Kate Wilhelm’s Let the Fire Fall

Fire 1I really liked the last Kate Wilhelm novel I read (Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang), for her tight plotting, her compelling storytelling, her inventiveness with imagining the future. But I was impatient (perhaps I shouldn’t have been: she’s an author of her times) with the annoying contrasts between the broad dystopic vision cramped into a small area of the north-east of the USA, as if no other society existed, and the way she could imagine future sexualities but totally ignore the implications of how the women’s equality that was already emerging in her own time could make society change.

Let The Fire Fall (1972) is very much in the same pattern: a terrific initiating cataclysmic event (alien ship full of pregnant mothers crashes into cornfield: will anyone survive?), some plausible, well-integrated futuristic inventions (hand-held anti-gravity devices, video phones), and a well-thought-out plot (the no-good local lothario turns evil evangelist for personal gain, develops America-wide religious cult for social control with the antagonistic help of the local girl who won’t let him go, and the corrupt psychologist). This is all good, as is the good doctor who swops (or does he?) the babies, so that the last surviving alien baby is actually brought up as his own scruffy son, while the illegitimate son of the lothario, born seconds earlier, is brought up under the care of the UN as a scientific wonder and curiosity.

Fire 2The good psychologist is female (good), but she’s ruined her three marriages by simply not being able to live with men, and at the age of FORTY she’s paying for this social crime because she’s GREY-HAIRED. Obviously doomed for ever, God help her: she’ll never get a man now, which is clearly all she is expected to want. What kind of characterisation is that? Because Dr Harvey is well past any other useful female purpose she is kept in the plot as a surrogate mother figure and helpful listener, nurturing and caring and never actually doing anything. Give me patience …

The main plot is classic good son versus bad son, and we root like mad for the survival strategies of the good son who is perpetually on the run once the evil evangelist kidnaps him for co-Messiah duties. The story of the hunted man is as old as the hills (Samson and Delilah, anyone?) and always compelling: those moments are the most successful parts of the novel. The hunted boy / man has special qualities that help him learn faster, create more, blend in and be generally smarter than anyone else around him, so that’s very satisfying to read. He’s also a warm, loving, friendly, reliable hero: how could this go wrong?

a repurposed image from the earlier cover, making a much stronger impression, and by far the closest to the spirit of the novel
a repurposed image from the earlier cover, making a much stronger impression, and by far the closest to the spirit of the novel

The science fiction parts are less interesting because Wilhelm doesn’t actually do anything with them. Her focus is the manipulation of a future society by bad men (and one bad woman) and clever technology, so as a dystopic nightmare the sf label fits. But the alien spaceship may as well have exploded after landing for all the use it has in the plot. The title comes from 1 Kings 18:38, when the fire of God fell from heaven to devour the sacrifice prepared by Elijah. If you think that the alien ship, falling from heaven, contains the alien fire of the boy Johnny, perhaps that makes sense. It’s another tortuous title from Wilhelm, following the example of James Tiptree Jnr. I can see what she’s doing, but think that she could have done more.

Sir Arthur Quiller Couch and being Q

Portrait of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch by Henry Lamb, (c) Mrs Henrietta Phipps; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Portrait of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch by Henry Lamb, (c) Mrs Henrietta Phipps, Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Today’s letter is Q in the Really Like This Book scripts catch-up, and today’s author was a struggle to find. Q is not a common initial capital letter for anglophone surnames, and whoever I chose was going to be obscure. In the end, after consultating the online Literary Encyclopaedia, I had a choice of the classical Latin orator Quintilian on rhetoric (not a lot of enjoyment there), or the Victorian/Edwardian novelist, professor and poetry critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote his novels under the pen-name of Q. Quiller-Couch won, because I’ve read him: the American writer Helene Hanff began her reading career after reading his books of lectures during the Depression, when she couldn’t afford to go to college.

