Saturday, February 12, 2011

Girl on Book Action: A Special Guest Post by Ron "AAlgar" Watt on Terry Pratchett's I Shall Wear Midnight

Aside: That's right, it's another guest spot in the "Doomwench is Busy and Important" series. We've stolen Ron "AAlgar" Watt this week. You've read his stuff here before, but in case you need reminding, he's a writer, comedian, occasional hoster of our podcast and husband. His creative stylings can be found at Now on with the review:

Terry Pratchett is kind of my hero. My glib, one-sentence defense o
f this position runs something like this: “imagine if Douglas Adams wrote fantasy and actually had a work ethic.” And while that’s not bad for getting you in the general ballpark of what Pratchett does, it really sells him short. Because the Discworld books (nearly 40 volumes and counting, with a new one pretty much guaranteed each autumn) have transcended the flimsy, limited trappings of genre parody and have formed a fairly complex (though not inaccessible) tapestry of compelling characters, unique situations and powerful symbols. Pratchett is one of those authors whose work is about stories, but not in some back-pattingly, overly clever post-modern metatextual way. I mean, I don’t know. Maybe those terms do apply to his work, but it still manages to be insightful without being insufferable.

The saga of Tiffany Aching, witch-in-training, has been no exception to this. While technically the four books in this mini-series (The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith and the latest, I Shall Wear Midnight) get filed under the “young adult” heading, there’s nothing childish going on here at all. One gets the impression - probably because one read this someplace - that these coming-of-age stories are meant to compete with a certain other series of “young person finds him/herself while learning magic” books from a prominent British author.

But Tiffany Aching is no Harry Potter. Instead of angsty teen drama, Tiffany typically finds herself tossed into the deep end of problems that the adults in her world are ill-equipped to handle. She doesn’t have time for butter beer and quidditch. On the Discworld, a witch is a sort of midwife/general physician/psychologist with only the very occasional dealings in actual magic. So between the birthing of babies, the tending of wounds, preparing the dying for death and - oh yeah, saving the world from evil - there’s not much room for that thing the kids apparently call “emo” nowadays. (We called it “being a whiny jerk” when I was a kid, but I digress.)

Over the course of these books, we’ve watched Tiffany grow and become capable of handling increasingly difficult obstacles. But the nice thing is, comedic though these stories might be, she’s not the standard bumbling non-hero that discovers that the true power was within her all along. We can tell that she’s special from the earliest pages of the first book - not just because people around her tell her that she’s special, but because we see her actively coping with the problems around her. Pratchett tends to favor this kind of hero - intelligent and capable, a bit pushy but always with people’s best interests at heart. Their flaws tend to come in that little bit of darkness they carry with them - and realize that they must carry, to be as good at what they do as they are.

And darkness is where I Shall Wear Midnight really asserts itself as most decidedly not your typical young adult book. There’s sex (implied, but still pretty obvious), there’s a violence-induced miscarriage and there’s a literal witch hunt that shows just how gullible and easily influenced people can be when they allow their confusion to mutate into fear and hatred. Tiffany’s strength in the face of these - and many other - obstacles is a clear indicator that the reason these “coming of age” stories are coming to a close is because our hero has come of age.

This is one of the most sharply defined Discworld books in the series - the lows are a lot lower, and the highs are consequently a hundred times more rewarding. There are laughs, but more surprising are the visceral reactions it provokes in you, seemingly with no effort whatsoever. Pratchett has been working in this toolbox for so long that he’s refined his emotional manipulation to a precise science. He pulls the lever for “sad” and god damn it, you feel sad. Every. Time.

Pratchett’s recent highly publicized fight with Alzheimers has, in a way, crept into his more recent work. There’s a passage in I Shall Wear Midnight that absolutely reduced me to tears, as Tiffany realizes that, in terms of enormous, mind-boggling tragedies, prayer is kind of a waste of time. At the end of the day it’s best to just keep your head down and do the job that’s in front of you. As pragmatic and admirable a sentiment as that might be, it’s hard not to read between the lines a bit there.

Overall, the Discworld books just get better with each installment, and I Shall Wear Midnight is no exception. The other three books in this sub-series are not absolutely mandatory, but you’ll appreciate the journey of a girl into womanhood (not in that way, you sicko) a lot more if you check those out first.

(Inconsequential side note: when I left myself a reminder to review this book on my to-do list app, it informed me that I was scheduled to review I Shall Wear at 12:00am. Seriously, computers - I love that you can be so clever, but don’t second-guess me.)

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