The original idea behind the Young Adult Discworld series had been perceived as a run of one-offs, set away from the main body and the main characters and settings of the Old Adult series. The revelation that Pratchett had at least toyed with another Maurice book, this time as a ship’s cat, seems to support this notion, but A Hat Full of Sky torpedoed it for sure. We now had a Tiffany Aching series to, ultimately, supersede that of the Three Witches.
Two years have passed since The Wee Free Men (as they had in real life). Tiffany was now eleven and about to leave home for the first time, to enter the service of Miss Level, a witch over towards Lancre, where she expects to learn all about magic and how to use it.
In fact, it’s very much the opposite: Pratchett has made this point many times with both Witches and Wizards, and it’s the one that’s always hardest for the young and eager to learn, which is how not to use magic. Which Tiffany finds both frustrating and easy.
A Hat Full of Sky is actually a very conventional, almost commonplace children’s witch story. Tiffany’s frustration at the lack of direct instruction escalates steadily until she goes off the rails, making exactly all the mistakes that she should be learning not to make, with dire consequences that require the intervention of a senior, and much more powerful witch to show her how to correctly use her powers to resolve the mess she has created.
There’s also the traditional first meeting with her peers, the other would-be witch girls of varying degrees of competence, of course led by the noisiest and most arrogant girl, who thinks she already knows more than everybody else and that her conception of witchery – one hundred and eighty degrees away from the truth but attractive temporarily to the heroine who has not yet learnt better – is the only possible method.
But though Pratchett is using only the most tried-and-tested of materials, that’s merely the framework for the story. Tiffany’s going-off-the-rails moment is less her fault than an issue that arises out of too much natural magical ability and insufficient training. In order to get around a lack of mirrors, she’s invented a spell that gets her out of her own body, a variation on Borrowing that renders her vulnerable to the hiver, a kind of compound mind that seeks bodies in which to hide itself, immediately releasing all their inhibitions.
It’s a necessary Rite of Passage for Tiffany, who commits two very serious crimes when she no longer has her sense of self-restraint, and her strength lies in understanding that she is directly responsible for the actions she takes, since they come from her desires and her desires only, but also that she is now, in a sense, inoculated against temptation and the future risk of becoming a cackling Witch.
And it’s all down to Tiffany, though a lot of it is due to the effective channelling provided by Granny Weatherwax, and even some to the determination of the seemingly hopeless Petulia Glum, a semi-promising pig-Witch to be who, despite her hesitancy and her insubstantiality, aligns herself with Tiffany simply because Tiffany needs help.
The section with Granny Weatherwax, during which Pratchett articulates even further the role of witches as edge people, is surprisingly long: with the exception of the long short story, The Sea and Little Fishes, it’s the longest sequence of Granny that we ever see this side of Carpe Jugulum. And it’s beautifully played in every moment.
Of course, one can’t ignore the Nac Mac Feegle. There’s a new Kelda, Jeannie, and before the end there’s the first Feegle babies, helping to root this Clan into the Chalk, but Jeannie herself has a rite of passage to go through, starting the book by showing jealousy towards Tiffany, who she sees as her rival, however inappropriate the thought may be.
Despite the desperate situation in which Tiffany finds herself, A Hat Full of Sky is still very much a Young Adult Discworld book. There’s a lightness to it, a lack of detail that betrays the fact that Pratchett is aiming at a lower forehead level than usual. Like it’s two Young Adult predecessors, this is seen in the size of the original volume, which was smaller and thinner than the Old Adult books before and after it.
That would not last: when we next see Tiffany Aching, her books will be exactly the same adult size as the standard Discworld format, and the complexity will continue to grow, commensurately.