By the end of this novel, it seemed that Terry Pratchett had completed the story of Tiffany Aching. I Shall Wear Midnight is about many things: her greatest challenge, the completion of her apprenticeship, the resolution of what, after all the misdirection, is her relationship with Roland and the Chalk’s relationship with witchery, and the promise of a genuine, solid romance.
It’s a book of fulfilments, endings and completions. Though it is careful also to be a book of opening, into a future, it is nevertheless Childhood’s End, and for a character who was introduced as a Young Adult, albeit a nine year old, that is traditionally where the story stops. An Adult is something different. Sex changes perspectives.
Once again, two years have passed, and Tiffany is now fifteen, or, as the book puts it on every occasion, ‘nearly sixteen’. She’s back from her apprenticeships in the mountains and is the Witch of the Chalk, fully-fledged, working alone, doing all the things a witch is needed for.
There’s a particularly horrible example of this up front. A man called Petty, an unusually stupid, aggressive and sodden man, has savagely beaten his daughter, to the extent that she has miscarried her baby. What he has done has sparked the rough music, a spontaneous decision by the rest of the people that a situation has passed the point of being tolerable, or else ignorable, and that something will be done about it. It’s a kind of folkloric lynching, to be frank, the difference being that instead of prejudice, it’s a communal purge.
Tiffany has to deal with this in all its cruel, vicious, stupid, pathetic and horrific aspects, including keeping the villagers from murder, however justified. She has to rescue and heal the girl, Amber. She even has, the morning after, to save Petty from hanging himself.
What goes by almost without comment, is that Amber, who has lost her child, is herself only a child, a thirteen year old. As is William, her ‘beau’. Yes, severely underage sex, which is to be perpetuated given that, when we get to the epilogue, a year later, Amber and William are a married couple, at fourteen.
Pratchett once again shows his underlying intelligence as to structure by placing all of this is Chapter Two, and having the sexual aspect be an ironic reflection of the dilemma introduced into the deliberately light opening chapter. It’s the Summer Fair and Tiffany, in her usual green dress, is enjoying herself among the country pursuits, one of which, traditionally, is finding a beau. It’s of concern on two levels this year, one being whether a witch wants, needs or even acknowledges a sexual relationship (Nanny Ogg being the glaringly obvious exception).
The other is that, after three books of preparatory work establishing a common bond between Tiffany and the Baron’s heir, Roland, the moment puberty’s seriously hit, he’s only gone off to get engaged to Letitia Keepsake, a particularly pale, weedy and damp blonde girl, with a seriously bullying, stuck-up, more-aristocratic-than-thou mother of a Duchess.
Or should that be Duchess of a mother?
And Tiffany’s miffed. In her head, she’s accepted it, accepted that what brought her and Roland together to begin with was not attraction to each other, but mutual exclusion over their differences from others. In her heart, though, Tiffany is suffering from the only evidence that she is actually a fifteen year old girl on the cusp of sexual maturity, namely jealousy.
All of this, and the after-effects of the Pettys, takes up quite a bit of space. For once, Pratchett is in no hurry to get to the meat of the story. There is another element to introduce, to dovetail with those already on the page. The Old Baron is still dying, slowly, with Tiffany daily taking his pain away. But the time has come: the old man is temporarily lucid and thoughtful, showing signs of the deeper character behind the bluff Baron-ness that goes with the role. And there is a beautiful moment of memory and delight that is one of the best things Pratchett ever wrote, that merges into the old man’s death.
After which there is mourning, from all the Baron’s subjects, genuine mourning, without pretence or reservation. But there is also a worm in the apple, in the form of Nurse Spruce, a poisonous hater of witches, a castigator of unholy powers, who sows the seed of discord that will twist throughout the book.
Nurse Spruce is the forerunner. She’s lazy, unhelpful, malicious, overtly religious, and she’ll be found to be a thief too, but she’s the poisonous precursor to the Cunning Man, who Tiffany will have to face and overthrow, not only for her own sake, but for that of Witchdom.
The Cunning Man was once an Omnian Priest, in the witch-burning era of the Church. He found and arranged to burn a witch, but fell in love with her and plotted to enable her escape. She, seeing in him all he had done, and the continuing conflict between his ‘duty’ and his impliedly temporary ‘love’, refused escape and clasped him to herself in the fire.
Ever since, he has been a discarnate force, recurring at times, occupying, burning out and destroying bodies as he pursues his rotting, stench-laden pursuit of witchery, mouthing vile imprecations. He has no eyes.
