Review Retrospect: The Tiffany Aching Series (or “The Wee Free Men”, “A Hat Full of Sky”, “Wintersmith” & “I Shall Wear Midnight”) By Terry Pratchett
Imagine a turtle swimming through the infinite of space, on this turtles shell stand 4 elephants of equally enormous size (but smaller then the turtle… that’s just physics), on the shoulders of these elephants lies a world as large as ours, but as flat as a pancake… this is the Discworld.
A world where magic exists but wizards and witches are smart enough not to use it unless necessary, a world where every story is true and most likely kill you, a world where Trolls rub shoulders with humans who rub shoulders with dwarves (metaphorically speaking), a word where Death exists as a 7 foot tall skeleton in a black robe who has a fondness for kittens and rides a horse called Binky.
It is a world created by Terry Pratchett, and I’ve been living there for almost 20 years now… again, metaphorically speaking.
I’ve gushed over how Sir Terry, and his books, has influenced my life in a former post, so I won’t get into that here. What I will get into however, is why it took me the better part of 8 years to read his Tiffany Aching books.
As I’ve said, I love the Discworld, it is my favourite fictional plane of existence and I’ve read pretty much everything about it… so why didn’t I read the Tiffany Aching books every time they came out? Well, the Tiff books are classed under the “Discworld Story for Younger Readers” section of the series; yes, I let the fact that I wasn’t a “Young Reader” influence me, it almost stopped me from reading these fabulous books, I basically felt that sir Terry was selling himself short with these stories, that he was pandering to the youth market, “I started with the normal series, why should anyone else be different?” was my excuse. And so, for 8 long years, I avoided them… until my crazy compulsion to complete a collection (alteration FTW) drove me to read them.
And I’m glad I did.
The Tiffany Aching series is as just as much as part of the overall series as Mort, or Interesting Time or Men at Arms are, it is a rich series full of brilliant and compelling new characters (and some cameos by old favourites), interesting plots, a far reaching story ark, and beautiful character growth.
I was wrong to ignore them for so long, and I hope this retrospect will atone for my sins…
The Wee Free Men
An experienced witch named Miss Tick and her toad arrive on the chalk. She feels that something is not right, so she decides to find out what’s going on. Her intuition is right. The Queen of the Elves has made another attempt at invading the Discworld, this time by stealing children and infesting dreams.
With the help of the Wee Free Men, the Nac Mac Feegle, nine-year-old Tiffany Aching finds out that her grandmother used to be the witch of the Chalklands, and that she has inherited the trade. When her baby brother is stolen, Tiffany and the Nac Mac Feegle enter the elves’ world to steal him back.
(Plot synopsis taken from Wikipedia, because they’re better at it then I am)
This was a good starting point for the series. It introduced us to Tiffany and immediately set her up as the resourceful, brave, smart beyond her years protagonist that she grew into, it created the imagery of the Chalklands as a no nonsense farmers village, where people most often grow older in their heads but still look young on the outside. It planted the seed that grew the myth of Granny Aching (a witch in everything but the pointy black hat), and the Nac Mac Feegle, a group of pictsies (not Pixies, unless you want your head stoved in, “Crivins”) who have more in common with William Wallace then Tinkerbell.
It also brought back the Queen of the Faries as the antagonist of this book. If you have read ‘Lords and Ladies’, then no introduction is necessary, but for those of you who haven’t (admittedly, that will be most of you), allow me to paint a picture:
Faries are not nice, they are certainly beautiful… but any reality tv show will show you that beauty does not automatically equal nice. They are vicious, mean, narcissistic, egomaniacs who never grew out of the “ME ME ME” stage of their life. If one is being nice to you, it is for their enjoyment only and you better pray that they don’t grow bored. The worst is the Queen, the vainest of the lot, who believes that everything should belong to her because of her status. She steal children and hides them in dreams, she bullies, she tortures and is most definitely cruel… she is also one of the greatest villains on the Discworld, and it’s good to see her back, just so we can hate her again.
The Wee Free Men is an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to get into the Discworld. It’s funny, heart warming in places and sets a good precedent for the rest of the series. If you need to start anywhere, start here.
A Hat Full of Sky
A Hat Full of Sky revisits the young witch Tiffany Aching, who is preparing to leave home and learn witchcraft. She takes dislike to her studies, finding the work of the witches to be thankless, dull and pointless and that witches work long hours helping the sick, young or elderly who are not self-sufficient rather then doing actual magic.
A hiver, a mysterious and dangerous creature, enters Tiffany’s mind causing her to abuse her powers of magic. It is explained that the Hiver does not change the way she acts, merely allows her to do what she would do without a conscience. Her fellow witches are worried by Tiffany’s strange behavior and try to bring her back to herself.
