Somewhere around the 12th or 13th book in a series which now numbers over thirty, Terry Pratchett subtly segued from writing Dungeon Dimensions fantasy stories to writing social satire with a fantasy finish. The shift was gradual, as the Discworld (a flat world on the back of four elephants and a space turtle) was always simply a more magical mirror through which to see this world. It was probably around the time that the books about the Ankh Morpork City Watch hit their stride that it began to happen; I like to think that the introduction of one of fiction's most kick-ass female characters helped to spur this on.
Delphine Angua von Uberwald is the first woman to join the City Watch. She has to put up with the jokes and the gestures and the badly beaten out breastplate. What's more, she really knows what it's like to have a bad hair day: she's a werewolf.
If you think PMT is bad, try suffering from Pre-Lunar Tension. Hair follicles swelling, nails lengthening, acute awareness of the full moon. It's easy enough to be a werewolf if you don't care about being human, but Angua's an ethical werewolf. She's a vegetarian three weeks out of the month; whilst happy enough to unleash her deadly jaw when keeping a criminal (like her brother) in check, during the week when she's, ahem, sleeping in a basket, farmers in the Ankh Morpork area scratch their heads when chickens go missing but money has been pushed under the door.
Working with a vampire (in Thud), she comes up against her biggest prejudices and born instincts. Vampires, with their innate capacity for style and sensuality, make her feel like she's just a grubby, scruffy dog. And, after all, doesn't anything that's part-human and part-wolf have to be just a little bit dog-like? Her boyfriend, Carrot, is the heir of Ankh Morpork's long-defunct throne, but he likes to pretend he isn't. However, it turns out charisma comes with the genetic territory. While it would never occur to him to abuse it, being the Nicest Man on Earth, if he even thinks of whistling, she comes running.
Angua is undoubtedly one of the best-written female characters in modern fantasy fiction; in any fiction, for that matter. She's grumpy, true, but she's also intelligent, logical, loyal and a trustworthy copper. She does her job methodically, throwing herself into an investigation against her own family when it's called for. She kindly passes on hints, tips and unwanted clothing to the dwarf girls who are, against years of tradition, allowing themselves to be recognised as women (although it'll take another few centuries to lose the beards... they're still dwarfs after all). She's tough and uncompromising and relishes the compensations of being a werewolf, such as being able to track the scent of any criminal even days after they've left the scene.
One of Pratchett's great strengths as a writer is playing with stereotypes and social groups without ever giving in to them. Dwarfs, trolls, humans, vampires, zombies and werewolves all have their typical characteristics, but they're all individual characters, too. Angua's intelligence and sense of morality set her apart from many of her kind, but she can also be stubborn and narky (traits she shares with the resolutely sensible Susan Sto Helit, Death's granddaughter). However, she's never helpless, and it's wonderful to see, in a genre where authors are imagined to be pale and twitchy, sweating slightly over their female creations, proof that fantasy is not just for men, and that woman can be represented fairly and with style.
Alex Roumbas is Deputy Editor of Shiny Shiny. She's been reading the Discworld books, in order, since 1996 and shows no sign of stopping.
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