Although many American readers don't realize this, Terry Pratchett is a genuine cultural phenomenon in his native England. His comic fantasy novels most of which are set on his signature planet of Discworld regularly dominate British bestseller lists, and estimates indicate that Pratchett accounts for fully 1 percent of all annual fiction sales in the United Kingdom. Thus far, Pratchett's American sales have been less spectacular, but that situation could change and quickly. HarperCollins has recently launched an aggressive campaign to raise Pratchett's profile on this side of the Atlantic. The centerpiece of that campaign is his engaging, extremely funny new novel, The Fifth Elephant.
The Fifth Elephant is the 24th Discworld novel in 16 years. Discworld, for those new to the series, is a flat, disc-shaped planet on which both magic and lunacy flourish. According to legend, it is carried through space on the backs of four gargantuan elephants, who are carried, in turn, by a giant turtle named Great A'tuin. (There is also, as the title implies, a fifth elephant, whose reputed role in the creation of Discworld is explained in detail within these pages.) Discworld comprises four continents, the largest of which the (Unnamed) Continent is the site of the planet's principal city, the unruly metropolis of Ankh-Morpork. On Discworld, human beings coexist, though not always peacefully, with a varied, vividly described assortment of "ethnic minorities," among them imps, trolls, gnomes, zombies, gargoyles,dwarves,werewolves, and vampires. The latter three species are prominently featured in Pratchett's latest.
As a general rule, the Discworld novels fall into four distinct categories. Several, such as The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, recount the exploits of the cowardly, incompetent wizard Rincewind. Others (Wyrd Sisters, Equal Rites) focus on Granny Weatherwax and her coven of witches. Other novels, such as Mort and Reaper Man, feature the anthropomorphic figure of Death, a tall, skeletal figure who always speaks in capital letters and makes frequent guest appearances throughout the series. The fourth subdivision, whose earlier titles include Feet of Clay and Men at Arms, centers on Samuel Vimes, irascible commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. The Fifth Elephant is the latest Vimes adventure, and one of the best.
In this one, Vimes is sent on a delicate diplomatic mission to Uberwald, a wild region roughly analogous to the balkanized societies of Eastern Europe. It is also Discworld's primary source of gold, iron and, yes, fat. (Fat mines, believe it or not, are a thriving industry in Uberwald.) Vimes is assigned to represent Ankh-Morpork at the coronation of the newly chosen Low King of the dwarves. What should be a straightforward mission is complicated immensely by a number of factors: internal strife within the dwarf community, the murder of an Ankh-Morpork condom manufacturer, the theft of a talismanic symbol of dwarf royalty called the Throne of Scone, the sporadic intervention of a teetotaling vampire named Lady Margolotta, and the violent maneuverings of a deranged werewolf named Wolfgang, who has his own agenda and his own reasons for encouraging dissension among the Uberwald dwarves. Before the story's many complications resolve themselves (and it would spoil the novel to reveal those complications in too much detail), Vimes finds himself arrested for attempted regicide and is forced to flee across Pratchett's version of the frozen Russian steppes, with a howling pack of werewolves in hot pursuit. Only on Discworld could diplomacy result in such an epic catalog of disasters.
In the course of this convoluted tale, Pratchett resurrects a gallery of familiar Discworld inhabitants, including Lord Havelock Vetinari, the patrician ruler of Ankh-Morpork; Sergeant Angua, a werewolf/policewoman with a complicated personal history; Death, who always makes an appearance at inopportune moments; the aristocratic and newly pregnant Lady Sybil Vimes; the dead but ambulatory Constable Shoe; and Gaspode, Discworld's only talking dog. With characteristic assurance, Pratchett drives his large, eccentric cast through an equally eccentric narrative that manages, remarkably, to function successfully as both satire and adventure story. The Fifth Elephant, like the best of Pratchett's fiction, is a comedy with teeth, a novel in which the sublime alternates with the ridiculous, in which action and farce are skillfully integrated into a seamless narrative whole.
Readers new to Pratchett's fiction can safely jump in anywhere, and The Fifth Elephant makes as effective an entry point as any. Despite their wealth of internal references and their endless interconnections, the Discworld novels are independent creations, and each one can be read and enjoyed without prior knowledge of the other 23. The series as a whole is addictive, inventive, and consistently funny, and it is recommended, without reservation, to anyone with a taste for imaginative fiction infused and enlivened by a first-rate comic sensibility.