In Praise of Pratchett: The Shepherd’s Crown

Goodbye, and thanks for all of it, and all of them

The day this was published, there was a lunchtime event at the Manchester Waterstones, with a quiz and a reading from the last Discworld novel. I got 22 out of a possible 28 on the quiz, which wasn’t enough to win me a prize. Rob Wilkins, Terry Pratchett’s friend and assistant read the first part of chapter 2. It was about Granny Weatherwax, and it wasn’t hard to realise, from very early on, what this extract was going to be about. There were people wiping their eyes all round the Events Room, and I’ll admit to being one of them.
I’d toyed with the idea of postponing reading the book. I was in the throes of re-reading Monstrous Regiment and it seemed appropriate to complete reading the whole series, complete writing all these essays about the books and what they’re about and what they do and how I’ve responded. And it put off the evil hour before there were no more Discworld books at all.
But after that chapter – and this was chapter 2, so very early in the book – it wasn’t going to be possible to wait. I went home and I read it. And the longer I read it, the more my heart sank. It had been there in Rob Wilkins’ reading, a little nag of doubt. Granny Weatherwax talking for the last time to Death. Not bargaining or fighting or suggesting, but accepting. Her time was up, and Witches know: shall we go? We have already gone.
Only… it didn’t sound right. Even through the emotion of what we were listening to, there was something wrong. And it carries on through the book, from start to finish. The Shepherd’s Crown was being lauded from all sides, a final triumph, a fine ending. Everyone loved it. But I don’t. The triumph is in self-delusion, in wanting the book to be what we all wanted it to be, in telling ourselves that it is indeed wonderful, that it’s the send-off we dreamed of.
And it’s not. Not for me. It’s a shadow, a shadow of what Terry Pratchett was about as a writer. There were things I was uncertain about in Raising Steam, that I thought then were signs that the Alzheimers was starting to take effect, and The Shepherd’s Crown is far further gone. I don’t recognise anyone in this book. I know them by name, and I know them by place, but I don’t hear their voices, not once.
When Granny talks to Death, it doesn’t sound like either of them. Nor does Nanny Ogg sound like Nanny, nor Magrat like Magrat, nor Ridcully like Ridcully. Nor Tiffany Aching like Tiffany Aching. The most awful thing about this book is that it sounds like it was written in defiance of Rhianna Pratchett’s proclamation that no-one will take up the mantle. It reads like someone who has written a Discworld book but who can’t get under the skins of the characters, cannot make them sound like anything more than a much-dulled, homogenised version of themselves.
Believe me, I am not saying this lightly. I so do not want to be saying anything of this sort. Granny Weatherwax’s death begins the story with a powerful emotional charge, that carries the book for several chapters, although even then the idea that she would hand over her cottage to Tiffany Aching – so young, so not of the Ramtops – and that this would be accepted so immediately and with so little opposition rings false. But, as Granny’s influence fades so quickly away, the story flattens out and gets less and less life-like.
And even as we’re allowing the emotions to carry along, we cannot but help notice that people are not who they ought to be. Nanny Ogg in particular is a parody of herself, drinking to excess, continually telling Tiffany that they are witches and what witches are or do. It’s narrative as dialogue again, even more so, and the worst is the equivalent of the funeral.
In I Shall Wear Midnight, Nanny Ogg transforms the old Baron’s funeral into a celebration and an affirmation of life. We watch her do it, the effect is tremendous: sadness is absorbed into warmth, into Life. She does the same here, or rather we’re told she does. We don’t see it for ourselves, and I at least didn’t feel it.
The problem with all of this is that without the right voices, not least from Pratchett himself, the rest of the book struggles to coalesce into reality. Discworld was a thing of improbabilities, a fantasia of impossibilities, but Pratchett made it believable without effort. Not so here: The Shepherd’s Crown requires a leap of conviction where ordinarily only the tiniest shuffle was necessary.
I’ve heard people query whether Granny’s death was really necessary, but that’s easily answered. It’s key to the plot, which is the final attempt by the Elves to break back into Discworld and take it for their pleasure again: the removal of Granny weakens the boundaries and allows the Elves back in.
But it’s also essential on psychological grounds. Granny Weatherwax has always been the leader witches don’t have, the best and most formidable of them, the last bulwark. Tiffany Aching became Terry Pratchett’s favourite character, and for her to become the best witch, the ultimate bulwark, she either has to beat Granny, or Granny must otherwise be removed. Nobody’s going to buy Granny Weatherwax being outdone, not for a second.
