Thief of Time

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Thief of Time
Written by: Terry Pratchett
Central Theme:
Synopsis: A fanatical clockmaker is hired to build a perfectly accurate clock. The last one damaged time so badly the History Monks erased it; this one promises to be much worse.
Genre(s): Fantasy
Series: Discworld
Preceded by: The Truth
Followed by: The Last Hero
First published: 2001
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Thief of Time is the 26th Discworld novel and the fifth in the Death/Susan theme, although it also feels like something of a standalone.

The Auditors of Reality are at it again. This time, they plot to stop time and therefore all the messiness of life, freezing it perfectly. To do so, they approach a driven, unstable watchmaker called Jeremy Clockson - so called because he was a foundling of the Clockmaker's Guild - to build, or rather rebuild, the Glass Clock of Bad Schueschein. This Clock, built by a Mad Scientist, previously stopped time briefly before breaking and then shattered history, causing the History Monks to have to put it back together imperfectly (and incidentally explaining all the Discworld series' continuity errors). Its existence survives only in a fairytale and the memory of an Igor, the grandson of the one who helped build the Clock. In order to interact with Jeremy, an Auditor makes a human body and inhabits it under the alias Lady Myria Lejean, but in the process finds herself losing her former nature and becoming addicted to life.

Meanwhile, another foundling called Lobsang Ludd has been taken away by the History Monks and is taught their disciplines - chiefly chronological kung fu. A difficult but know-it-all student, he is apprenticed to Lu-Tze (from Small Gods), spoken of with fear yet claiming to be only a simple sweeper, and thus outside the system. Via their Mandala, the monks learn of the attempt to reconstruct the Glass Clock, and know that this time there's no hope of repairing history if it strikes. Merely a birth pang of the coming doom causes the room of Procrastinators (time manipulating machines) to go haywire, yet Lobsang somehow instinctively calms them. Lu-Tze, who failed to stop the first clock, is put on the case by the Abbot, a serial reincarnator currently in the body of a baby. He and Lobsang journey down towards Ankh-Morpork...

Tropes used in Thief of Time include:
  • Against My Religion: Used by an (unusually creative) Auditor to explain his irrational behavior while disguised as a human.
  • Almighty Janitor. Lu-Tze, and how.
  • Animals Lack Attributes: Invoked when Susan takes a paper tube away from Jason and informs the boy that, no, the cardboard animal which the class is constructing is a polite horse.
    • Possibly a reference to a 19th century joke campaign to clothe animals: "A nude horse is a rude horse." was their slogan.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: Time; it had previously been hinted in an earlier version of the Discworld Companion that she was female, because "Time waits for no man"... except Wen.
  • Arc Words: Lu-Tze reminding everyone of Rule One, which is "Never act incautiously when facing a small wrinkly bald smiling old man!" He proves it by beating the tar out of the new personification of Time.
    • But only because Time was holding back, which was entirely according to Lu-Tze's plan.
      • Possibly; his fighting style was described as using time itself as a weapon.
  • Ax Crazy: Mr White. Literally.
  • Badass Baritone: War employs one of these, briefly, just before the Horsemen ride against the Auditors.
  • Badass Grandpa: "Rule One: Never act incautiously when confronting a little bald wrinkly smiling man!"
    • "Rule 19: "Always remember Rule One and ask yourself, why was it created in the first place?
  • Berserk Button: "Not the hair."
  • Bittersweet Ending: For LeJean/Unity, since she decides to kill herself rather than live as an insane auditor trying to be human once she stops the invasion. Death considers it a waste of her potential, but we do see that unlike the other auditors she has earned a soul.
  • Brick Joke: More like a convoluted way to get to a 'perfect moment.' At the start of the book, it's mentioned that the history and lead-up to a 'perfect moment' is not straightforward. At the very end of the book, Susan and Lobsang have their 'perfect moment.'
  • Bunny Ears Lawyer: Soto - one of the best field agents the Monks of Time have - refuses to cut his hair, as he believes it to be a separate entity that simply happens to live on his head.
