The Fifth Elephant

by Terry Pratchett

Published by Doubleday

317 pages, 1999 

Buy it online








Hyper-Reality Check

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


If you've read many of Terry Pratchett's earlier Discworld novels, you don't need a reviewer to tell you that his latest, The Fifth Elephant, is worth buying. In fact, just the mention of a fifth pachyderm will pique the curiosity of those who already know what Pratchett's first four elephants are up to. For Pratchett fans, I'll say simply that The Fifth Elephant is one of his best books yet. It's richer than last year's charming but thin Carpe Jugulum and satisfyingly similar to the exuberant Jingo (1998), a tour-de-force satire about international relations.

If you've been avoiding Pratchett's books -- put off by unfortunate labels such as "fantasy," or by his sheer ubiquity on the British book lists -- you might want to reconsider.

Pratchett, Britain's best-selling novelist, is possessed of an uncanny understanding of what makes us tick. In this regard, he has much in common with the States' Stephen King. But while King uses his gift to reveal the dark depths of individual hearts and minds, Pratchett turns his to giving us a vibrant, panoramic view of humanity. He notes the careful little dance steps that make up a decent marriage and patiently documents the escalation of petty cultural squabbles into world wars. His disarming mix of human, animal and fantasy characters is a fine device for bringing to the fore the question of what it means to be human.

Playing God to a fictitious cosmos, Pratchett follows in the footsteps of satirist Jonathan Swift, science fiction grand wizard Larry Niven and fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien. He tromps along in this company with the confident stride of someone who is in his element. And he's making good time, as well.

The Fifth Elephant is the 24th book in the Discworld series that Pratchett began in 1983 with The Colour of Magic, a story about bumbling and bureaucratic wizards at Unseen University in the vaguely medieval city-state of Ankh-Morpork.

Pratchett's Discworld is a flat landmass that rotates like a turntable on the backs of four elephants who stand atop the shell of the great turtle A'Tuin, who swims slowly through space. Where A'Tuin is headed is the topic of great debate among philosophers on the Disc. They have their own version of the Big Bang theory that involves, well, A'Tuin's search for a female turtle.

The Disc holds two continents and a scattering of islands. Most of the series' characters hail from the larger one, usually from the bustling, polluted port city of Ankh-Morpork. Beyond Ankh-Morpork rise the Ramtop Mountains, known for their powerful reserves of magic; across one branch of the Ramtop range lies Uberwald, a mining empire ruled by dwarfs and populated with trolls, vampires and werewolves. City-states in Middle-Eastern, Russian, North African and North American flavors lie along the continent's coasts. The smaller continent, which has a Chinese flavor, appears in a few of the books. Quite recently in the series, the wizards traveled through time and stumbled upon an arid "Lost Continent" occupied by large hopping mammals, beer-gulping natives and an architecturally splendiferous opera house.

Discworld's spiritual realm contains the gods of each culture, the Fates-like Auditors, and Pratchett's most intriguing character, Death. Death's base of operations is a netherworldly country estate -- complete with butler, library (you can open a book and watch a life story being written), garden (the plants are various shades of black) and a stable for his magnificent white horse, Binky.

The dwarf legend says that a fifth elephant, apparently related to the four holding up the Disc, fell through the atmosphere and landed "hard enough to split continents and raise mountains" in the vicinity of present-day Uberwald. Its bones of rock and iron and its nerves of high-conductivity gold were lodged underground where the dwarfs now conduct lucrative mining operations.

As The Fifth Elephant opens, Ankh-Morpork's Machiavellian leader, Lord Vetinari, is dispatching Sir Samuel Vimes to represent the city at the crowning of Uberwald's new dwarf king.

Vimes first appeared as Captain Sam Vimes, a dispirited cop and recovering alcoholic, in Guards! Guards! (1989), a tale of the revitalization of Ankh-Morpork's ragtag City Guard. In the course of the Discworld series, Vimes has evolved (though not without protest) into Sir Samuel, by virtue of his marriage to the blue-blooded and goodhearted Lady Sibyl.

Vimes, who will always think like a cop, figures out that Vetinari wants him in Uberwald to prevent a powerful conservative faction among the dwarfs from assassinating the new liberal, king. Uberwald's thirsty vampires and hungry werewolves are lurking in the wings, ready to take advantage of infighting among the dwarfs to seize power. Vetinari is concerned about the stability of Ankh-Morpork's trade agreements for iron and minerals, to say nothing of the high-grade fat from Uberwald's renowned Schmaltzberg deposits.

Guard Captain Carrot, Vimes' straitlaced lieutenant, observes of Uberwald:

"There are large areas controlled by feudal vampire or werewolf clans, and there are also tracts with much higher than normal background magic. It is a chaotic place, indeed, and you'd hardly think you were in the Century of the Fruitbat. It is to be hoped that things will improve, however, and Uberwald will, happily, be joining the community of nations."

Vimes and Vetinari exchange flabbergasted looks at his naiveté, and Vetinari adds dryly that "Until that joysome day Uberwald remains a mystery inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma."

