case of not being able to get off. They could get off. That was not the problem. The problem was that the tiger knew where they lived.

And yet – the “predatory corporate criminal” bad guy is a stock type, and while Gilt is useful as someone for von Lipwig to compare himself against (von Lipwig is naughty, but he is not really bad, and it is *thisclose* to past time for him to recognize and deal with the difference), there is something a little flat about Gilt being quite so thoroughly evil in quite such familiar ways.

If I were forced to choose between a good ride and a memorable destination, I’d take the good ride. Going Postal certainly delivers that – and it does it well enough that I think Pratchett is probably capable of serving up both ride and destination in some of his other books. This one’s still well worth the time.

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