The Cunnning Man is a frightening, corrupt, almost invincible thing. He’s been attracted towards Tiffany because she became visible two years ago, kissing the Wintersmith into dissolution. Granny Weatherwax dismissed him once, but he always returns, because he is Hate and Fear, and there is something of him in every one of us. Tiffany must defeat him. The rest of the witches will stand by, not to help, because a witch deals with her own problems or she is no witch, but to deal with whatever emerges if Tiffany loses…
Given what the Cunning Man is, actual contact with him must be brief and attenuated in order to keep the book going until the inevitable confrontation. But the rising tide of anger, fear and resentment towards witches in general – which has already spread as far as Ankh-Morpork, where Tiffany goes to break the news to Roland and bring him home – and its personal effects on Tiffany, suspected of killing the Old Baron, are more than enough to maintain the story without any sag, and to build a gradually accelerating sense of menace and tempo.
The biggest surprise comes when Pratchett brings the utterly wet Letitia on stage as something more than the cartoon figure of Tiffany’s resentment. Letitia is indeed weepy as hell, but she has a lot to be weepy about, what with her repressive mother (who, in a glorious nod to Pratchett’s only Twentieth Century superior at light comedy, P. G. Wodehouse, turns out to be a jumped-up Chorus Girl) and the fact that, being a natural, untrained witch herself, her jealousy towards Tiffany has kick-started the whole thing.
With that knowledge in place, and with Letitia’s goodwill tipping the balance back in Tiffany’s favour, Pratchett sets up the climax, which is to take place between the Old Baron’s funeral and Roland and Letitia’s wedding.
Crucial to both is Nanny Ogg, who dissolves the tension of the former by allowing the guests to relax into memory and celebration in a genuinely touching fashion, and who, at Tiffany’s instigation, takes the soon to be blushing bride on one side for a good talk…
But though the elder witches are to hand, the battle is Tiffany’s, and her alone. It doesn’t preclude her from seeking non-magical aid once she realises the course she has to adopt, and whilst that’s meant to be Preston, the young, clever, Castle Guard who is clearly the non-romantic real thing for Tiffany, it expands to include both Roland (covered in pig-shit after his stag do) and the determinedly helpful Letitia.
And, of course, the Feegles, who I haven’t mentioned so far, but who are in the thick of things throughout.
So Tiffany dispels the Cunning Man, until next time. She asks for things from the New Baron that are meant to uplift, improve and expand the horizons for the young folk of the Chalk, in a scene whose spirit and effect is lifted directly from those regular chats with the Patrician at the end of a City Watch book. And she has her beau in Preston, who understands both her and the role he has in her life.
All is well. Tiffany is now a Witch, a Witch of the Chalk, respected in full measure as an equal by her elders. Childhood has ended. All’s right with the world, the story is complete. If only it were.
I’ve left out an awful lot of what goes on in the pages of I Shall Wear Midnight. It’s a big book, in its way, and the many stories are inter-related to a greater degree than most other multi-plotted Discworld books. To go into further detail would mean going into further detail yet, and I’d prefer to allow new readers to take things in from Pratchett, rather than from me.
It is a tightly-woven, beautifully-conceived and effervescently-written book that entirely refutes any suggestion that Pratchett’s condition was affecting his work and that’s what most needs saying.
There is one further aspect of it that needs to be considered separately, and that’s Pratchett’s surprising decision to return to a character long unseen. This is Esk, Eskarina Smith, the girl who became a Wizard a very long time ago in Equal Rites.
Her presence is very odd indeed, and it’s the only thing in this book that I am not sure about. She’s a concrete reminder, and a re-validation of a book that made a very poor start on Granny Weatherwax. She’s also considerably older than she should be for the years that have passed, and which have transformed her into a mini-myth of her own. Structurally, she’s a deus ex machina, removing Tiffany from danger and feeding her exposition about the Cunning Man, before disappearing again, not to have anything more than peripheral effect upon the rest of the book.
Eskarina has the ability to travel in time, an ability that she will, in small ways, exercise for Tiffany’s benefit. She also as a son whom she must protect, but that’s a throwaway line, a dangling mystery that might once have led to a book that will now never be written.
She serves, in the finale, to bring Tiffany face to face with her much older self, Granny Weatherwax old, there to reassure her that all will go well, and drop a stonking great hint that Preston is, indeed, the one, and that Tiffany will be happy.
Except that Pratchett has done this before. It’s all back to sex again, the great absence. How many times has Pratchett done this to Susan Sto-Helit? Wound her up to harmony with a man who can provide her with what is good about a relationship, including snogging sessions in the stationery cupboard, only to vanish him the next time the character is wanted?
There will be another outing for Tiffany, and once again Pratchett will undercut his previous ending and tear it apart. But I’ll say what I have to say about The Shepherd’s Crown soon enough, so let it wait till then.