Thud, like The Last Jedi, was much better than it had any right to be: deep into the series, with the previous outing in need of tightening up a bit (Star Wars: The Third Death Star needed much more than that, but nevermind). Thud also embodies a particular hazard of a long-running series: an item that everyone knows about but nobody saw fit to mention for thirty-two books. It draws its title from a board game that has supposedly been around Ankh-Morpork for many years, but was shown for the first time in Going Postal, the immediately preceding volume. I was skeptical of the multiplying subplots in Thud, whether there would be anything beyond comic relief in more than one of them.
The game is an abstracted recreation of the ancient battle of Koom Valley (the name plays on the Welsh loan word “cwm,” so that the name is “Valley Valley”) where dwarfs and trolls fought, each side maintaining that the other had lain in ambush. This tribal enmity has passed down through the generations, and any time that dwarfs and trolls come to blows a little bit of the spirit of Koom Valley is there.
Intimations of that spirit are filling Ankh-Morpork as Thud opens, with an anniversary coming up. “Saturday was Koom Valley Day and Ankh-Morpork was full of trolls and dwarfs, and you know what? The further dwarfs and trolls got from the mountains the more that bloody, bloody Koom Valley mattered. The parades were okay; the Watch had got good at keeping them apart, and anyway they were in the morning when everyone was still mostly sober. But when the dwarf bars and the troll bars emptied out in the evening, hell went for a stroll with its sleeves rolled up:” (p. 36) There’s diaspora politics, there’s a bit of Northern Ireland, and there’s the effect of alcohol on mobs, all in one tight paragraph.
Pratchett tells most of Thud from the point of view of Sam Vimes, commander of the Night Watch, now advanced to a Duke and a force in the city in his own right. In Going Postal and Monstrous Regiment, readers saw how much power has accrued to Vimes in the years and books since he first appeared as the occasionally sober commander of four watchmen. Vimes exercises his power with bedrock decency, but readers also see how much justice and mercy depend on the characters of the individuals dispensing them. In someone else’s hands, Vimes’ authority would be worrisome. Thud shows how hard Vimes has to work to keep that decency’s foundation from cracking. The Watch is accepting its first recruit who is a vampire. Vimes has led the way in opening the Watch to all of the different kinds of people who live (sometimes using the term loosely) in Ankh-Morpork: dwarfs, trolls, zombies, gnomes, gargoyles and more. By extension, he is helping to make the city as a whole more open to equality among its inhabitants. Neither Watch nor city are perfect on that score. There is a werewolf member of the Watch, but her changeable nature is not officially acknowledged. To date, there has never been a vampire in the Watch. Vimes is personally unsettled by the possibility, but Lord Vetinari, the city’s ruling Patrician, persuades him to set aside his personal misgivings in favor of consistent policy.
As the Watch has influenced the city, so the city influences the Watch. Although Vimes insists that each person is a member of the Watch first, communal tensions between dwarfs and trolls are starting to take their toll. Some of each have set down their badges and left the Watch. It has also grown enough as an institution that Vimes no longer has a personal connection with each member. All aspects of the situation are made worse when a dwarf firebrand is murdered and a troll club found nearby. Koom Valley is about to come to Ankh-Morpork.