    • Turns into a Brick Joke near the end of the story, when the last surviving Auditors attempt to kill him, but instead wound his hair, which actually is a separate creature. This turns out to be a mistake on their part.
  • Call Back: Susan asks if Lobsang has "rhythm in his soul", a reference to Soul Music.
  • Color-Coded Timestop: Not only the passages in which time is sliced are described as having weird colours, Lobsang eventually confirms that there are scrolls explaining how the world changes its colours as time is sliced.
  • Colourful Theme Naming: Thanks to Lejean blurting something out upon first introducing them, the other Auditors are all named Mr or Miss [Colour] -- possibly a Shout-Out to Reservoir Dogs. Or else a shout-out to the British board game Cluedo (named Clue in the American version), with characters named "Colonel Mustard", "Reverend Green", "Miss Scarlett", "Dr. Black", etc.
    • The theme of Auditors in human form all dressing in monochrome grey—grey clothes, grey hats, grey shoes—might be a Homage to the Grey Gentlemen in Michael Ende's fantasy novel Momo, published in 1973 (alternative titles in English were The Grey Gentlemen or The Men in Grey). The villanous (and non-human) Grey Gentlemen were also called "time thieves" because they stole time from humans by persuading them to "save" time and deposit it in the Grey Gentlemen's time banks to be paid back with interest at an unspecified date.
      • Refer also to Michael Moorcock. In his scifi novel The Final Countdown, time-travelling hero Jerry Cornelius - another J.C. - is duped by his adversary Miss Brunner into helping devise a supercomputer that puts a stop to human history - end effectively to the pasage of time...
  • Contest Winner Cameo: Marco Soto
  • Continuity Nod and Fandom Nod: In reference to the Continuity Snarl mentioned below, Lu-Tze points out several issues that fans have pointed out over the years about Discworld continuity as examples of problems caused by the new patchwork history. For example, there's the opera house/theatre business and the fact that Ephebe's philosophers are so long-lived (they appear both in Pyramids and Small Gods, set about a century earlier).
  • Continuity Snarl: In-universe example, this is what happened to Discworld history after the first Glass Clock struck and the History Monks were unable to completely repair it. There's even a Shout-Out to specific continuity errors fans have previously pointed out, such as some characters crossing over between Pyramids and Small Gods despite the books taking place decades apart (... probably) and the setting up of a Shakespearean-style theatre being new and radical in Wyrd Sisters when it turns out that the city has had a Victorian-style opera house for many years in Maskerade.
  • Cosmic Retcon: The aforementioned Continuity Snarl is used to Hand Wave plot holes and Schizo-Tech in the rest of the series.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: Readers with an eastern philosophy bent will quickly notice that "Order of Wen the Eternally Surprised"—a.k.a. the History Monks—is Buddhism with a dash of Taoism thrown in for taste. Wen is even the name of the mythological author of the I Ching, an important Taoist/Buddhist book. (In this case, Wen falling in love with Time is probably a subtle pun.)
  • Defector From Decadence: Lejean decides to stop the other Auditors' plan after experiencing the sensations and thoughts that come with being alive.
  • Delicious Distraction: Made easy since the Auditors are not used to their new senses.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: Lu-Tze beating down Time.
  • Divine Parentage: Lobsang and Jeremy are the son of the goddess of Time. In fact they are the same person, but her powers made two of them. Best not to think about that.
  • Don't Touch It, You Idiot!: This book provided the page quote. Also the reaction of Que when Lobsang starts picking up things in his workshop.
  • Dramatic Slip: This causes the second half of the plot. Lobsang and Lu-Tze were running to reach the Glass Clock before it struck and would have made it if not for this trope. The stupidity is later lampshaded:

I'm sorry? You were dashing to prevent the end of the world but you stopped to help some old man? You... hero!

  • Eldritch Abomination: Rarely for a late Discworld novel, the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions are mentioned, as statues in the History Monks' garden (they call them dhlang, demons). An Auditor statue is among them and called the most dangerous of them all, despite its unassuming appearance.
  • Eureka Moment: For the first six Auditors to become human after Lady Lejean is trying to stop the clock. For beings who hated imagination and could never lie, the way they countered her attempts to stop them were quite impressive.