It's all too much for the plainspoken Vimes:

"Let me see if I get this right," said Vimes. "Uberwald is like this big suet pudding that everyone's suddenly noticed, and now with this coronation as an excuse we've all got to rush in there with knife, fork and spoon to shovel as much on our plates as possible?"

"Your grasp of political reality is masterly, Vimes," Vetinari says, and breezily sends him on his way.

Vimes is accompanied on the carriage journey to Uberwald by Lady Sibyl and two members of the City Guard: Corporal Cheery Littlebottom, a dwarf who flouts gender-neutral dwarf convention by wearing makeup and a leather miniskirt, and Corporal Detritus, a huge troll. To Vimes' annoyance, his party is saddled with a secretary, a simpering junior diplomat from Vetinari's office. Midway through the trip, Vimes figures out that the secretary is actually a professional assassin -- but by then his homicidal aide-de-camp has already decamped into the dark, snowy woods.

No sooner does Vimes leave for Uberwald, than the Ankh-Morpork City Guard starts going to the dogs -- or at least, to the wolves. Sergeant Angua, a comely female werewolf, takes a sudden leave and vanishes. She is loping home to Uberwald in the company of Gavin, a heroic purebred wolf who has summoned her to help foil a werewolf coup planned by her vicious brother, Wolfgang. Captain Carrot resigns to follow his beloved Angua, turning over command to Sergeant Fred Colon, a character straight from Dilbert. Within days, Colon has mismanaged the Guard into a bureaucratic gridlock.

Fantasy? I think not. This is all-too-reality. It is the morning's international news and the police log, followed by a very bad day at the office. As The Fifth Elephant characters converge on Uberwald for the coronation -- and the assassination attempt -- they weave more than a dozen tales -- some silly, some brutal, some hilarious, some poignant. While a few of Pratchett's transitions are formulaic, the stories are anything but. Each one carries a jolt of surprise, a twinge of pain or a ray of illumination.

Soon after arriving in Uberwald's capital city, Bonk, Vimes is taken as a political prisoner by the wary dwarfs and charged with plotting against the dwarfs' king-elect. Predictably, Vimes plays the tough guy and attempts an impossible escape from an underground prison, trying to climb up an old mine shaft that is studded with rotten log steps that crumble under his weight.

As he clings to a log, a distinguished member of the Uberwald vampire community, Lady Margolotta, appears -- floating in mid-air -- and offers Vimes a lift out of the shaft. He refuses, suspecting that she plans to extract payment in blood. As the log breaks, and Vimes takes a bone-jarring fall to the log beneath it, Lady Margolotta hovers nearby and calmly repeats her offer.

"I know you hate vampires," she said. "It's quite usual, for your personality type. It's the... penetrative aspect. But if I vas you, right now, I'd ask myself... do I hate them with all my life?"

She held out a hand.

"Just one bite'll end all my troubles, eh?" Vimes snarled.

"Vun bite vould be vun bite too many, Sam Vimes."

The wood cracked. She grabbed his wrist.

If he'd thought about it at all, Vimes would have expected to be dangling from a vampire now. Instead, he was simply floating.

"Don't think of letting go," said Margolotta as they rose gently up the shaft.

"'One bite would be one bite too many?'" said Vimes. He recognized the mangled mantra. "You're a... a teetotaler?"

"Almost four years now."

"No blood at all?"

"Oh, yes. Animal. It's rather kinder to them than slaughter, don't you think? Of course, it makes them docile, but frankly a cow is unlikely ever to vin the Thinker of the Year avard. I'm on a vagon, Mister Vimes."

"The wagon. We call it the wagon," said Vimes weakly.

Despite Margolotta's cheery assistance, Vimes' troubles in Uberwald are not over. In fact, they've barely begun. Wolfgang and his pack of werewolves are about to challenge him to their traditional clothing-optional race through the snow -- one that usually ends with lot of blood and snarling. This pack is not on the wagon.

By this point in the book, I felt myself dashing though the snow with Vimes, toward a violent and disturbing denouement that pits Vimes, Angua, Carrot, the wolf Gavin and dozens of minor characters against the indestructible Wolfgang and his vicious followers. Like Pratchett's 1998 classic, The Hogfather, The Fifth Elephant is filled with shadows, at first flickering, then ominous. They grow longer and darker as the book -- and three of its characters -- near the end.

When I read the early Discworld books, I read each straight through in a day or two. But now I read these books slowly, one chapter at a sitting. This is rich fare, something to savor, not something to gobble or skim. Pratchett's trolls, vampires, dwarfs and werewolves -- to say nothing of his human characters -- are wonderfully, achingly familiar. You see them every day... on the news, on the street, at the office... and, probably, in the mirror. Reading The Fifth Elephant and other Discworld novels can confirm some of your suspicions, soothe some of your doubts, touch your heart and bring a smile -- though a wry one -- to your lips. | January 2000


KAREN G. ANDERSON is a contributing editor of January Magazine.