Genuinely curious as to how you decide to grace your readers with a protagonist named “Moist” like that’s no big deal. I’m sorry, Moist, I’d change my name too. (I did, in fact, and my name was considerably less embarrassing.)
The first prologue details flotillas of the dead, sailing the underwater seas in sunken ships. The second discusses a disease clacksmen get, causing them to step off their towers and fall to their deaths. A linesman is checking one tower’s shutters, and his line is suddenly cut, causing a fatal drop. In Ankh-Morpork, conman Moist von Lipwig (who’s given the name of Alfred Spangler to his executioners) is about the be hanged. He believes he will somehow get out of his hanging, and is very displeased when this does not turn out to be the case. He then wakes is Lord Vetinari’s office—the Patrician, of course, knows who he actually is and has a proposition for him: He can either take on the position of the Ankh-Morpork Postmaster General, or he can leave and never hear from Vetinari again. Moist finds that leaving would lead to a steep and deadly drop below, so he signs the agreement… and promptly skips town. He’s caught up by his parole officer, a golem named Mr. Pump, and taken back to Ankh-Morpork. Vetinari explains that Mr. Pump can follow him anywhere and never sleeps, so it’s best not to attempt escape again. Mr. Pump will pretend to be Moist’s bodyguard to explain why he’s always present.
Moist is taken to the Post Office and meets his team: Junior Postman Tolliver Groat, Apprentice Postman Stanley Howley, and Tiddles the ancient cat. Groat is also ancient (and keen on creating his own natural remedies for everything rather than using doctors and medicine), but has never been promoted because no one was around long enough to do so. He is also the only person who know about the history of the post office and how things used to work. Stanley is an odd fellow who knows everything about pins (he edits a magazine about them). Moist finds that the pigeon guano heaps in the lobby are actually covering up heaps of mail. In fact, the entire building is full of mail (everywhere except the basement, where it’s damp). Groat explains how things spiraled this way, but Moist gets the sense that he’s not offering the whole story. He goes to sleep in his apartment in the Post Office… which is also full of undelivered mail. Groat and Stanley keep up the post office Regulations (namely filling inkwells and reading out the rules), and talk of how there are voices in the walls that were responsible for the death of the last Postmaster General.
Moist wakes up and decides that he needs a haircut and a toothbrush and some clothes, so he heads out. He also goes to a specialty pin store with plans on how he’ll handle Groat and Stanley. Then he delivers a letter (forty years late) that he found in his room the night previous. Groat goes to the roof to collect the rent on the pigeon loft, which he started letting out when the city stopped paying them. The trio who rent it are “pigeon fanciers” of some sort that Groat can’t figure out. Moist heads to the Golem Trust to figure out how to handle Mr. Pump and meets Adora Belle Dearheart, who gives him a great deal of information on golems (and distracts Moist because he finds her incredibly attractive). She asks why he’s at the post office and he tells her that he’s the new Postmaster General, which she finds concerning considering what happened to the last one. Vetinari has a meeting with the men involved in the Grand Trunk company: They have made the clacks into a monopoly, and its service is degrading while prices rise. A clacks operator has just died, as well: Mr. Dearheart. Reacher Gilt tells Vetinari this is none of his business; he, in turn, informs them that he’s reopening the Post Office. Vetinari asks Drumknott to put one of their more obvious clerks on Mr. Horsefly, one of the more nervous in the group, to scare him.
Moist goes off at Groat and Stanley for not telling him what happened to the previous Postmasters, and learns that the last one died in a room that is permanently locked—he won’t have the key for it on his big ring of building keys. He gives Stanley the fancy pin and takes Mr. Pump and Groat out to a storefront that clearly stole the letters for their signage from the Post Office front. Moist has a word with the owner, and they get their letters back, plus money to hire a crew to get them back up on their building. They’re then spotted by the man who Moist delivered the letter to—he went to find the woman he’d proposed to and never heard from forty years back. Both of their spouses are dead and they mean to get married; he wants Moist as a guest of honor at their wedding. Moist gives Groat a probationary promotion and tries to find out what else is going on at the Post Office, but gets no useful response. Mr. Pump tells Moist that his way of life does actually hurt people, and that the golem thinks it’s unfortunate that he won’t put his skills to better use. In the clacks towers (which are largely staffed by kids), a girl named Princess gets a message that’s just John Dearheart’s name with the code to send it on, unendingly. She learns this is a way of keeping the dead man’s name alive.
If you love a conman, it’s hard not to love Moist straight from jump. It’s also hard not to love Vetinari for so expertly pinning Moist down between the rock and hard place of this job and watching how quickly Moist takes to the gig, even when he’s foundering under the weight of everything he doesn’t know.