  • Everything's Better with Chocolate: After killing many of the Auditors with chocolate, Lady Lejean drowns herself in chocolate.
    • Also works as a Stealth Pun "Death By Chocolate" is the name of an actual dish.
    • Killing the Auditors also works as a Shout-Out: an earlier book had noted that Susan's mother's favorite dish was Genocide By Chocolate.
    • Both women are shocked that Lu Tze can just have one and lose interest.
  • Fantastic Time Management: The title character can make time flow faster or slower for himself relative to the world around him. He regularly uses this ability for mundane everyday schedule management.
  • Fairy Tale: Invoked to explain how stories work.
  • False Reassurance: Someone from the Guild of Clockmakers regularly checks that Jeremy is taking his medicine. Igor assures him that he sees Jeremy pour out a spoonful every day—but doesn't mention that he then pours it down the drain.
  • G-Rated Drug: The Auditors eventually become somewhat addicted to life; narrowing their senses down to five is easy-peasy, but they are unprepared for the sheer intensity of them. It literally drives them insane.
  • Five Horsemen Of The Apocalypse
  • He's Back: Kaos becomes Chaos, which is something the auditors loathe, allowing the horsemen to finally turn the tide.
  • Hilarious in Hindsight: We are finally given a canonical, in-Universe explanation for Discworld's continuity anomalies. Later in the book, Lu-Tze punches Time.
  • Historical In-Joke: One of Lobsang's instructors recounts to the Abbot how, in an attempt to embarass Lobsang into paying attention, he challenged the boy to solve the problem on the blackboard; only Lobsang was looking at the wrong problem, and instead solved part of a lesson that had been impossible even for the advanced students who it had been intended for. This is more or less what happened to George Dantzig in 1939 when he was a graduate student at Berkeley; he arrived late to a statistics class one day and scrawled down what he assumed was part of his homework assignment. Six weeks after he turned it in, his professor came to him and told him he'd solved two rather famous unsolved problems that had been giving mathematicians trouble for years.
  • Humanity Is Infectious: The Auditors, especially Lejean and Mr White.
  • Human Mail: Jeremy gets an Igor mailed to him in a box.
  • I Know Kung Faux: Several techniques are named, including Okidoki, Upsi-Dasi, and the mystical Déjà Fu.
  • In My Language, That Sounds Like...: Not exactly, but Lobsang's name sounds very similar to the german word Lobgesang, which would translate roughly as 'song of praise'.
  • Insane Equals Violent: Mr. White did not handle incarnation well. Jeremy is a milder case - the only violence he did was offscreen, a Noodle Incident, and apparently was very, very messy. He has medicine for it now.
  • It Is Pronounced "Tro-PAY": The Angel Clothèd All in White of the Iron Book from the Prophecy of Tobrun is keen to remind you that 'Clothèd' is pronounced "cloth-edd". "It's the slanty thing over the E".
  • The Key Is Behind the Lock: There's a recurring metaphor about "opening a box with the crowbar you'll find inside".
  • Let's Get Dangerous: Death rides out to gather the Horsemen for the coming Apocralypse, but finds that each of them has, in some way, been rendered effectively useless by the qualities they acquired from being an Anthropomorphic Personification. The trope comes when they actually come to Death's aide, along with ex-Horseman Chaos, and War pushes his image as a Henpecked Husband (to his Valkyrie wife's nostalgic delight) to show that they're every bit as dangerous as they were prophesied to be.
  • Logic Bomb: Used by Lejean/Unity against the orderly-minded Auditors, such as signs that point right but say "Keep Left" and signs that read "Ignore This Sign -- By Order", and "Do Not Feed the Elephant" when there is no elephant.
    • Not to mention going metaphysical when she puts up a sign that says "Duck" when there's nothing to duck under.
      • ... and no waterfowl in sight either.
    • The Auditors finally find a way around it by creating the new category of orders that are "bloody stupid" and thus don't have to be followed—after taking heavy losses.
  • Mad Scientist: Jeremy Clockson, though he's described as being too sane rather than not sane enough.
    • Only by himself. Igor considers it to be just another type of crazy.
