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Thud! by Terry PratchettFour stars
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Terry Pratchett's thirtieth — depending on how you count, really — Discworld adventure is one of the series' most ambitious. Interestingly, it's not really the most consistently funny. The comedy has a spread-out feel, and a handful of the gags are even sitcom-weak. (Werewolves having bad hair days, and all that.) But Thud! has one of Pratchett's most satisfying and complex stories, and it shows the bestselling funnyman, after thirty books, is not only not running on fumes but fully gassed up and ready to steer his saga off in some rather brave directions.

The theme here is racial prejudice. Once again Pratchett shows an endlessly improving skill at taking a premise that could all too easily inspire obvious melodramatics and greeting-card sentiment, instead using it to anchor a story that is mystery, satire, epic history and adventure all rolled into one. Ankh-Morpork has been plagued for years by troll-on-dwarf violence, a problem that has only been exacerbated by the increase in the populations of both species since Lord Vetinari has run things. To Duke Samuel Vimes, Commander of the City Watch, what has always been a headache looks about to spill over into outright warfare. With the annual Koom Valley Day approaching, it's been bad enough that a radical dwarf leader by the name of Hamcrusher has been agitating for open violence. But...

When Hamcrusher is murdered, evidently at the hands of a troll (and how could one have gotten into the dwarfs' tunnels under the city in the first place?), all hell seems on the verge of breaking loose. With more than a little racial tension percolating within the Watch itself — Vimes has recently been obliged to take on a new vampiress constable, which could mean trouble with one of his werewolf sergeants — Vimes finds himself with a bewildering murder to solve and a political timebomb to defuse. Things only look poised to get worse when alarming mystical runes, specifically the sign of the Summoning Dark, appear in the dwarf tunnels, causing near-panic. The murder itself looks to be a frame-up job — the dropped troll-club an obvious plant — but how to prove it? Who would deliberately try to machinate warfare between the trolls and dwarfs? And what does this all have to do with a gigantic painting of the original Koom Valley battle — the event both races use to justify their mutual enmity — stolen from a museum?

Pratchett knows his way around a mystery. He luxuriates in building layer upon layer, introducing new clues and players to tighten the suspense, all the while letting the revelations emerge naturally at the appropriate time in the narrative. And while I mentioned that Thud! was not quite the laugh-a-minute festival of goofity many earlier volumes have been, the comedy is, as always, firing on all cylinders when it's in play. Pratchett indulges his usual delightful conceit of making the story's most pitiful characters — the framed troll, Brick; Tawneee, a dimwitted exotic dancer dating the least likely of the Watchmen — likable by making their scenes some of the funniest, but in a way that never portrays them as an easy subject of mean-spirited mockery. There are also some rib-tickling bits between the werewolf Sergeant Angua and the new vampire constable Sally. And yet, the funniest scenes of all feature Vimes, particularly when he has to deal with the Ankh-Morpork equivalent of an annoying PDA (which has an iHUM musical feature that's got to be the book's best gag).

One can all too easily see the real-world inspirations for Pratchett's themes in Thud! England has as bleak a history of racial discord as America. But one can also see that Pratchett has been a keen observer of nearby Ireland's Catholic/Protestant violence. While that isn't a race conflict, the ideological underpinnings of the violence bear a lot of resemblance to the manner in which Pratchett shows the hatred between later generations of dwarfs and trolls, always kept at a steady simmer by politics. That conflict, as well as the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian strife in the mideast, are the two real-world situations that will most readily leap to readers' minds when they read Thud! While the book's ending may not ever come to pass in our world, it's a more than appropriate ending for this story (especially in that it understands the truth that nothing like this can ever be solved overnight, or even necessarily for good), and probably one of the series' most satisfying endings since Small Gods.

Sam Vimes, already a frequent protagonist and fan-favorite hero, really comes into his own here. Stern, disciplinarian Commander of the Watch on the one hand; gently henpecked husband and doting father on the other, whose nightly ritual of reading his son a bedtime story simply may not be interrupted or pre-empted for anything. But with Vimes' hard-nosed preference for solid, old-fashioned police work over the unpredictability of magic, his dedication to keeping the peace never wavers. Thud! is the sound of many things. The blow of a fist or a club, or sometimes, simply the sound of the other shoe dropping. When the latter happens in Ankh-Morpork — starting with a deceptively simple murder, and developing into a far-reaching conspiracy involving a legendary battle and dark, mystical forces that seek to perpetuate ancient, atavistic hatreds to their own ends — you can get a good night's sleep knowing that Samuel Vimes is on the job. Everyone knows he's as straight as an arrow, even if he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

(Note: The silly children's book Where's My Cow?, that Vimes dutifully reads to his son every night, has also been released.)