He published his second novel, The Astonishing Tale of Troy Town in 1888. He wrote this when he was a student at Oxford, and it is certainly a young man’s novel. It’s also a bundle of gentle laughs, because it’s a satire on Victorian fiction, as well as provincial small-town Cornwall, where Quiller-Couch grew up. The small Cornish town of Troy is about to be shaken up by Mr and Mrs Goodwyn-Sands, a pair of fraudsters and a glamorous society couple who bring snobbery and new fashions to the sleepy town, but they also bring dissension, and divide the population. Their nemesis is at hand in the shape of Mrs Goodwyn-Sands’ deserted husband, who has retired to live the life of a hermit, abjuring women, while falling in love with his landlord’s daughter.

Q 2I didn’t get any further than the obvious corruption of the customs officer by Mrs Goodwyn-Sands’s big eyes, because I could work out the rest of the plot for myself. The name of the fraudstering couple, Goodwyn-Sands, indicates the level of humour you can expect. Mr Goodwyn-Sands is the younger brother of Lord Chatham, but the Goodwin Sands in real life is the name of a large and dangerous sandbar at the south-east tip of England, where ships were wrecked regularly each year. Given that the leading personality in the town is an Admiral, and Chatham was the British Naval dockyard, I think we can all see the metaphor coming from some way off. As I said, this novel is fun, but it’s just a bit slow. I don’t know, call me too impatient, but I require a faster-moving plot, or more incident in my fiction, before I can say that I really, really like it. Troy Town is clever, and good, but it’s not great.

However, it’s worth knowing about, because now we know that Quiller-Couch was publishing novels when he was barely out of his 20s. He was also a poet, and a critic, and became a full professor at Cambridge in 1912. His most famous achievement was editing the classic anthology the Oxford Book of English Verse, but he is also worth remembering for completing Robert Louis Stevenson’s last novel, St Ives. Stevenson left this manuscript unfinished at his death, and it had largely been written from his dictation as he was dying. Someone had to be found who would be ‘thoroughly steeped in the Stevensonian legend’, and Q wrote the last 6 chapters from Stevenson’s outline.  Leaving aside the quality of the writing for a moment, this is a pretty important accolade to be given to a man whose own novels were never regarded as more than good quality entertainment. Stevenson was the great novelist of his day, he was a romantic legend, he was a recluse in the South Seas, his novels are Scottish classics, and some of them, like Treasure Island, are world classics. So to be asked to finish his novel is equivalent to someone being asked to finish off a novel by Margaret Atwood. Q was that man, at the end of the Victorian period.

glorious poster for the 1998 film that presumably went straight to DVD?
glorious poster for the 1998 film that presumably went straight to DVD?

St Ives itself is not the greatest thing Stevenson ever wrote, but it’s not at all bad. It’s a historical romance, set in the Napoleonic Wars, and romps its way up and down Scotland and England very comfortably. When Q takes over, the tone changes. Suddenly the hero (a French Vicomte) starts quoting Latin tags, and his language becomes much more complex: this isn’t a good sign. Q also messes around with the plot. Stevenson had got it all ready for a daring escape by the hero by balloon, and Q dutifully carries this out, but he then introduces a totally pointless voyage to America and back, on a privateer’s ship, which is a muddle from start to finish.  Q keeps to the spirit of Stevenson well, but he over-eggs the cake. St Ives is a curiosity, but I think it always would have been, even if Stevenson had lived to complete it himself.

Then there’s Q the university professor. He published several sets of his lectures: Helene Hanff first got hooked on his The Art of Writing. I started to read his Studies in Literature, and near the beginning, when he is describing the pointlessness of defining literature in terms of ‘isms’, I came across this: ‘Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley did not write ‘classicism’ or ‘romanticism’. They wrote Hamlet, Lycidas, The Cenci.’ That makes perfect sense to me. The text is the important thing, not the abstract concept. He didn’t object to plays or poems being described as ‘classical’ or ‘romantic’, though he was pretty challenging on the difficulty of defining either term. But he did object to the concept of isms, and was very rude about German scholarship, in particular, when putting romanticism down. So I was kindly disposed to the way Q thought, as a critic.