  • Magic Feather: The portable procrastinator, but only for Lobsang: he makes his own time since he's half of Time's son.
  • Mathematician's Answer: Was the most accurate one. "Are you Lobsang or are you Jeremy?" "Yes."
  • Meaningful Name: Doubles as punny—Wen the Eternally Surprised. His name sounds like "when", and interestingly enough, wen in Chinese means "to ask a question", which he did after his enlightenment.
  • The Men in Black: The Men In Saffron, the History Monks.
  • Mistaken for Profound: Lu-Tze thinks what Mrs. Marietta Cosmopolite says is deep wisdom.
    • It shows up Lobsang, who assumes the Way is more mystical, when Lu-Tze manages to use the Way to ignore the cold by wearing a masterfully crafted pair of longjohns made by Mrs. Cosmopolite. Lu-Tze is later called a master at seeing "the wisdom hidden in plain sight."
  • Mundane Utility: Chaos (Ronnie Soak) has an impossibly cold sword, and, like Death, the ability to be where he needs to be. He uses the sword to keep milk cold, and the ability to deliver milk and dairy products to everyone in Ankh-Morpork. Every day. At precisely 7 AM. Everywhere.
  • My Greatest Failure: For Lu-Tze, it's his failure to stop the first Time Crash.
  • No Body Left Behind: When the Auditors "die" in their artificially made human bodies, the bodies sometimes simply break down at the atomic level, seeming to turn to dust.
  • No Medication for Me: Jeremy takes medicine to make sure he doesn't become "too sane", but then decides he thinks better without it.
  • Nobody Touches the Hair
  • Noodle Incident: Whatever Jeremy did to that guy who kept his watch fast. He has medicine now.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Lu-Tze. In truly epic amounts.
  • Order Versus Chaos: Comes down on the side of chaos, because life and emotion and free will are disorderly: that's why the auditors want to destroy it.
  • The Pete Best: Kaos.
  • Pretty in Mink: Lejean wears a huge white fur coat when she first meets Jeremy, then a mink stole later.
  • Primordial Chaos: Kaos, the Fifth Horseman of the Apocralypse.
  • Prophecy Twist / Exact Words: Tobrun was right about the Horsemen bringing terror to the multitudes. He just failed to specify that they'd be multitudes of Auditors.
  • Putting the Band Back Together: Death trying to reunite the Four Horsemen.
  • Renowned Selective Mentor: Everyone is shocked when Lobsang becomes the apprentice of Lu-Tzu The Sweeper. Even if they don't recognise The Sweeper in person, they are shocked by his rep, and because he never takes apprentices anymore. In fact Lobsang's apprenticeship is a punishment posting for both of them in different ways.
  • Rogue Drone: Lady Myria LeJean. Once she picks up a physical body, a name, and a gender, she starts seeing life as less of a blight on the perfection of the universe.
  • Save Scumming: The yetis have avoided extinction (three times) by working out how to perform what amounts to a quicksave. Lu-Tze learned it from them later.
  • Schizo-Tech: A key part of the backstory—when the monks repaired history, they did a somewhat patchwork job.
    • In fact, this book manages to Hand Wave every single instance of Schizo-Tech in the entire Discworld series by outright stating that all of the inconsistencies were created when the time stream was essentially pieced back together by little men in robes wielding glue-sticks.
  • Sdrawkcab Name: Ronnie Soak.
    • According to Pratchett, he only realized who Soak really was a minute or two before Lu-Tze did, and ran into a bathroom with a pen and a piece of paper to check to see if it was recognizeable when it's mirrored.
  • Secret Art: Deja fu. Of course the monks don't know it, Lu-Tze hasn't taught them!
  • Self-Mutilation Demonstration: Cutting off the yeti's head to demonstrate his Save Scumming ability.
  • Sense Freak: The Auditors in human form, to the point that they die by taste bud stimulation.
