Ankh-Morpork!

morpork crest the uu'

The city breathes.

Terry Pratchett once said that “I hope Ankh Morpork feels like a city that’s still there after you close the book,” and to that end he has wandered the damp alleyways of the horrible and wonderful city in over a dozen novels.

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Ankh-Morpork is sustained by an endless sacrifice of the countryside, where farmers “live their whole lives for Ankh-Morpork without ever seeing the city.” The River Ankh is so polluted that, when you throw puppies in it to drown, they walk to the side. Fortunes are made on people’s piss and shit, when a special man sees that what the city lacks is sewers, and what it needs is people to make things smell better.

DO NOT EAT IT

DO NOT EAT IT

The people of the city began as petty-minded incarnations of everything bad in human nature (as seen in Guards, Guards!, the first Ankh-Morpork book). But as Terry warmed to humanity wised up to life, it became or fonder city. There’s a place for everyone in Ankh-Morpork, the kind and the nasty, the foolish and the brave. There’s the safety of the patriarchs, and the determined presence of no-nonsense matriarchs. The city is a little bit London, a little bit New York, and totally itself. Throw magic into the mix of that sort of city and, well, anything can and does happen.

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The whole thing is presided over by the most efficient and potentially benevolent form of government: the despotism of Lord Vetinari. It’s kind of like if everyone in Game of Thrones gave up the power struggles and just let someone like Varys, Littlefinger, or Tywin Lannister get on with ruling a city. Vetinari is a pragmatic liberal (when it suits him), who has thrown open the doors of the city to anyone wishing to enter. He and Ankh-Morpork are so deeply linked, it is impossible to imagine one without the other.

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In generations to come and long after contemporary readers are dead, when these novels surface on dusty library shelves in their battered, ugly sleeves, someone will pick up one of these books at random. And Ankh-Morpork will be there, with its thieves leaving receipts, its troll and werewolf watchmen (and women), its incremental gains in banking, postage, and sewage—and its people. Its horrible, nasty, drunken, amiable, kindly, suspicious, foolish, greedy, open, accepting, small-minded, pragmatic, stubborn

On Clariel And The Need To Fight

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Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books have been the story of a primal battle between chaos and order. There is “The Charter,” a force that orders the universe into bloodlines and symbols, an infinite well of power which is the basis of life. And then there is “Free Magic,” drawing its power from outside “The Charter” and interweaving that power with Death itself.

The original trilogy of Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen concerned great battles in which the forces of chaos threatened to overwhelm and destroy the forces of order. In Clariel, Garth Nix uses the trappings of the rich world he has created and its mythology to tell a very different story, one about what happens when the forces of order threaten to destroy chaos.

There is no great fight happening in Clariel. The main drama, for which people die and kill, concerns a relatively straightforward royal succession crisis. Not exactly a spirit from the beginning of time threatening to destroy the universe, as almost happened in Abhorsen. Instead of concerning themselves with the struggle to survive, people have become obsessed with demarcating their social status, concocting complicated clothing rituals and tea ceremonies in order to reaffirm the neurotic order they have conjured. Even the Charter, itself the source of all this order, has been subsumed into social categories of “employer” and “servant.”

The Abhorsens themselves are numerous—strange after the original trilogy, when the blood had been whittle down to 3 people. But they barely think of the Dead that are their birthright at all, instead creating a town full of Abhorsens and spending all their time on ritualized hunting.

There is no battle, only order, order, order, and it is a terrible world with little to fight for but desire. It produces people like Clariel: berserkers, chaos incarnate. It drives Clariel from her home, pushes her into situations she is not emotionally prepared to handle. It traps her in cages, trying to order her and resisting her efforts to remain free. There is no room for a woman like Clariel in this world, and so she retreats from it further into chaos, destroying herself in the process.

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People good and evil are duped and betrayed. Loved ones die pointless deaths. To fight, in a too-ordered system, is to itself become a problem which demands destruction to maintain the system’s integrity. But without the battle to live and love, all humanity has is its own petty obsessions, and it creates nightmares like what the title character (who only ever asked to make her own path, away from the choking order) is destined to become.