What he does know is my favorite rule of the confidence game, being that you can fool folks more easily by acting like you belong somewhere. Behave as though no one should stop you and they likely won’t; make people comfortable and you’re in even better shape. However, it does help that many of the people we’re watching Moist manipulate are some shade of unhinged—you’re less likely to be bothered over him leveraging Stanley’s pin obsession or Groat’s hunger for promotion because they’re both such odd ducks, who are so over-the-top that what Moist is doing to them feels like small beans by comparison to what they’re doing to themselves. Where it might bug the reader, say for folks like Mr. Pump, is immediately dispersed because the golem has his number and isn’t fooled.
Of course, there’s also the Reacher Gilt of it all to consider.
It’s… look, Pratchett died a year before the 2016 presidential election in the States, and that’s still heartbreaking for dozens of reasons. One of the more selfish ones for my part is that we were never able to ask his thoughts about Donald Trump actually managing what Gilt is attempting against Vetinari in this book. Because it’s… freaking real-world wizardry. He could string the pieces together, he sensed the arc that was coming.
Of course, we know it won’t work in his version. Because in so many ways, the Discworld is a more tender version of the world we’ve got. Sure, it’s full up of the same horrible acts, ignorances, inconveniences, and traumas. But while Havelock Vetinari is a tyrant, he’s not an amoral megalomaniac bent on power for nothing but the sake of power. The City Watch is capable of going too far, but most days, Sam Vimes reins it in. Granny Weatherwax won’t let anyone mess you about (unless it’s her doing it, and saving the lives of you and your family in the process). And when you shuffle off the coil, Death might be there to greet you, and he’ll talk to you about cats or make a terrible dad joke.
Because the vantage point we have on this world is a little safer, a little kinder, Reacher Gilt isn’t going to win. Business for the sake of nothing but greed will not triumph. And a conman who is doing small damages—but damages nevertheless—toward the general population will learn that there are better ways of spending his time. But only because we’re here. In the real world, we got something far worse.
This book is going to be tough in places this time around, is what I’m saying.
Asides and little thoughts:
- Oh damn, I didn’t read these in order the first time, I didn’t realize Pratchett turned right around from the child’s balloon metaphor in A Hat Full of Sky and then used it about Moist when he’s about to be hanged, sir, you bastard.
- “Mr. Pump was buying his freedom by seriously limiting the freedom of Moist. A man could get quite upset about that. Surely that wasn’t how freedom was supposed to work?” Ha. Haha. Ahhahaahhaha, it’s fine, it’s all FINE, it’s not exactly how it works at ALL.
- Of course, there’s a footnote in this one seemingly designed to address how Pratchett often uses obesity to denote moral decay, but the examples used in the footnote—being other snap judgments you might make about someone who appears to be a burglar or a judge—don’t really stack in this argument. Namely because the appearances of these people as he’s described them are actually designed to denote what they’re doing. Being fat is not a costume or a uniform. Come on.
- While I hate it, it is clever (and awful, ugh) watching Gilt use the exact same argument for their business model as Vetinari uses on Moist. (Being that you always have a choice, even when the choice is basically nothing at all.) Perils of being a small-t tyrant, I suppose.
- Groat is the type who believes that “natural” things are automatically better for the body, and the narrative is quick to point out that this is not, in fact, how things work. While I’m not remotely advocating for folks to medicate thoughtlessly, it’s so on-point that one of Groat’s poultices is straight-up arsenic, and he thinks nothing of it. Natural stuff can be plenty harmful—you can OD on vitamins, for pete’s sake, it’s not even that hard to do depending on the type.
The man going to be hanged had been named Moist von Lipwig by doting if unwise parents, but he was not going to embarrass the name, insofar as that was still possible, by being hung under it.
Steal five dollars and you were a petty thief. Steal thousands of dollars and you were either a government or a hero.
Moist saw that it had a beard of the short, bristled type, which suggested that its owner had been interrupted halfway through eating a hedgehog.
His right side stood considerably more to attention than his left side, and, as a result of this, he was standing like a banana.
What kind of man would put a known criminal in charge of a major branch of government? Apart from, say, the average voter.
A thinking tyrant, it seemed to Vetinari, had a much harder job than a ruler raised to power by some idiot vote-yourself-rich system like democracy. At least he could tell the people he was their fault.
Moist’s mouth had dropped open. It shut. It opened again. It shut again. You can never find repartee when you need it.
Next week we’ll read Chapters 5-7!