Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett (contains spoilers)

Apologies for the long gap without entries.  I've been in something of a funk with my reading lately - nothing so great I feel compelled to write about it, nothing so terrible I feel obligated to warn about it.  It's been picking up a bit lately, though, I'll have some more by the end of the year.  Truthfully I've got about four or five of these things half-finished that I sort of can't bear to complete out of inertia or who knows what.  I've been sitting on a partial review of Ancillary Sword for nearly a whole year now (it was okay), and Neal Stephenson's Seveneves (parts really good, parts really bad, overall okay) and even the complete collection of Sierra's Quest for Glory videogames (better than average!)

But Terry Pratchett's final book?  Sign me up.

The greatest witch on the Discworld has been Esmerelda Weatherwax for many years.

You could have asked her, she would have told you.  You could have asked any other witch, for that matter, and they would have hemmed and hawed a bit (witches do not like to admit weakness) and they probably would have said that most witches were in agreement that Granny Weatherwax was the best, and to the extent that they had a leader (witches aren’t followers) that it was probably Granny.
This isn’t to say she was the nicest witch.  No, Granny Weatherwax was born to be mean, and every good deed she was forced to do was something that irked her down to her very core.  And she wasn’t the most learned witch.  She was, in fact, sort of a back country hick, and made up for in cunning what she lacked in book knowledge.  And she may not have even been the most powerful witch – it’s been suggested that her friend Gytha Ogg might have strictly had more mojo than Granny did, and she’s been up in plenty of situations where raw power wasn’t up to the task.

No, she was the greatest witch.  And that means that she never backed down from a challenge, never left anything undone, and never admitted doubt or weakness.  It’s true that she was sort of the Batman of witches – thinking it was easier to make people fear you, because you don’t want to be dependent on those you fear.  And it’s also true that she was not always the most helpful, that her usual trick in treating the ill was to give them a placebo and tell them they felt better.  But if you were really in trouble – really, really in trouble – then she would not leave you in it alone.

This, the last Discworld book, isn’t her story.  But it still sort of is.

Pratchett’s death in March leaves this work in a quasi-finished state.  It’s mostly here, but close readers will note that it’s considerably shorter than the last couple of Tiffany Aching novels have been, and there are parts throughout that do not appear to have been entirely finished.  There’s more superstructure than usual visible throughout, the pacing is off in a few spots, and it’s uneven here and there.  But despite the second Death Star-esque flaws, and it does have several, this is easily the best Discworld novel in years, and a good place to set the great turtle to rest.

Tiffany Aching has starred in her own subset of YA Discworld novels, of which this is the fifth one.  She started out at age nine in Wee Free Men.  She’s older now – when last seen in I Shall Wear Midnight she was 15 or 16 years old, and some time has passed.  (Figuring out how much exactly is an exercise for an even more obsessive reader than me, but it must be at least four years and possibly more.)  During this time she has gone from being a witch recruit, to an apprentice witch, to a full-fledged witch.  And now she is called upon to be the chief witch, the hag o’hags, following the demise of Granny Weatherwax.

Sad as it is, it’s been coming for some time.  Granny’s arc was essentially done – she’d fought the good fight for many years, defeated some powerful foes, and always come out on top.  The last few books featuring her have noted that she wasn’t as physically strong as she once was, and lately she’s been shifting into a mentor role in Tiffany Aching’s books, and we all know what the eventual fate of mentors is.  But perhaps that’s unfair; it’s clear that Tiffany Aching has been set up to eventually replace and possibly even surpass Granny, and because of Granny’s nature she cannot be surpassed and continue to live.  This was set forth explicitly in Lords and Ladies – the cost of being the best is that you have to be the best, and that means every single time, no exceptions; at least if you’re the sort of person that Granny Weatherwax was.  This left the narrative arc at something of a standstill.

Weatherwax isn’t killed by misadventure or her many enemies, though.  She dies the death that Pratchett himself set forth as a Victorian ideal – at home, with cat, of natural causes.  Furthermore she died after a full day’s work and in possession of all her considerable mental abilities.  Nonetheless, it is her time, and like any good witch she knows it.  She doesn’t go gently into the desert exactly, but she knows that Death comes for us all, and goes more or less willingly.

She leaves everything but her cat to Tiffany Aching – the cat can make up her own mind, after all – and now Tiffany has plenty of problems.  Learning from Granny Weatherwax was hard enough, but replacing her?  Not at all to be scoffed at, especially since she’s trying to hold down both her home territory of the Chalk and Granny’s old holding in Lancre.  It’s a lot of traveling and responsibility for a young lady, even one who’s got as much awesomeness as Tiffany does.  Now she’s got some literally big boots to fill, and all those witches to herd.

Out there in the multiverse, though, some of Granny Weatherwax’s ancient enemies have felt her passing, and feel that now is time for them to come through to the Disc once more.  The Queen of the Elves, her most implacable foe, is returning.  At least I think it’s the same Queen of the Elves – the text is a little vague on this.  Some of the other Disc materials have stated that there’s more than one Elf Queen.

Pratchett’s elves are essentially psychopathic fashionistas, something of a parody or extreme example of celebrity culture.  They’re dangerous, but also they appear beautiful to the observer, and you find yourself doing what they want you to do.  They’re without remorse and the things they find amusing are . . . not.  Unfortunately for them, the Disc has moved on since they last tried to take it over.  There are railways now, and iron everywhere, which is not something that the elves are really prepared to deal with.  But there are many witches now, and witches started at least in part to fight the elves in the first place, and the stage is set for a confrontation.

If the book has a major structural weakness, that’s probably it.  We get to see an elf (almost?) redeemed, which fits in with what Pratchett had been doing thematically the last several years but conflicts with just about everything we’ve heard about Discworld elves up to this point.  And the invasion actually doesn’t go all that well – the last time in Lords and Ladies the witches only just barely managed to hold off the incursion, and this time the result is not seriously in doubt.  It is also resolved very abruptly, in one case with a major antagonist being pimp-slapped to death, which is I guess a pretty impressive way to go out but just sort of happens.  I think that Pratchett may have expanded on this somewhat had he lived to revise this one a couple more times.

At the time of I Shall Wear Midnight, I thought that the Aching books had reached a natural conclusion and that further novels were overkill.  Having read this one, I realize that I was both wrong and right; correct as far as that goes, but giving her the chance to step out into the world without Granny as a backstop really made it worthwhile.  In some sense the passing of Granny Weatherwax cannot be helped but compared to Pratchett’s own death; and this is right and proper.  Like her, he made his mark on the world, and will be missed.