With the help of other witches and the Nac Mac Feegle, Tiffany must defeat the Hiver and regain control of herself before it’s too late.
(Portions of this synopsis, again, taken from Wikipedia)
It’s time for Tiffany to learn what it is to be a witch, is it flying by broomstick at night, firing lightning from her fingers, turning people into toads, and all hubble bubble toil and trouble? Hmmmm-no, no it’s not. We discover that being a witch is more like being a nurse that makes house calls to those who can’t look after themselves. It’s about fixing what needs mending, taking responsibility for the people under your charge, and not expecting payment other then what’s expected (old boots or fresh sheets seem to be the common currency). We also learn that whilst magic can be used by witches, the trick is not to use it… trust me, it all makes sense in the book.
Tiffany has also aged in the story, from 9 to 11, she’s starting to grow into her strange new world, and discover that beating the queen of the faries is a piece of cake compared to the rest of the world.
Again, the characters are fantastic, the imagery is amazing, and whilst it’s not as good as Wee Free Men, that does not mean that it’s not a good book, there just doesn’t seem to be that much air or urgency as there was in the previous title. Still, an excellent continuation of the story.
Tiffany Aching, now 13 years old, is training with the witch Miss Treason. But when she takes Tiffany to witness the secret dark morris - the morris dance (performed wearing black clothes and octiron bells) that welcomes in the winter, Tiffany finds herself drawn into the dance and joins in. She finds herself face to face with the Wintersmith - winter himself - who mistakes her for the Summer Lady. He is enchanted by her, mystified by her presence.
Tiffany must now deal with the personification of the Winter season, fight off his romantic advances and… yeah, save the world.
(Portions of synopsis taken from Wikipedia)
Now we’re getting into the meat of things. Wintersmith can be read in two ways, the first is the simple story of magic and the triumph of good over a technical evil. The second way is the growth of the scared child into adulthood, it’s about accepting mistakes one makes and trying your damnedest to fix it before it all goes wrong… it going wrong being an Ice age in this case. It’s also about unrequited love and how sometimes it’s best to let go before something terrible happens.
This book is basically about life growing up and all the mess in between.
This is a good one, there is major conflict throughout the story but with no antagonist. The Wintersmith is not evil, he can’t be evil, he just is. He’s a personification of a time frame, he’s confused and in love, it’s just unfortunate that him being here can destroy the world.
Again, Tiffany has grown and her skills have grown with her, her understanding of what it means to be a witch has solidified, her trust in others has grown, she has made friends in her respective field and has almost completely grown out of what she was before (and what she was before was pretty bad ass already).
I like this one. Wintersmith is what sold me on this being a good series for the beginner Pratchett fan, it introduces characters to the newbie that are familiar to the veteran Discworld-ite, and tells them in no uncertain words what they are all about (If you don’t become a fan of Nanny Ogg after this, then there’s something wrong with you).
Now things get a little dark…
I Shall Wear Midnight
Tiffany is working as the Chalk’s only witch in a climate of growing suspicion and prejudice: When the local Baron dies of poor health, she is accused of murder. Tiffany travels to Ankh-Morpork to inform the Baron’s heir, Roland, who happens to be in the city with his fiancée Letitia. On the way Tiffany is attacked by the Cunning Man, a frightening figure who has holes where his eyes should be and a hatred of Witches.
Tiffany must overcome the prejudice, convince people she’s not a killer and restore the peoples trust in witches… Oh, and also defeat an evil spirit hell bent on killing her in the process.
(Parts of Synopsis taken from Wikipedia)
Child abuse, Miscarriage, attempted suicide, murders, demon possession, prejudice, hatred for what you don’t understand… this was meant for younger readers, right Terry?
Joking aside, this is probably the best of the series, it’s amazingly dark for what is technically a young readers book, it deals with a strong subject matter amazingly well, and shows what the repercussions of ones actions (both good and bad) can do to you. It’s subject matter is deep and rich, the character growth of Tiffany is amazing and alters what we knew of the girl back when she was just 9 years old, the antagonist, a walking embodiment of hate and distrust, is just bloody spectacular (and once you learn his back story, also a little sad). It’s all just a fantastic end to an already brilliant series.
As I said earlier, the Tiffany aching books are a good kicking off point for anyone wanting to get into the Discworld series, it sets up the world and shows you how funny, spellbinding, charismatic, scary, frightening, beautiful, and genius it can be
Read them, you will never regret it… not for as long as the turtle moves.