So Tiffany becomes the bulwark, at her young age. We’re not told how old that is, but seventeen isn’t a bad estimate: seventeen, and the chief and most powerful witch, responsible for casting out the Queen of the Elves as she once did when only nine.
Except that the Queen is no longer as powerful as she was. That defeat has damaged her glamour, reduced her status, diminished her. She is overthrown by Lord Peaseblossom, an arrogant, ignorant son of a bitch, elf to his fingertips and stupid with it. The railway is here, weaving webs of iron across the Discworld, swarf is in the very air, the Elves haven’t got a chance, but the crass bully can’t believe in any limits to Elvish power. The Queen is not just overthrown but beaten, mutilated, her wings torn off and she is cast out into Discworld.
Under the nose of Tiffany, of course. Who takes her in, takes her over, and starts to convert her towards humanity.
Redemption, of course. Not for races, this time, but a single individual (two, in fact: Mrs Earwig, the snooty witch, will turn out to be totally proof against Elvish glamour, and top notch in a fight). The Queen learns to become human, to think of and help others, to shed arrogance and glamour. It’s a glorious notion, and one that ends in tragedy when she is slaughtered out of hand by Peaseblossom, but the biggest problem is that I don’t believe a word of it. Tell, not Show. It’s too quick, too perfunctory, too flimsy for me to accept, and the death scene is too short to have the impact that is wanted.
Still, Tiffany marshals her witchy forces and Discworld wins a final victory. Tiffany proves herself not only to be the chief witch, but also the ultimate shepherd, surpassing even Granny Aching, or at least so we’re told.
One point should be made here, as it is in Rob Wilkins’ afterword to the book, which he also read out at that Waterstones event: The Shepherd’s Crown, though complete, is unfinished. It was Pratchett’s practice to polish and polish, to re-write and re-work each novel up to virtually the printer’s door, adding, changing, improving even as he was deep into the next book. This book was orphaned before it could have all that attention, and it is not what it would have been if the extra time could somehow have been begged, borrowed or bartered.
Even on a second reading, not overcome by shock at how unlike Pratchett all this is, I seriously doubt that enough could have been done to remove the most serious flaws in this book. It fails to come alive because the characters fail to stand on the page. Take Geoffrey, the boy who wants to become a witch, and who Tiffany dubs a calm-weaver. He’s an entirely new creation, along with his intelligent goat, Mephistopholes, so the only voice he has is the one in this book, but the voice is never alive. Geoffrey doesn’t have a word of dialogue that sounds as if it’s being spoken by a human being, let alone a teenage boy. Furthermore, between first and second reading of The Shepherd’s Crown, I’d completely forgotten him, so big an impact does he create.
What is he for? What’s Mephistopholes about, especially with that name? (And why, in a non-Christian setting, is that name significant anyway?)
Anyway, Geoffrey is responsible for a new advancement in Discworld, which is the creation of men’s sheds. Even the bored and disinterested King of the Elves gets one, though I can’t say that the concept ever totally convinces. Like the Railway, it’s less a funhouse mirror image turned into a Discworld creation than a straight adoption of something that exists in our world.
Pratchett does better by introducing Railway Arches, though that’s something that will probably be lost on an audience much younger than me: I can’t help but be taken back to the likes of Alf Tupper – The Tough of the Track.
Is there anything more to say? This is a book that falls short of the high standards that Terry Pratchett set for himself and maintained far longer than any writer so prolific had a right to maintain. It fails against those standards, despite the high qualities that the book’s conception embodies. It may well be a better book than many others of that ilk, but I cannot judge it against any other standards than those that have satisfied me for almost half my lifetime.
During that time, Pratchett was a writer of great breadth and depth, of humour and anger, and with the ability to bring the two forces together, time and again. He was a clever and subtle writer, a gifted plotter, with the ability to evoke emotion and insight. My pet hate in writing is the writer who uses the words: As you know… They are an abomination to me, the tactic of a writer who has no better idea of how to convey information to his readers than to have his characters sit around and tell themselves what they already know. They’re cheap, they’re lazy, they’re thin. Hell’s bells, no-one in real life ever says ‘As you know’: any writer worth reading can find a way to say them that a living, breathing person might use.
Terry Pratchett never used the words ‘As you know’ in any form in any of his Discworld books. Until The Shepherd’s Crown. And they’re everywhere. That is what his condition took from him.
I wish I could say better things, but the only thing you can give a writer is honesty in how you respond to their words. And this is honestly not a good book.

