Terry Pratchett, |
The third volume of Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching series finds the now adolescent protagonist in the frigid clutches of an overly amorous force of nature known as the Wintersmith. She has to escape him, of course, while dealing with the fastballs life throws at budding teenagers. There's another would-be teen witch in training -- Annagramma (I love the names Pratchett comes up with) -- who is gunning for Tiffany's place as future village witch, she is seeking a "friendship" with Roland (a prince she rescued in the previous installments of the series) and must contend with the death of an elder. Fortunately she has help, in the form of head witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. Also coming to the rescue is Roland himself, who has matured into an intrepid young man who is bound and determined to return the rescuing favor. And, of course, there is also the Nac Mac Feegle, a.k.a. the Wee Free Men, who are sworn to protect her.
Tiffany Aching lives in the country of Chalk. She's a preternaturally gifted girl and witch-in-training whose powers started showing up when she was 9. She's also strong hearted, kind and wise beyond her age. Now 13 and living in an apprenticeship of sorts with ailing head witch, Miss Treason, she's discovering boys, life and death, and peer rivalry, among other things. Witch wannabe Annagramma -- who cheats outrageously while only playing at being a witch -- wants her out of the way. If that isn't trouble enough, Tiffany accidentally catches the attention of the Wintersmith when she jumps into a Morris dance with the elementals. The Wintersmith's occupation is pretty easy to guess from his name alone: he brings the winter each year. This time, however, the Wintersmith has fallen in love with Tiffany after being enchanted by her dancing. If she does not return his love, the heartsick elemental may never allow winter to come to an end.
Pratchett does a fine job of fully exploring all the implications of an unending winter. Some of his best prose yet describes the mountain village and its occupants with Thomas Hardy accuracy. Pratchett is similarly fascinated by the relationships between men and women; his plots containing explorations of the age old Mars-and-Venus dynamic. He places great faith in the power of the feminine (natural earth magic) as a balance to masculine warlike energy, which must be why he likes witches so much. Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are so grounded I doubt a hurricane could knock those two over. But if they are tough as nails, it's because witches have what may be the hardest job in all the Discworld. They are the last line of defense in a world where magic is real and the black end of the business threatens to get the upper hand on a fairly regular basis. There isn't much time for wondering whether such an arrangement is fair or not.
The Nac Mac Feegle are hard to explain to anyone who isn't a Pratchett fan. They seem like exactly the sort of creature you'd see in any of Brian Froud's wonderful fairy books. Yet they are Pratchett's own invention, having created them out of what appears to be the distilled essence of every story ever heard or read about the Fair Folk. If anyone ever needed proof of Prachett's deep understanding of folk tales and the essence of life in the English countryside -- or of his incredibly fecund imagination -- the Wee Free Men would be Exhibit A. Whether you admire them as an expertly and lovingly crafted literary device, or whether you hope never to run into them in the middle of a midnight cow theft, the tiny blue, kilt-clad, tattooed terrors of the chalk countryside are back, and keeping as watchful an eye on Tiffany as they did in The Wee Free Men and Hatful of Sky. Just because she's 13 doesn't mean she no longer requires watching over. They literally go to Hell and back for her, and Hell really, really can't wait for them to leave because of what they did to the place the last time they were there.
Duty is the main theme explored in Wintersmith. Pratchett handles it with his usual, unmatched wit, which is always the best part of any Pratchett novel. Yes, the plot is actually somewhat standard young adult, "growing up" fare. It's all about realizing when it's time to embrace a more mature state of being. But it's the way he examines the issue of responsibility, with his unique, compassionate insight that makes Wintersmith such a compelling read and Tiffany one of the most interesting characters in a Discworld filled with every supernatural character imaginable.
That, and the wonderful humor that is Pratchett's hallmark, of course. It's the laughing out loud in public places that makes this book so worthwhile. Who cares if people look at you strangely? You'll be in good company.
8 May 2010
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