Monday, September 14, 2015

On reading The Shephard's Crown, Farewell to the Disc


On reading The Shephard's Crown, Terry Pratchett's postumously-published and very last ever Discworld novel, I'd like to take a few moments to reflect on the forty-one books which have come before, as well as give a brief review of this final chapter in the saga. Pratchett is an author who was quite important to me, and one whose work in humorous fantasy gave, perhaps, two strikes against him in any effort to be taken seriously. This is a pity, as his work could be as deep, moving, and interesting as any straight literary fiction. He gave us memorable characters who grew over the decades and will remain in our memories long after the final page is turned.
The very last one. 

I read the novels pretty much in publication order, beginning in the early 1990s with 1983s The Color of Magic in which the Discworld was intrduced along with some soon-to-be recurring characters: Cohen the elderly barbarian warrior, Rincewind the cowardly (and not too competent) wizard, the wizards of the Unseen University (including the orangutan serving as their librarian) and, of course, Death. It was a little bit of a one-note lighthearted romp, but quite a fun one which set the stage for many, many more adventures to come. While Rincewind was a fun character, he wasn't really one of Prachett's best in that his personality was fairly one-dimensional: he was a cowardly wizard. That sentence (and his sad habit of writing "wizzard" on his hat so people knew what he was) tells you nearly all you need know about him. Other characters faired better, telling us more about themselves, growing, and even surprising us a bit in ways which, while unexpected, still fit what we'd seen before. In the "city watch" set of books we meet lazy Fred Colon and his partner "Nobby" Nobs along with one of the heroes of the series, Commander Sam Vimes of the nightwatch. The early Vimes books were absolutely delightful in giving us a flawed yet good-hearted character struggling to do the right thing despite a system which rarely rewards righteousness. We watched Vimes struggle with alcoholism, watched him have to face his prejudices and biases, saw him struggle with protocol when elevated to higher levels of society both in the job and as a result of his marriage into the aristocracy. We saw the conflict develop between the by-the-book honest to a fault Vimes and his boss, the patrician of the city Lord Vetinari. Vetinari describes himself as a tyrant, but a just one. What was best about the early city watch books was that one never really knew what Vetinari would do, never felt that one could trust him. It was a battle between the man on the street and the boss upstairs who needed to engage in certain amounts of manipulation and scheming to keep his position and, hopefully, have the city run smoothly. It was a great set of stories which brought us diversity (as the Watch added dwarves, trolls, and even a werewolf), intrigue, and, at times, victory at a real cost. When the watch faced a killer armed with the Discworld's first gun the final battle cost them one of their own and nearly took the life of another. There were real consequences and a feeling that anything could happen.

That feeling, alas, did not last through the entire series. Vimes in particular lingered on the stage long after his story was, to my way of seeing, over. No longer did you have the struggles of a flawed hero who at times felt over his head,  but you instead had a supercop - honest to a fault, deadly competent, and knowing that he had the full backing of those in power. The ambiguity surrounding Vetinari fell away, leaving us a tyrant in name only who we could trust to never do anything bad to someone about whom we cared. In Raising Steam there was a scene with Vimes, a disguised Vetinari, and others guarding a train against religious zealots. In contrast with the battle over the gun, there was no death of a friend new or old, no price to be paid, and little feeling of menace. Nor did anyone ever seem tempted or in danger of doing the wrong thing. Pratchett was always at his best writing about flawed and somewhat ordinary people. As his characters became less so and he perhaps fell a bit too much in love with them the writing suffered a bit.

This brings us to the witches. The witches - Magrat, Agnes who calls herself Perditax, Nanny Ogg and, most importantly, Granny Weatherwax were wonderful characters. We dealt with a young woman who was a better fit for the world of wizards than witches (in 1987's Equal Rites) and many stories of the senior witches being practical, no-nonsense, decent and somewhat nosy old ladies who kept their part of the world running smoothly. Granny Weatherwax was a hero, but also a very parochial self-righteous busybody. When she went travelling with Ogg and the stars-in-her-eyes young Magrat - a woman who saw witchcraft more in occult jewelry and mysticism than in the small practical miracles by which the older witches lived - she seemed a bit out of place and not altogether comfortable. When Weatherwax and Ogg joined Agnes-who-calls-herself-Perditax (another case of a character trying to reinvent herself) her downhome no-nonsense country wisdom IS to her advantage, but she still seems like a bit of a fish out of water. As the books go on, however, Weatherwax becomes nearly perfect. She does more magic than she did in earlier stories. She makes fewer mistakes. She seems less parochial and, like Vimes, more perfect. Her story - in any meaningful sense - has been over for quite a few books now.

Now that it is finished, a last
pleasure remains: sharing with the
next generation
This brings us to The Shepard's Crown and the shocking events of chapter three. In quite a moving sequence (one of the best written in the book, in this reader's opinion) Granny Weatherwax dies. Her final moments are fitting for her practical, no-nonsense manner; she cleans her cottage, prepares a wicker basket to serve as her casket (it's easy and inexpensive to make; Weatherwax was always frugal), bathes, pins up her hair, gets dressed, and lies down to sleep for the last time. 

It's a change which, for the books, would have been a great improvement in that the vacuum left behind by Weatherwax leaves some nice empty space into which other characters can step. We already see this in the remainder of The Shepard's Crown as Tiffany tries to step into the considerable shoes left by the newly departed. We see her struggling to find her own way and, ultimately, make decisions which would have rippled through the world had it continued.

Was the book perfect? No. It's clear that Sir Terry left it as a work in progress, and equally clear that the decision was made to publish as-is rather than have another writer pad it a bit and flesh out the parts that seem rushed and somewhat incomplete. 

The Tiffany Aching books have not only been the best of the later Discworld novels, but they might have held the key to revitalizing the larger series. I mourn not only for Sir Terry, not only for the end of a beloved series, but for all the many more stories which will now remain untold.

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