Q 4However, the anti-German thing was a bit disturbing. Given that this set of lectures was published in 1918, at the end of the First World War, and that Q was teaching young men either mad keen to fight on the Western Front and risk fairly likely death or injury, or who had already been invalided out, it isn’t surprising that he lets loose his vitriol at the Germans regularly and often. It isn’t surprising, but it’s startling, and occasionally offensive, to the modern reader, no matter how much we mutter ‘context, context’ to ourselves. It’s a regular problem when you read literature that speaks directly to its times.

Overall, though, in these lectures we have an esteemed and famously eccentric professor holding forth on his special subject. He slips in a few jokes now and again to keep his students awake and on their toes. These lectures are not for the beginner, though if you do plunge in, eager to learn, you’ll come out at the other end knowing a great deal more about 17thC poetry. The chapter on the Horatian model in English verse requires some previous knowledge in Latin poetry, so it could be daunting. The chapter on George Herbert is also pretty stiff going. But it’s great stuff! I don’t want to scare you off from Q’s lectures, because Q’s writing, his voice, is a sparkling, lively fount of knowledge and learning. It’s a treat to read because we can hear his voice. Much as I worked hard for my own professors when I was a student, I hardly ever received instruction from them that was as entertaining and enthusing as this. This book is really, really good as an introduction to Q the teacher, which is no bad thing.

Cambridge students protest against women being admitted to the university by exhibiting an effigy of a woman in bloomers riding a bike.
Cambridge students protest against women being admitted to the university by exhibiting an effigy of a woman in bloomers riding a bike.

Q’s influence was very far-reaching. One of his Cambridge students was the critic and academic rebel F R Leavis, who went on to form a school of academic criticism that dominated how we were all taught how to read English literature, for about 60 years. Leavis’s influence is loosening, slowly, as Leavis’s own pupils move towards retirement, and ‘new’ ways of reading critically recycle themselves. Behind Leavis’s ideas about the novel, which were all about excluding works that are not worthy, I suppose we ought to be able to find Q’s influence. I don’t want to find Q there, because I don’t follow Leavis’s thinking about literary classification, and I’d like to think that I could have been a good student of Q. But I couldn’t. In 1897, when Q was finishing off St Ives and working on his poetry criticism, there were riots in Cambridge over the question of allowing women to be admitted as students, and the riots were not in favour of the idea. Women were allowed to take examinations, and presumably attend lectures, from the late 1880s, when Q was an undergraduate himself, but Cambridge didn’t award women degrees until 1948. Q’s lectures are all addressed to ‘Gentlemen’.

Why do I really, really like Q? I admire his influence, and I love his voice, his terrific energy in dissecting a poem, and how he takes his students from poem to poem without worrying too much about whether they know it already. He is always showing new things, and opening up new ideas about how to read. He makes you interested: it’s as simple as that. No teacher could do better.

Alex Bledsoe’s Long Black Curl

Bledsoe 1There’s something a little awkward about reading book three in an established series without having any idea of what one is getting into, like crashing a party by accident. Alex Bledsoe’s Long Black Curl is the third in a sequence of novels about the Tufa, savage fairy magic and traditional folk music in the Appalachians, and its enthusiastic supporters include a band (and here I quote from the press release) ‘that has crafted an entire album of music based on the stories and characters’. That’s a warning of extreme fandom: terrific for the author and his sales, unnerving for the reader who just wants a good story without having to get dressed up in a swooshy Victorian skirt and bodice with de rigueur tattoos and antique melodeon for the music video. Institutionalised fan adoration takes away our own ideas of what the characters could look like.

