Death’s adoptive granddaughter. A perfectionist clockmaker. An unassuming monk. An uncannily talented novice, who’s prone to stealing things. These four form the primary cast of Thief of Time, the twenty-sixth Discworld novel.
The conceit of the story is that if time is ever measured with perfect accuracy, it is captured, and stops. Completely. AFTER ONE O’CLOCK NEXT WEDNESDAY THERE IS NOTHING. JUST ONE O’CLOCK NEXT WEDNESDAY, FOR EVER AND EVER. (p. 105)
Pratchett is, however, in no particular hurry to get to the main action of the plot. Time, like light, runs a bit differently on the Disc than it does in more familiar parts of the universe. Many of the characters in this book have even looser relationships with time than the average denizen of the Disc, so Pratchett’s jumping about at the beginning prepares readers for the messing about that will continue through the rest of the book. True, he shows within the first dozen pages of narrative who has it in for all of the universe, and he hints at what their method might be, but then appears to bounce randomly through several periods of Nanny Ogg’s life and then briefly stop in during a conversation between the clockmaker and an exacting client before settling firmly on a tangent involving the granddaughter’s current occupation.
The other teachers in the school were known as Stephanie and Joan and so on, but to her lass she was very strictly Miss Susan. “Strict,” in fact, was a word that seemed to cover everything about Miss Susan and, in the classroom, she insisted on the Miss the way that a king insists upon Your Majesty, and for pretty much the same reason.
Miss Susan wore black, which the headmistress disapproved of but could do nothing about because black was, well, a respectable colour. She was young, but with an indefinable air of age about her. She wore her hair, which was blond-white with one black streak, in a tight bun. The headmistress disapproved of that, too — it suggested an Archaic Image of Teaching, she said, with the assurance of someone who could pronounce a capital letter. But she didn’t ever disapprove of the way Miss Susan moved, because Miss Susan moved like a tiger.
It was in fact always very hard to disapprove of Miss Susan in her presence, because if you did she gave you a Look. It was not in any way a threatening Look. It was cool and calm. You just didn’t want to see it again.
The Look worked in the classroom, too. Take homework, another Archaic Practice the headmistress was ineffectually Against. No dog ever ate the homework of one of Miss Susan’s students, because there was something about Miss Susan that went home with them; instead the dog brought them a pen and watched imploringly while they finished it. Contrary to the headmistress’s instructions, Miss Susan did not let the children do what they liked. She let them do what she liked. It had turned out to be a lot more interesting for everyone. (pp. 32–33)
Death’s granddaughter makes for an interesting elementary school teacher.
News about Miss Susan had got around. Worried parents who’d turned to Learning Through Play because they despaired of their offspring ever Learning By Paying Attention to What Anyone Said were finding them coming home a little quieter, a little more thoughtful and with a pile of homework which, amazingly, they did without prompting and even with the dog helping them. And they came home with stories about Miss Susan.
Miss Susan spoke all languages. Miss Susan knew everything about everything. Miss Susan had wonderful ideas for school trips …
… and that was particularly puzzling, because as far as Madam Frout [the headmistress] knew, none had been officially organized. There was invariably a busy silence from Miss Susan’s classroom when she went past. This annoyed her. It harked back to the bad old days when children were Regimented in classrooms that were no better than Torture Chambers for Little Minds. But other teachers said there were noises. Sometimes there was the faint sound of waves, or a jungle. Just once, Madam Frout could have sworn, if she was the sort to swear, that as she passed there was a full-scale battle going on. This had often been the case with Learning Through Play, but this time the addition of trumpets, the swish of arrows and the screams of the fallen seemed to be going too far. She’d thrown open the door and felt something hiss through the air above her head. Miss Susan had been sitting on a stool, reading from a book, with the class cross-legged in a quiet and fascinated semicircle around her. It was the sort of old-fashioned image Madam Frout hated, as if the children were Supplicants around some sort of Altar of Knowledge.
No-one had said anything. All the watching children, and Miss Susan, made it clear in polite silence that they were waiting for her to go away.
She’d flounced back into the corridor and the door had clicked shut behind her. Then she noticed the long, crude arrow that was still vibrating in the opposite wall. (pp. 87–88)
The headmistress decides to gain the upper hand by transferring a particular boy into Miss Susan’s class.
If children were weapons, Jason would have been banned by international treaty. Jason had doting parent and an attention span of minus several second, except when it came to inventive cruelty to small furry animals, when he could be quite patient. Jason kicked, punched, bit and spat. His artwork had even frightened the life out of Miss Smith, who could generally find something nice to say about any child. He was definitely a boy with special needs. In the view of the staffroom, these began with an exorcism.
Madam Frout had stooped to listening at the keyhole. She had heard Jason’s first tantrum of the day, and then silence. She couldn’t quite make out what Miss Susan said next.
When she found an excuse to venture into the classroom half an hour later, Jason was helping two little girls to make a cardboard rabbit.
Later his parents said they were amazed at the change, although apparently now he would only go to sleep with the light on. (pp. 88–89)
Meanwhile in another strand of the plot, Lobsang Ludd (whose first name I constantly read as Losbang, a close approximation to German “Los! Bang!” which translates roughly as “Go! Bang!”) is learning how to be a Monk of Time, although from the very beginning he has abilities that surprise the masters of the high hidden valley where the monks spin their Procrastinators, reeling and unreeling bits of time. In Ankh-Morpork, a clockmaker named Jeremy receives an unusual commission, followed by an eager Igor from Uberwald to assist in his work.
In most of the other Discworld books, Pratchett marks a transition between scenes with just blank lines. (Life does not have chapters, he said, and so neither do his books.) In Thief of Time, these breaks each have an italic Tick to indicate precisely what is slipping away from the characters, whether they realize it or not.
The precious moments before one o’clock next Wednesday keep running away from all of the characters, except for the clockmaker, who feels he is getting closer and closer to perfection. It is, tensely and literally, a race against time.
One of the things that I liked most about The Fifth Elephant is that Pratchett lets a farce with Sergeant Colon in a position of authority simply keep running. He is in over his head, and the author takes that discomfort and keeps going. And going. Well beyond the point where a well-meaning writer would have given his poor character a break and let him return to his normal situation. Likewise in Thief of Time, Pratchett comes right up to one of the conventions of a thrilling tale of adventure and then just goes smashing through it. The story is set up to look as if something important will happen in a particular way, as it usually does in fantastic stories. And then it doesn’t. And Pratchett keeps going. The story finishes in that space beyond conventions, which I found very satisfying. The meandering at the beginning turns out to be integral to the whole tale, and indeed the only way that it could possibly work. Tick.