Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A strange new plot is afoot in Ankh-Morpork's Assassin's Guild: one that threatens to draw the Watch and Captain Sam Vimes - on the eve of his retirement - into the path of a deadly new weapon.
Captain Samuel Vimes is soon to marry his dragon-loving aristocratic fiancée and give up his life as a beat cop. As Sam struggles with his impending wealth and union with blue-bloods, Sergeant Colon and Nobby Nobbs are in charge of training a diverse pool of Night Watch recruits: there is Detritus, a huge troll with a deadly salute, Cuddy, a dwarf with a grudge against trolls, and Angua, who is a shapely w - well, that would be telling.
The clear choice for Vimes' replacement is Corporal Carrot, a supernaturally likeable, huge and naïvely competent man raised by dwarfs. (I imagine him as a sort of ultra-charismatic Gary Cooper.) He becomes the lightning rod for an insane Assassin's plot to restore the monarchy.
Ankh-Morpork, the city with water dirty enough to walk across, is a character in its own right and a setting worth discussing. It barely manages its bubbling ethnic tensions without bloodshed. It is ruled by the cold-blooded Lord Vetinari, and contains Leonard da Quirm, the "most dangerous man in the world". It also can boast Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler (the most dangerous purveyor of sausages in the world), guilds of (ahem) seamstresses, clowns, and thieves; plus various nonhuman citizens including zombies, vampires, trolls, and keenly intelligent dogs. Oh, and Death is sure to make an appearance in a city this riotous.
It's not strictly necessary to read the previous Watch novel, Guards! Guards!, though I certainly recommend it. Another of the best Discworld novels is Night Watch, also about Sam Vimes (one of my all-time favorite Discworld characters).
But if you love smarter-than-average fantasy with a razor-sharp sense of humor, you've probably read most of Pratchett already. Might I also recommend Neil Gaiman?
"It was hard not to notice Carrot in a room. There were bigger people than him in the city. He didn't loom. He just seemed, without trying, to distort things around him. Everything became background to Corporal Carrot." - 99
"The river Ankh is probably the only river in the universe on which the investigators can chalk the outline of the corpse." - 109
"Cuddy had only been a guard for a few days, but already he had absorbed one important and basic fact: it is almost impossible for anyone to be in a street without breaking the law. There are a whole quiverful of offenses available to a policemen who wishes to pass the time of day with a citizen, ranging from Loitering with Intent through Obstruction to Lingering While Being the Wrong Color/Shape/Species/Sex." - 148