GillBledsoe has written many more novels than this series about the Tufa in Tennessee, and he crafts a cracking good read. I last came across a modern novel using the idea of fairies / Good Folk inhabiting our world in a particularly badass, time-travelling way in Gillian Philip’s Rebel Angels series. Her series married a fine and anthropologically sound idea with excellent story-telling, pitched initially at a YA readership but later transcending those commercial boundaries. Bledsoe’s assumed readership is a little older, but also beginning in the YA zone. One of the protagonists of Long Black Curl is a twelve-year old girl called Mandalay, who is also the embodied presence of hundreds of generations of First Daughters holding their tribe of exiled Tuatha De Danaan together in the alien and unforgiving landscape of the Appalachian Mountains. Her understanding of life, sex, rules and wrongdoing is a little more advanced than that of other twelve-year olds might be, but when you’re living in a big, divided tribe where magic is a fact of life, your normal is what you have to deal with. Mandalay doesn’t have time for other people’s opinions of her, because she has to lead her half of the tribe, protected by her father and step-mother, and by Bliss Overbay, paramedic and firewoman.

Bledsoe 2Mandalay has to be protected because Bo-Kate Wisby has come back to Needsville to take revenge, take over the town and bring the two feuding halves of the Tufa together. She and her lover Jefferson Powell were exiled – exceptionally – for hideous crimes of murder and violence, and neither were supposed to be able to come back. Bo-Kate has found a way, and so the Tufa decide they have to let Jeff back too, to try to stop her killings. Its winter, it’s cold and wet and miserable outside, and the characters perpetually travel about in giant American off-road trucks and cars that are probably quite normal in mountain country. The effect is not of fairy steeds, but of alienness, and bigness, roaring engines with power over time and space. There’s an unsubtle suggestion of big violence with the power of these trucks and SUVs as well, which is what Bo-Kate Wisby specialises in. And, of course, of big wrongs being righted at last, a force of nature barrelling right to the heart of her tribe’s problems. The novel begins with some horrible mutilation (by Bo-Kate) and the death of a very old man who has terrorised his people for centuries.

Bledsoe 3Bledsoe is extremely good at writing in unobtrusive back story. Just when I needed to know something crucial from the earlier novels, The Hum and the Shiver (2011) and Wisp of a Thing (2013), there they were in the plot, seamlessly integrated as part of the narrative. When I needed to have a sense of how important someone was, Bo-Kate would kill her husband or burn down her house. The slaughter is heartbreaking because it’s selective and deliberate. Pretty soon we realise that nobody is safe. Characters we come to like are disposed of because they’re in Bo-Kate’s way, but not everyone is defenceless. There is a strong undercurrent of mercy, forgiveness and joining together in this novel that is a highly necessary antithesis to Bo-Kate’s blinkered savagery. There are also some beautifully written characters: Nigel, Bo-Kate’s English assistant from her Nashville music manager life, whose calmness and steady purpose as probably the only black man in Cloud County, Tennessee, indicates his strength of personality. Tain, Bo-Kate’s cousin, flies naked at night, riding the night wind effortlessly, and has ecstatic sex with her many lovers when she feels like it, which is often. Byron Harley thought he’d just been sitting playing guitar with an old hillbilly by the fire for an hour or two, after surviving a plane crash, but it turns out it’s been 50 years. His story, which opens the novel, underlines the chilly non-humanness of the Tufa when they’re dealing with real people. It’s also an example of the thing that I think Bledsoe is playing around with just a little too cleverly.