  • Shout-Out: As usual, plenty. Kaos being 'the one who left before they became famous' is a reference to Pete Best, former drummer of The Beatles. Pterry has said that "the one who left before they became famous" was a popular feature of bands at one time, so this might also count as a Shout Out to other bands. The inventive monk Qu is an obvious Captain Ersatz of Q from James Bond. Lu-Tze tells Lobsang he won't call him some insect nickname. Lu-Tze's line after figuring out Kaos' identity is a reference to a famous Rolling Stones song. Also, "Jeremy Clockson" is almost certainly a pun on Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear, though the two don't share anything apart from the name (and, possibly, a fascination with engineering). This is debated here on the L-Space Wiki. It may be another case of Tuckerisation?
    • Also, the stance used to stop falling is called Stance of the Coyote, anybody else reminded of a certain cartoon coyote?
      • Lu-Tze being a simple sweeper might also be a Shout-Out to the wuxia novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, where the most powerful character is a sweeping monk in the Shaolin temple who only appears in a few scenes and is never named.
        • His name is also a distortion of Lao Tzu, the legendary founder of Taoism.
            • Also, the Procrastinators are so called after the saying that "procrastination is the thief of time".
    • Death breaks it to the Angel of the Prophecy of Tobrun that the Omnian Church has written him out of canon, deciding that the prophecy was actually a metaphor for the struggles of the early Church, which is a reference to a similar controversy over the Biblical Book of Revelation.
      • In the same vein, the idea of Kaos being the Fifth Horseman and riding in a chariot stems from a controversy over whether, when the Book of Revelation says "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him", is this a description, or is Hell (or Hades) supposed to be a separate entity, making five in total?
  • Split At Birth: Lobsang and Jeremy. In a very literal way.
  • Super Reflexes: The History Monks use "slicing time" to give themselves enhanced perception and response.
  • Technician Versus Performer: Though timekeeping is not exactly an art form, this describes Jeremy and Lobsang's differences to a T. Note how high-strung and terrifying exact Jeremy is, while Lobsang is such a performer half the time he has no idea what he even is doing, but his talent is spilling over everywhere.
  • That Makes Me Feel Angry: The Auditors in human form reporting their emotions without knowing the term for it.
  • The Igor: Or rather an Igor. The Auditors hire one to assist Jeremy in making the clock.
  • Third Line, Some Waiting: The main plot focuses on Lobsang/Lu Tze and Jeremy/Igor/Lady LeJean, with Susan and Death as C-plots.
  • Time Police: The History Monks.
  • Time Stands Still: Deconstructed with slicing—a small pocket of space around the slicer is still subject to the ordinary passage of time, so it is necessary to move around so that the air around you doesn't get used up. Also, going near a fast-moving object like a crossbow bolt is a really bad idea.
    • Further deconstructed when it's mentioned that this is what happens when you do it right. If you screw up slicing, your sorry-ass feet get sliced to ribbons on the grass. And then you suffocate.
  • Timey-Wimey Ball
  • Title Drop: "So easily does a thief of time repay his debts!"
  • Theme Naming: The Auditors with colours, so much so that they run out of colours and start calling themselves Mr. Taupe, for example.
  • Tuckerization: While the book was being written, a chance to appear in the book as a character was offered as a prize in a charity auction. The winner, Marcus Soto, appears as a history monk (the one with the Hair).
  • Unusual Euphemism: One of the Auditors starts spouting absolutely ---ing organic modifiers and interjections after discovering how unpleasant it is to have a body and failing to express her frustration through normal human expletives.
  • What Do You Mean It's Not Awesome?: Susan, Lobsang and LeJean using chocolate as ammunition. Justified, sort of, as the Auditors die of over-stimulation from taste.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?? The Angel of the Iron Book seemed pretty indignant, then vanished.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Assuming she qualified as a woman at all, Myria LeJean/Unity. the Auditors copied her features from what was considered the most beautiful painting of a woman in the world, then improved upon them by erasing imperfections, it's likely that they created this trope without actually comprehending what "beauty" is!
    • What makes it very odd is that if memory serves, that painting was a portrait of a younger Nanny Ogg.
  • You Can't Thwart Stage One: Lobsang has to try and outrun a lightning bolt about to hit the glass clock, wich would stop the flow of time. He fails, time stops and the auditors plan succeeds. The heroes must now work to set things right again.
  • The X of Y