Hardly a Vintage Year

The Annual List of Bestselling Books turned up in the Guardian today so I did my annual scan of it for books I actually bought or read, and it’s an almost record-breaking four – though that depends on the resurgence of To Kill and Mockingbird, which I’ve owned for thirty years now, and the first Game of Thrones book, which I read from the library over a decade ago.

That leaves just two genuine 2015 books I have bought and read, Owen Jones’ The Establishment, and the last Terry Pratchett.

I was thinking about books before I even got to the bestsellers’ list, as the Guardian also filled three pages of readers’ best books of the year, the only one of which I had read being the aforementioned The Shepherd’s Crown, which the reader was praising to high heavens on every level. I could only think: if you say that sort of thing about this book, what the hell have you got left for a Pratchett book that was actually any good? Let alone the truly great ones.

I’m trying to remember what new books I’ve read this year. I’ve read continually, as I always do, but apart from Jones, the only new books I can remember were Pratchett’s last (which is a dreadful disappointment) and the new Gene Wolfe, A Borrowed Man. Now it’s years since Wolfe last wrote a true classic, and you have to go back to the end of The Book of the Short Sun trilogy for that. The last six standalone novels have been enjoyable in themselves, but none has been better than B-list standard, and A Borrowed Man (to which Wolfe is writing a sequel) isn’t even up to that level.

Wolfe’s pace is now approximately two years per book, and whilst we who find his work so brilliant should be grateful for anything we receive from an author who is now 88, I confess that the prospect of waiting four years for something about which I can feel optimistic is, at both his and my ages, a touch depressing.

Given the overall brilliance of their respective bodies of fiction, I really have nothing to reasonably complain of about the latest of both Pratchett and Wolfe, but to be disappointed by both in the same year is a sad coincidence.

I am becoming a creature of the past, but ends of years are times when you find yourself forced to look forward, anticipating the new. And on the evidence of 2016, the new ain’t cutting it when it comes to books. 2015 was hardly a vintage year, for anything, come to think of it.


In Praise of Pratchett: Introduction

Terry Pratchett by Josh Kirby

It’s only a couple of months since we lost Sir Terrance David John Pratchett, to the grief of all. After the public outpourings, people seem to have settled into their own, private thoughts at the loss of Terry, and Discworld, and all those wonderful people within it, though the wound will once again become public in August when the last ever Discworld book, Tiffany Aching’s The Shepherd’s Crown, will be published.
A few days after the news, I sat down to re-read my favourite Discworld book of all, the 2002 Sam Vimes novel, Night Watch. I meant no more than a reaction to a book, to the loss of those characters who had come to be the most important of Pratchett’s creation, who would never develop further, never grow older than they were when last Pratchett had written about them.
A commenter, ‘G’, asked if I was going to blog about more of Pratchett’s books.
I’d never really thought about doing that before. Unlike many of the things I’ve blogged about on here, Pratchett and Discworld have a massive, world-wide, knowledgeable and, in places, near fanatic audience. Who am I to start interpreting Terry’s work to others who know the subject at least as well, if not better, than I do myself? What insight have I that has not been shared by millions of others? What can I say that hasn’t been said, to better effect, by others?
On the other hand, I was there from almost the start. I bought The Colour of Magic in paperback (I have, in fact, bought it three times to date, which, given that I happen to think it a long way inferior to every other Discworld novel, carries a tale in itself).
But the John Crowley re-read/review is complete, and a complete reading of Discworld is mandated, and I’ve discovered to my pleasure that there are lots of things in even familiar books that don’t get seen until you go looking for them, so for the next few months I’m going to re-read the entire works of one of the funniest, most thoughtful, and serious authors to have enlivened and enlightened the times in which I’ve lived.
And you’re all invited to start arguments with me in the space below if you don’t like what I might say. Or even if you do.