Sam Vimes has risen through the ranks to become Commander of the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork. He is a duke. He is rich. He loves his wife, and looks forward to the birth of their first child.
Then time turns ugly on him. A magical storm sweeps down on the city, and with bolt of lightning, sends Sam back to the very year he first joined the City Watch. The mysterious History Monks reassure him that history really wants to make things come out the way they should, but their vagueness is hardly comforting. Sam's arrival coincides with the untimely, and temporally wrong death of the Watch's sergeant-- the man who was supposed to be Sam's own mentor. Unhappy, confused, and wanting home to still be a place that he can someday get to, Sam is at first uncertain about what he should do.
But he knows what's about to happen in the city--it's about to go up in flames of violence and rioting and death, and there are bad, bad people there pushing the violence forward. And he knows that young Sam needs his mentor, or he won't grow up to be himself. But most of all, he knows that he is a policeman, and he knows he is needed.
So he takes the place of the dead sergeant, and does the best he can to keep as many people safe. Even though he knows that people will die, regardless.
And oh my gosh, I love books so much where the hero is a truly decent, good person, who knows that things are hopeless, but does the best he or she can because that is the only thing do to. And I love books where that hero not only clings to a dogged, hard-won refusal to give up, but also is smart enough to see chances where none exist. Sam Vines reminded me, to my great surprise and pleasure, of two of my favorite heroes-- Phaedrus from The Mark of the Horse Lord, by Rosemary Sutcliff, and Eugenides, from Megan Whalen Turner's Queen Thief Series.
Of course, since this is Pratchett, it isn't the same as either of those two. It's funnier, and more farcical, in true Discworld style. There were plenty of bits that made me chuckle. But I wept a little, at the end...
It is, I think, the time-travel of it that makes it so poignant--because Sam knows what's going to happen. Because he can see his young self, about to face things that shouldn't happen. Because he doesn't know if he'll get home again, to see his wife and unborn child... And still he does the best he can.
If you've not read any Discworld books before, but are intrigued--this can be read as a stand-alone, as long as you don't try to make sense of the things you don't understand, and just accept, for instance, the fact that the librarian of the Unseen University of wizards is an orangoutang.