Harley’s plane crash on 3 February 1958 killed two musicians, including a spectacled gawky kid from Texas. Bledsoe is clearly reusing the famous plane crash of 3 February 1959 in Iowa, in which Buddy Holly (gawky, spectacles, Texan), Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper (coulda been Byron Harley) died. So from the beginning the music references in Long Black Curl shift between the real world (comparative references to Elvis, the Kardashians and Amy Winehouse), and an invented parallel music world in which Jeff and Bo-Kate are hugely successful managers of music stars. They had their music taken away when they were exiled – no more singing or playing for them, things that the Tufa do as naturally as speaking –  but their natural affiliation makes them geniuses at spotting the real thing. This shifting of focus between the real and invented feels awkward, and is at its worst in the last chapter, after an episode of terrific emotional power and plot importance when catharsis is badly needed by characters and reader. It’s nighttime, we’re standing outside the roadhouse, something astonishingly impossible and deadly has just happened, and – we get catharsis through exasperated bathos rather than searing purity. A tour bus arrives because the band is lost, they can’t get out of Cloud County (that Tufa practice of detaining the people they need for their own purposes) and they need a gig like the Tufa need a band, right here, right now. It’s Alex Bledsoe’s tribute band Tuatha Dea, written into the novel, and I nearly threw the book across the room. Maybe it was a bet or a good-natured act of friendship, but a strongminded editor should have told him to keep self-indulgence out of his story for its own good. The tone wobbles, the mood is lost: it’s a stupid detail in the ending of an otherwise excellent novel.

Alex Bledsoe, Long Black Curl (Tor Books, 2015), 978-1-4668-5141-2, $24.99

 

 

Interested onlookers at vestry rage in Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings

The most recent, and most attractive, of the covers for this novel
The most recent, and most attractive, of the covers for this novel

Today’s letter in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up is P, and today’s author is Barbara Pym, a quiet and wickedly funny English comic novelist of the 1950s and the 1970s. She had a curious career, being published quite successfully during the 1950s, and then being dropped, rather brutally, after her sixth novel, by her publisher Jonathan Cape in 1963. They thought that fashions had changed, and that in the radical, politicised and terribly modern 1960s, no-one would want to buy her restrained, delicate and extremely low-key novels. She dwindled into literary obscurity for thirteen years.

She was rediscovered in a very public fashion in 1977, when Philip Larkin, one of Britain’s most respected and celebrated poets, and Lord David Cecil, a leading Oxford don, both named Barbara Pym in a newspaper survey article as one of most neglected living English novelists. The very next day a journalist was on her doorstep, at the house she shared with her sister in her retirement, and soon publishers began to ask her, rather embarrassed, if she had any spare manuscripts they could look at. Her first novels were rapidly reissued, and she published two more novels before she died in 1980, aged 67. Eight more were published after her death. Although publishers rejected her, Barbara Pym just kept on writing.

The absolutely hideous cover of the copy I first read. I'm astonished that I made it past the vile collage.
The absolutely hideous cover of the copy I first read. I’m astonished that I made it past the vile collage.

Like most Pym fans I have all of her novels, and cannot decide which one I prefer. I came to Pym about six years ago, when a colleague at a conference talked about her books. I bought one of her novels at random from a charity bookshop, and was completely hooked. That first Pym experience, A Glass of Blessings, remains a great favourite, probably because my reactions to it were suffused with the shock and pleasure of a marvellous new discovery. It’s is not one of the usual Pym suspects, because Pym is normally recommended by her first novel, Excellent Women, or by Some Tame Gazelle. The title of A Glass of Blessings is an unusual mouthful, unfamiliar unless you know the 17th-century poetry of George Herbert.

The heroine, Wilmet Forsyth (a name from a novel by Charlotte M Yonge, another obscure literary reference), leads a leisurely and elegant life of lunches and coffees and regular church attendance, much as Jane Austen’s Emma did. But Wilmet does not organise the parish. She is far too languid, and is too easily cowed to stand up to the formidable forces that support a parish church. She simply does nothing, supported by her civil servant husband Rodney, living in the house of her agreeable and independent widowed mother-in-law Sybil, cooked and cleaned for by Sybil’s maid. Her lifestyle of leisured indolence is remarkable to read now, deeply interesting as a lifestyle most of us will never know. Wilmet’s placid disinterest in being busy for the sake of being busy, makes her a very restful first-person narrator. Her amused detachment is delightful, but it also makes her a victim of her own thoughts, since she is so often alone, or solitary. She suffers from an inability to notice things: she fails to spot the signs of impending marriages, she totally fails to spot a gay man: she is pretty much oblivious to the finer details of relationships until they’re presented to her. She even misses completely her husband’s failed attempt to have an affair.

yawn ....
a cover to make me yawn ….

