Books of 2015, #44-48: The “Tiffany Aching” Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett

  • The Wee Free Men
  • A Hat Full of Sky
  • Wintersmith
  • I Shall Wear Midnight
  • The Shepherd’s Crown
I’m writing this on a laptop named ‘aching’. The routers in my house are ‘weatherwax’ and ‘vetinari’. My local server is ‘carrot’, and my prior laptop was ‘ogg’.

I have named cloud servers I manage after guitarists I admire, but my home machines are all Terry Pratchett characters.

I haven’t written any “book reports” in two months because the prospect of writing this one was too depressing—until reading his last book, I could always pretend that Terry Pratchett wasn’t gone, that the world wasn’t a poorer place for his absence.

Some time mid-to-late 1990, I did something rare and amazing: I stopped by a professor’s office. I don’t actually remember what the precipitating event was—I’m not even 100% sure what the class was, but odds are very good that it was Shakespeare—but as I was sitting there, my professor, Matthew Winston, pulled a copy of Sandman #19—”A Midsummer Night’s Dream”—from between some other books on his office’s capacious shelves, I assume in order to illustrate a point about Shakespeare’s continuing influence.

I picked up “A Season of Mists” #0 the next time I was in my local comic shop, and worked my way back a couple of issues—including “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”—but this was a series that was just beginning a run of dominance in the form, and older issues were starting to be priced beyond what I could justify at the time.

And then, one day that fall, I saw Neil Gaiman’s name on a book in the Waldenbooks in the mall—the best outlet for books we had in that impoverished time and place. That book was Good Omens.

From there I started picking up Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels—first, Mort, I think, then perhaps Wyrd Sisters. Pyramids was in there somewhere, Reaper Man, definitely Moving Pictures. Basically anything I could get my hands on…which, it’s funny to realize, wasn’t all that much—for the first ten years or more, Terry Pratchett had a US publishing deal that, for whatever reason, meant that the Discworld novels didn’t make it to the US for up to a year after their initial publication in the UK.

Understand: Terry Pratchett was the UK’s best-selling author of the 1990s. He was only unseated by someone you probably heard of: J.K. Rowling. But for half of that decade, you had to work surprisingly hard to buy his books here in the US.

I cannot understate my glee when, upon moving to Massachusetts in the late fall of 1992, I discovered that there was a most amazing bookstore near Harvard Square, Wordsworth (sadly long closed), that actually imported the UK editions. They were right there on the shelf.

Even more importantly, this seemed to coincide with Terry really figuring out his own voice; if you go back and read the earlier books, they’re not without some commentary on the real world, but they still read as mostly light-hearted—the characters a little lacking in bite, the scenarios a little light on consequence. Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards! start to hint at something more, but they never quite fulfill their promise.

And then there’s Witches Abroad and Small Gods.

The best way I can characterize the difference between them and the books that come before is that Terry Pratchett no longer worries about letting you see his anger. Moreso in Small Gods—a book that seethes—but Witches Abroad has some of it, certainly more than I remember in anything that preceeds it.

It’s an anger at all the ways that we, as humans, choose to do the wrong thing, for the wrong reasons—or even the right reasons. Or the ways in which we are simply thoughtless toward one another. The ways in which we sell one another and ourselves short. The ways in which we fail, and then fail all the harder by not trying.

From there, well, it’s not that there are no missteps—honestly, Rincewind was never my favorite character, so Interesting Times and The Last Continent aren’t my favorites—but I find the characters become more compelling. The best of them are fueled by the flaws in themselves of which they are all too aware. All of them acknowledge the relentless hamster-wheel that is rising above your basest desires—just how easy it would be to quit caring about others, about yourself, about anything.

And then, 12 years ago, he introduced Tiffany Aching.

I didn’t initially pick up the Tiffany Aching books, because they were characterized as Young Adult, and when the first one came out, well, no one knew how little time Terry had left. When the stream of books—which had often been two a year when I first started reading them, but had at least been a consistent one a year—suddenly dried up after Snuff in 2011, I decided to get my fix wherever I could.

I have to assume, at some level, that he felt there was nowhere futher to go with The Lancre Witches themselves—he hadn’t written anything with them since 1998—and so they become a backdrop for his new character. And to say I was inordinately pleased that Granny Weatherwax was present is an understatement. But that would have just been fan-service, if it weren’t for the fact that these books also presented something new: a portrait of a young girl learning—and as often as not, teaching herself—how to become a good, responsible, compassionate person.

They say that girls develop faster than boys—well, this is the ultimately more sophisticated sibling of Harry Potter. There is less adventure, there are few confrontations and even fewer battles. The focus in not on what happens, but why and how it reflects and ramifies out into character. In this respect, they remind me of Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander series, which will regularly spend pages and pages (let me be clear: delightful pages) on minute observations of life on extended sea voyages, and then a couple of pages on a major naval battle—the action is there just to make sure the characters don’t get bored.

And then Prospero drowns his books.

In the end, the only way to truly allow Tiffany Aching to stand as her own person was to allow her to succeed Granny Weatherwax, and the only way that could happen is if Granny Weatherwax is no longer there.

As a result, the first fifth? quarter? of The Shepherd’s Crown is an extended goodbye. Knowing, as we do, that this was his last book—and his editor includes a note in which he is quite clear that Terry wrote it entirely himself, but didn’t have as much time to refine and rewrite as he generally would have, which suggests that ultimately, he knew it was his last book—this is a punch in the gut.

But, ultimately, I would have expected nothing less. To live a life worth living will ultimately involve loss.

Children of the Sky and Snuff

Two of my favorite SF novels are A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge. So when I heard several months ago that there was a sequel to the first being released this month, I felt both excitement and deep trepidation.

My experience of the book, Children of the Sky, falls somewhere in the middle.

In a way, I guess you could say the scope of all three books has been narrowing–A Fire Upon the Deep being a no-holds-barred Space Opera, A Deepness in the Sky being a first-contact novel, while Children of the Sky is a political thriller that happens to have aliens. It does a good job at what it is, but I found myself missing the sense of wonder that the first two books provoke in me even after numerous readings.

I enjoyed it enough that it’s not going to go into the pile to be donated to the library–and these days I’m getting pretty darn ruthless about putting stuff in that pile–but I suspect that if I went out and bought a new copy of A Fire Upon the Deep (which I kinda need–the old one’s getting pretty worn), in 10 years, it will probably show more evidence of use.

Before that, though, I read Snuff, Terry Pratchett’s latest.

I am sad to say that this is the first Discworld novel in the last 15 years that I haven’t wanted to re-read almost immediately. Like Children of the Sky, I don’t intend to get rid of it, but I feel like it’s relying overmuch on my love of the characters to make up for a plot that seems a little lacking in originality–it feels a little like the bastard child of The Fifth Elephant, Thud! and Unseen Academicals, and I think the result is a little tepid.

In my heart of hearts, though, I know some of my dissatisfaction stems from the fact that I realize that this book or the next book or the one after that is likely to be his last, and I want one last Granny Weatherwax novel. For me, she and Sam Vimes are the emotional core of his cast of characters–both people who are so desperately suspicious of themselves that being good often seems to make them angry–but she hasn’t been center-stage since Carpe Jugulum in ’98, and I have that childish desire to see her again.