Thud! is often cited as one of the darkest Discworld books, and I’m inclined to agree. It deals with the ceaseless, centuries-old, racial tensions between the dwarfs and the trolls – and how those, for the time being, come to an end. It’s about religious extremism, and terrorism, and racism, and how all of those things interweave. Since we last saw Sam Vimes traveling back in time to deal with a rebellion (again), and trying to stop a war in Borogravia, he has not had an easy time of things. This is no exception.
As the anniversary of Koom Valley (a notable battle between dwarf and troll forces) approaches, tensions are on the rise in Ankh-Morpork, even on the Watch itself. Vimes does his best to put an end to them, but some extremist “deep dwarfs”, is stirring up anti-troll sentiment. Sure, there’s such a thing as dwarfish tradition, and dwarfish identity, and keeping those things alive. But more modern dwarfs acknowledge that you have to move with the times in order to stay alive yourself. Sound familiar?
Throughout the book, there is a recurring theme of a board game, similar to chess, acting as both a metaphor for the dwarf-troll conflict, and also as a means of uniting them. There’s even an underground league of moderate dwarf and troll players who come together to play Thud (the more colloquial name for “Hnaflbaflwhiflsnifltafl”) as friends and colleagues. These are lead by the dwarven peacemonger Grag Bashfulsson and the hidden diamond troll king Mr. Shine (trolls made entirely of diamond are destined to be kings, for their temperature regulation is much better than the average troll, making them smarter).
These two characters end up being analogues to the ancient troll and dwarf leaders of Koom Valley. You see, the legend of Koom Valley goes that both sides went to make war, but one ambushed the other (who it was depends on who was telling you the story), until all of them were swept away in a flash flood, never to be seen again. The climax of the book is when they find the cave that all of them washed away to, and the troll and dwarf leaders encased in stone, frozen in a game of Thud forever. And there is a message left for the people of the future, which I quote below, which sort of changes the game for the current troll and dwarf combatants.
Ultimately, I’d say this is a really really great book, because I usually think Terry Pratchett is at his best when he’s hitting hard against social issues. There’s a reason Neil Gaiman wrote an essay about Pratchett’s anger – he absolutely does have a righteous sort of anger that really comes out in this book, as well as the next Watch book, Snuff.
“And yet we say this. Here is the cave at the end of the world, peace is made between dwarf and troll, and we will march beyond the hand of Death together. For the enemy is not Troll, nor is it Dwarf, but it is the baleful, the malign, the cowardly, the vessels of hatred, those who do a bad thing and call it good…”
“He hated games – they made the world look too simple. Chess, in particular, had always annoyed him. It was the dumb way the pawns went off and slaughtered their fellow pawns while the king lounged about doing nothing. If only the pawns would’ve united … the whole board could’ve been a republic in about a dozen moves.”
“Would a minute have mattered? No, probably not, although his young son appeared to have a very accurate internal clock. Possibly even 2 minutes would be okay. Three minutes, even. You could go to five minutes, perhaps. But that was just it. If you could go for five minutes, then you’d go to ten, then half an hour, a couple of hours…and not see your son all evening. So that was that. Six o’clock, prompt. Every day. Read to young Sam. No excuses. He’d promised himself that. No excuses. No excuses at all. Once you had a good excuse, you opened the door to bad excuses.”
“Ye gods, it was so much better when there were just four of us up against that bloody great dragon, Vimes thought as they walked on. Of course, we nearly got burned alive a few times, but at least it wasn’t complicated. It was a damned great dragon. You could see it coming. It didn’t get political on you.”
“None of these lads here were out getting fighting drunk last night. And thus we wear down mountains. Water dripping on a stone, dissolving and removing. Changing the shape of the world, one drop at a time. Water dripping on a stone, Commander. Water flowing underground, bubbling up in unexpected places.”