With Thief of Time an era came to an end, for this would be the last Discworld book to sport a cover painted and drawn by Josh Kirby, whose art had defined the image of Discworld for us all from the beginning. Such a shame that there would be no more.
At least Kirby went out on a high, for Thief of Time was another monster of a story, with Pratchett in complete control of the various threads that he wrapped into one powerful threat from the very first sentence.
I always think of this as another Death and Susan book, the last, in fact, but it’s that in no more than half. The Auditors of Reality are on the attack again, this time cloaking themselves in flesh in order to manipulate the somewhat unhinged Clockmakers Guild foundling, Jeremy, into building a Glass Clock that will stop Time for ever. Death is aware of this and, once more, the Rules prevent him taking a hand in opposition, so once more his mostly human granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit is required to act as his trigger finger.
And Susan accepts her role with far less resistance than in any of her previous appearances, despite her fervent desire to be only human, only normal. She’s progressed from Governess to teacher now, and a very effective teacher of course. But once the Death of Rats shows up, with Quoth the Raven in tow, Susan’s resistance is primarily token. She’s getting used to her ‘powers’, to being what she is and not what she wants to be. And she’s quicker to realise that there’s a very big threat out there that can’t wait for her to go through the usual unavailing protests.
Normally, that would be enough, but Thief of Time has another, almost more important dimension. We’ve already had a cameo from Lu-Tze, the Sweeper, back in Small Gods, but this book is as much his as it is Susan’s: more so because we now are introduced to the History Monks, their monastery at Oi Dong, and of course, Rule One.
Actually Lu-Tze is, like Death and Susan, part of a double act, paralleling our already familiar pair. Instead of Grandfather and Granddaughter, we have Master and Apprentice, with Lu-Tze taking responsibility for the most naturally-gifted, untrained and untrainable novice you could imagine, Lobsang Ludd. Oddly enough, Ludd’s just as much a foundling as is the obsessive Jeremy, but whilst Pratchett makes nothing of that, it’s going to be a matter of critical concern.
So: the Auditors, in the awkwardly human form of Lady Myria LeJean, are leading Jeremy to the construction of the Clock that will finally bring unlimited order to the Universe, and Susan on the one hand, and Lu-Tze and Lobsang on the other, are the parallel forces trying to prevent this outcome.
Pratchett adopts a dramatic model that’s rather unusual for him. There’s but a single story, though the piecemeal approach of the early part of the book delays this realisation. Pratchett starts several threads with no apparent connection to one another, but all of which soon start to coalesce, not into the same direction but for the same destination from opposite ends.
As soon as we understand the significance of the Glass Clock, we understand that it is going to be made, and that this will have to be dealt with. But with a single event to prepare for, Pratchett can stretch the story over a longer period than we’re used to, and without any sub-stages of significance to provide us with peaks and troughs.
It’s all a slow accumulation of tension, the better to emphasise that, when the Clock is set in motion, we have reached The End, and that only very special talents, operating in a sphere far beyond the knowledge of anyone else, can take any actions that might lead to the winding down of the clock and the restoration of any kind of observable reality.
The stakes are consequently higher, not to mention more remote, than in any other book in this series. A fact emphasised by the slightest of devices, as Pratchett separates every section of his story with the italicised word tick, which collapses in on itself, leaving the whole of what will or won’t be salvation to take place between ti- and the perhaps never found -ck.
Though Pratchett has a down-to-Earth side to his story, Thief of Time is another of those books that operate deeply in the fantastic. It’s not a fantasy story as such, being based on a decidedly science fiction concept, that of stopping time, and its solution depends on the fact that the two foundlings, Jeremy and Lobsang, are connected: they are not twins but rather the same person, born twice in different split-seconds, and due to be rejoined as one being.
Creator of the menace, resolver of the menace, what was Jeremy/Lobsang becomes Time himself, inheriting his role from his Mother, who proves to be less permanent an anthropomorphic personification than Death, who is never going to take up pipe and slippers and leave it all to Susan to take over (then again, unlike Time, Death is not ‘married’).
Indeed, more strongly than he’s previously hinted, Pratchett leads us to believe that Lobsang and Susan, being two of a kind, will go on to forge a relationship as only they – literally – can. Perhaps that’s why Susan never returned in any later stories: reader, she married him (or at least snogged him in the stationery cupboard).
But Pratchett does still have a serious element to bring to the fore, which is what it is to be human. Throughout Thief of Time, with each of its mythopoeic characters – Death, War, Famine, Pollution, Time – Pratchett touches on the idea that, although none of them are human, they are human in shape, put into that shape by the beliefs of the humans on whom they act.
And being human creates an abyss into which everything must fall. Susan is more aware of this than others, though Death has seen too much of life not to have gathered an understanding of by just how much their expectations of him have influenced how he appears, talks, acts and thinks.
But Pratchett is at his most explicit in the form of Lady Lejean, the Auditor turned some form of flesh, who undergoes the full effect of becoming human and everything that means. She begins as Myria, a simple reflection of Myriad, but accepts Susan re-naming her as Unity. Through her, we see something of what it means to have the world cease to be one thing and become two: yourself… and everything else.
It’s what Pratchett brings to this book that we take away, the other side of the coin of mirth. For we can laugh, and gasp in excitement, and chew our nails over impossible threats, whilst knowing as readers that there is a solution, there will be a way out. And we can close the book on Time, and Susan, and Lu-Tze, and even giggle at his Fifth Surprise.
But we can’t close our eyes to the gap between ourselves with our eyes shut, and the rest of everything.