Monday, January 15, 2007

Book Review: Going Postal

This is the second book I've read in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series and, like Carpe Jugulum, it's a stand-alone story.

Alfred Spangler is a con artist who has been caught, tried, and convicted. He is duly hung. When he wakes up, however, he is not in Heaven nor in Hell, but in the office of Lord Havelock Vetinari, despot and tyrant of the country of Ankh-Morpork. And Lord Vetinari knows Alfred's real name: Moist von Lipwig. Turns out Mr. von Lipwig has been hung, quite literally, within an inch of his life.

Lord Vetinari has a proposal for Moist: he can become the Postmaster of Ankh-Morpork or he can walk out the door. The door, Moist discovers, leads to a room where the floor is several hundred feet below the one where he is currently standing. Moist decides to take the Postmaster job.

What Moist doesn't know is that the mail hasn't been sent in about 20 years. Mail and packages fill the rooms of the Post Office because Junior Postman Groat won't allow any mail to be discarded. Mr. Groat and his assistant, Stanley, live in what once was the locker room of the Post Office. Mr. Groat remembers the glory days of post office, when mail was moved efficiently, chandeliers hung from the ceilings, and a great golden statue of a winged god dominated the lobby. Mr. Groat doesn't think Moist will have any better luck restoring the Postal Service than his predecessors did--four of them in the last five months.

When faced with this Augean task, Moist does what any reasonable person would do--he runs away. He uses a cache of cash, stored under another alias, buys a horse and is off. Several horse trades later, and Moist is well outside the city limits of Ankh-Morpork. That night, however, is his rudely awaken by a golem by the name of Mr. Pump. Seems golems don't sleep, don't eat, and don't give up. He carries Moist and the horse back to Ankh-Morpork and Moist resigns himself to being Postmaster and dealing with the mess.

Meanwhile, there are the "clackers"--basically semaphore towers that send messages, either by visual signals or lights, across town or across countries. What took days or weeks to send by post can be sent in hours. The clackers were an invention of some clever engineers who were not particularly savvy businessmen. After a few years, the engineers found themselves eased out of their business and the savvy businessmen took over. The businessmen enjoy their monopoly on communication, along with the high rates they charge and the fact that the clackers are often out of commission. After all, what alternative does the populace have--the Postal Service?

The smarter among them realize that, yes, Lord Vetinari is serious about reinstating the Postal Service. And they realize that this challenge cannot go unanswered. And someone is sabotaging their signalling equipment. But who? And why?

Moist, who now understands the persistence of golems, goes off to hire some and meets Miss Dearheart. He cannot charm her and that intrigues him. Moist also discovers that the Post Office is not always what it seems to be--or when. (This is Discworld, after all.)

Does Moist use his talents for good instead of evil? Do the evil business owners of the Grand Trunk Clacker get their comeuppance? Has Lord Vetinari met his equal in Mr. Gilt? Does Moist ever date Miss Dearheart?

Read the book and find out.

Warning: Terry Pratchett is British and this book is full of British humor. What that means is there is usually quite a set-up to his jokes. If you laugh out loud, you'll have a difficult time explaining why to those around you.

I enjoyed this book more that Carpe Jugulum, perhaps because I was more familiar with Discworld or perhaps because this story was really more about Moist von Litwig and I came to like him. A lot. While there are supernatural elements in the story, Going Postal is really more about one man and how he is able to make a difference.

On the March Hare scale: 4 out 5 Golden Bookmarks