Friday, 1 October 2010

Reviewing Tiffany's Witch Debut: I Shall Wear Midnight

Writing up a review on the latest Discworld book from Terry Pratchett - I Shall Wear Midnight. Obviously there are going to be spoilers in this.

I was lucky enough to be able to borrow it off an awesome friend, Sera, who by sheer astonishingly good fortune picked up a review copy of the hardback in a second-hand books store (my favourite one, Jason's Books in Auckland) about two days after it was released in New Zealand. And my family has already queued up for it - my dad's reading it through for the second time (I gave it to him at the weekend and he read it all that afternoon, and now my siblings are complaining because they wanted it first! Traditionally, one of them gets it for their birthdays, which are in the next couple of months, but the books seem to be getting released earlier and earlier, so none of us could wait that long!).

I Shall Wear Midnight is the fourth book in the young adult series about Tiffany Aching, who grows up on the chalk in a small shepherding community, and decides that the area needs a witch. This is partly inspired by her renowned and formidable grandmother Granny Aching, who died just before the first book (Wee Free Men). Granny Aching wasn't a Witch - but only because she said she wasn't and the Chalk had no tradition of witches, so they never thought to call her one. Witches to them where toothless old hags... much like the second reason for Tiffany's choice of vocation, the old lady whose cottage was burnt and cat was killed, and who died in the snow, when she was younger.

This last book (for now) ties up various story threads from the series, as well as picking up a few bonus oddments from other stories. Like most of his YA books, it had a much more linear approach - none of the random cameo point-of-view sections and multiple converging/diverging story threads. It's pretty much just Tiffany. It's also got some surprisingly adult elements that threw me on the first read, but on the second worked quite well (I was expecting a children's book, after all - it's definitely into the teen area, depending on your child of course). It was good and a fitting end to the series (if it is the end) and I'd definitely recommend it. The mysterious and deadly enemy is one stirred up in Wintersmith and causes a lot of panic - an old Inquisitor, now an incorporeal and terrible danger, who stirs up the old fears and hatreds against witches and comes hunting Tiffany. It's solved fairly straightforwardly, but there's enough tension to keep it interesting, and it keeps the plot moving in order to let the characters be themselves enough to make a story out of it all.

From the beginning, Tiffany - and therefore the reader - is very conscious of her duties as a witch. Feeding, cleaning and dress the invalids, keeping an eye on things, midwifing, making sure flowers mysteriously grow on an old woman's grave, staying in touch with the Kelda... and of course, never, ever forgetting anyone's name, and having no time for her 'passionate parts'. The book gets adult very quickly here! Although most younger readers wouldn't know what 'passionate parts' are referring to (despite the fact that the question is asked by two little girls). The drama starts when a drunken husband beats his daughter so hard she miscarries - and Tiffany has to try and deal with it all, help the girl, and make sure he isn't hung by the villagers, when he stirs up the 'rough music' (facing the music becomes literal). Nanny Ogg also appears to educate Letitia on her wifely duties, and anyone who knows Gytha Ogg knows what THAT means.

It is very much about growing up and adjusting to responsibility - Tiffany's only fifteen but for most of the book, it feels like she's at least in her twenties. She's very conscious of her new responsibilites and having to learn how to balance them. While of course, never asking for help from other witches, because they would certainly help out. Oh yes, they'd gladly come rescue her. But then it would show that she couldn't do it herself... and that's important to witches. She doesn't wear black (midnight) though - she has a pretty green dress. "When I am old", she says a couple of times, "I shall wear midnight".

She spends most of the book adjusting to the fact that just because it was 'obvious' that her and Roland (the Baron's son, who she rescued in Wee Free Men) should pair up, doesn't mean they actually will. She has a bit of trouble adjusting to his engagement to the washy, 'watercolour' Letitia - a soggy, pretty, princess-girl, much abused by her domineering, excessively class-conscious mother, who has a few surprises in store in the second half of the book. The sort of girl who gives teddy bears to headless skeletons... and has it work.

Tiffany visits Ankh-Morpork, to learn a bit about scary witchy props, discovering the source of the infamous Boffo catalogue (as played a part in her apprenticeship in Wintersmith) and she's meets Vimes, gets arrested, and has to get the Feegles out of the city in a hurry, after they creatively destroy, then creatively rebuild a tavern.

Esk from Wyrd Sisters makes a not-that-unexpected-surprise 'save the day' appearance to rescue Tiffany in Ankh-Morpork and explain the Plot Enemy to her. Eskarina Smith was a girl who ended up as a wizard, back in the early days of the Discworld. Granny Weatherwax was pivotal in getting her into the Unseen University, a blow was struck for feminism, and then she disappeared from every book hereafter. She's got a very practical, witchy outlook - whether because that's how Pratchett portrays his magical women, or because Granny Weatherwax had a hand in teaching her as a child, I'm not sure. She's more scientific and Wizardly in her approach to magic though - and has mastery of time travel, which is a splendid hook for later stories. This comforts me, and helps stave of the slightly dissatisfied feeling her brief appearance leaves, as it feels like she appeared because she had to appear, not because the story needed her.
She built a witch shambles, and also took the 'knob of the end' of her staff to improve the balance (*cough cough*). It looks like there may be a fifth book - it's not necessary, but (SPOILER) Tiffany makes a time-travelling appearance to herself (hence one of the cover illustrations) so it seems Esk taught her a few tricks.

Corparal Buggy Swires of the Watch makes a most lawful appearance to thrash every last one of the Nac Mac Feegles into submission - turns out he's only an adopted gnome... (to be fair, it was fairly well established that a) gnomes are only really some kind of civilised Feegle and b) he wasn't exactly a gnome and was pretty fairly a Feegle already, but he was so minor that most people seem to have forgotten this and were getting upset at the apparent needless plot-pandering/name dropping).

Tiffany wins, of course (it is one of his YA books), and asks for a whole bunch of eat happy endings from the new baron - ironically lampshaded as 'just deciding people's lives for them', and she finds someone else to be her beau (although this is never set in stone with Pratchett, who believes in letting his characters make their own mistakes), who also appreciates the sound of words and shares a love for the sound of susurrus ...

Oh - if you're planning to buy the series for someone, there was a book on Amazon that compiled the first two - I can't find it, so it may have been pulled, but it was poor quality and looks like it's a different book, or a prequel - it isn't. You still have to buy them all separately. The illustrated Wee Free Men is worth buying instead of the novel - it's a nice big picture book, with the complete story and the illustrations are great.

Edit: Pratchett says this will be the last in the series 'because after that she'll be grown up, and so will all her fans and they'll be ready for an adult book' (and therefore not part of the YA Tiffany Aching series!) (ref: video interview in 2007)

Terry Pratchett has Alzheimer's Disease and had to dictate this entirely, as he can no longer type - Wear the Lilac Day is the day for fundraising and commemorating. And wearing lilac. If you're looking for a Discworld book to start with, then the Tiffany Aching series is a very good place, but the first book - the Colour of Magic - definitely isn't. You can also have a browse through a complete list of all Pratchett's books and short stories - most of the short stories are free online now, so you could try jumping in there!

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