Lirael And The Paths We Choose, Or Are Chosen For

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To come of age. There are thousands of books written on the subject, of course. No matter that humanity has been completing the process quite casually for hundreds of years, we remain obsessed with it, never fully tiring, filling first our heads then our bookshelves with centuries of the story.

One of the things we face as we come of age is that we are not the people we think we are. Perhaps we want something that everyone around us has—in the case of Lirael, this is the Sight, the ability to see into the future that everyone of her blood possesses. Lirael is isolated and changed by her lack of Sight, her lack of ability to blend in among her peers, just as is every young man or woman who feels she is unalterably different. But in our differences lies our power, and just because we lack one gift does not mean we are empty.

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In Sam’s case, he lacks a rarity which everyone expects him to have: the ability to become a necromancer. It is his birthright, but he is terrified of it, physically revolted by it and unable to admit to anyone that this is the case. The fact of the matter is, he cannot be what everyone expects him to be. He can only be something else.

“Does the walker choose the path? Or the path, the walker?” It’s a repeated question in these books, but as is the case with every good enigmatic statement it contains far more depth than at first glance. It is not a bland statement of destiny, that our paths choose us and we must walk them. Because the walker is not chosen indiscriminately. And no one can be forced to walk a path that they do not choose—Sam cannot become the Abhorsen because his character is fundemntally unable to deal with the realities of Abhorsen, yet Lirael can become an Abhorsen because her character would lead her down the path anyway, even were her blood different.

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There comes a time in everyone’s life when they regret their decisions, when they seek to disown them. When they ask “why is this happening to me?” But once our feet are set on a path, we continue walking (rather than turning aside) because of who we are. Because our character has guided us to a place, and our sense of duty or longing or belief calls us onward.

The future, these books constantly empathize, is not a set thing. There are many possible futures, often dark and dangerous. There is no such thing as destiny, no matter how much it seems that we are forced into situations some higher power has thrust upon us. We choose our own paths, never able to know how hard they will be or what will await us at their endings. We are the walkers, and though the paths are long and hard, we have chosen each other.

On Sabriel And Coming To Terms With Death

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Death and its ubiquity: there are few things harder for youth to face than that simple, inescapable truth. We will all die.

There are all kinds of ways to deal with this truth. You can bargain with it, subconsciously offer a pint of your own or another’s blood in exchange for staving off the inevitable. You can run and hide, live your life and pretend there is no shadow. Or you can turn and fight. But how do you fight death, when death is itself an essential part of life?

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In Sabriel, Garth Nix brought these questions out of the metaphorical and into a concrete fictional reality. His teenage heroine is a necromancer, like her father and all of her long dead family—but a necromancer of a special kind, one who uses the weapons of death to fight the dead who have been returned to the living—“for this is not their path.”

Sabriel, though she has walked in Death (represented as a river) literally since her birth, has a great deal of difficulty coming to terms with the reality of death. She struggles both internally and externally to overcome the death of her father; she fights the temptation to bring the recently dead back to life, even bringing pet rabbits and such back out of pity. She is a warrior with a battle to fight, but in the battle she becomes closer and more akin to that same thing which she fights. Just as everyone of this world becomes more a part of it and all its corruptions, the older we become.

But at the last, the lesson of the book (for all young adult books have a lesson—perhaps all stories do, some more veiled than others) is not that death is something that must be fought. It is that death is something that must be accepted as a balance to life. Everyone must die, one day, but not necessarily today. Life must come first—the solution to death is not surrender.

One must fight, every day. Knowing that one will lose, in the end, and become what has been fought. But fighting onward, all the same, because that is what life is.

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The lesson of the teenage necromancer.

Reading One of the Great Stories

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I just finished reading The Ramayana, an Indian and Hindu epic that has spread across cultures, been read and re-read and interpreted an infinite number of times. There are legends that to read this book is to be healed of affliction.

How should I treat something like that in my mind? Do I view it merely as a story, with bits that drag and bits that sing and a ridiculous number of pages? Do I frame it as a great narrative of religion and faith, the product of centuries of Indian wisdom? Does the feminist in my rise and fume at Sita, the eternal reactor who always takes anything her husband throws at her, and believes him when he says he didn’t really mean it? Do I take is as the ancient Indian manual of the good life, see it as a sort of instruction manual for how men and women and kings should behave?

I enjoyed reading it. That’s all I know how to give.