After her rediscovery, a small industry of Pym-fanciers sprang up in American and British universities. ‘Lunch as an indication of character in the novels of Barbara Pym’ would be a good research thesis subject, if it’s not already been taken. Barbara Pym took a lot of pleasure in the minor details of daily life, especially lunch: when to have it, where to go, what to eat, the conversations of the people sitting next to you, and whether you would go there again. Pym’s style is to secretly laugh at all her characters. It’s rare to laugh out loud while reading her novels, but it does happen, because she is wicked. Her humour comes from comic juxtapositions, and the inappropriate thought or comment from an innocent abroad. Most of her male characters are jaw-droppingly pompous, and she does not spare us their capacity to be boring, arrogant, tiresome and plain stupid. The narrative voice in Pym novels is always female, usually put-upon by the tiresomeness of men or dominant bossy women.

zzzz ....
a cover design of zzzz ….

A Glass of Blessings has a theme of homes, and where people are to live. The new priest needs a place to live. When Mary Beamish’s mother dies she has to find a new home, and tries out a convent before becoming the housekeeper of a retreat home, and then marries the new parish priest: her life is all about finding a home to care for. Wilmet spends most of her crush on Piers Longridge wondering where he lives and who looks after him during his regular hangovers. When she leaves a phone message with his mysterious room-mate she is rather taken aback by the not-quite-us sound of his voice. When she meets this room-mate or flat-sharer when she is taken home by Piers for tea, she is even more taken aback to meet a small but neatly turned out boy from Leicester called Keith, who cooks very nicely, does occasional modelling for knitwear patterns, and works in a coffeehouse off Oxford Street. For those of us who still have our mothers’ 1950s and 1960s knitting patterns, the very idea of using one of their male models as a character in a novel is simply domestic writing genius: familiar, unthreatening, subversive, alarming. The coffeehouse (not a coffee-shop, that’s a much more recent term) has got to be the Kardomah, a famous chain of 1950s cafés that I remember from my 1970s youth in northern Scotland, with its ugly, dated orange and brown décor. Keith knows Mr Bason too, but they are not quite at the same social level as Wilmet and her husband, or as Father Thames and Father Ransome. Father Bode, on the other hand, is low, like his tea, which he drinks stewed with lots of sugar. Socially higher characters have one-upmanship discussions about Lapsang Souchong or plain Earl Grey. Keith doesn’t know French, which is a cause for amusement between Wilmet and her Kensington mother-in-law. Times have certainly changed, since speaking French in London now would simply be showing off, or being dubiously foreign.

so dulllll .....
how can a book cover be so dull?

A Glass of Blessings is particularly blessed with a small cast of gay male characters, which are a rarity in this kind of novel, from this period, and written in such a gentle and affectionate tone. Mr Bason is waspish and petulant, is bitchy about everyone, and causes offence in St Luke’s because he wore Mr Coleman’s tailored cassock during a service instead of his own. Mr Coleman took his cassock home after that and began bringing it to church in its own little suitcase, to avoid further borrowings. Let’s pause for a moment to enjoy the blissful characterisation of a lay server in an Anglo-Catholic church who is so devoted to his role, and so invested in his position in church hierarchy (middling low), that he buys his own tailored, made-to-measure cassock. As an expression of egotistical pompousness and priestly play-acting this is just glorious. The malicious Mr Bason, who undoubtedly did not borrow the cassock of glory by accident, could have become a malevolent bad fairy in this novel, since he has just lost his job at the Ministry where Wilmet’s husband works. Fortunately, Wilmet directs Mr Bason’s unaccountable love of cooking to the vacancy for a new housekeeper at the clergy house of St Luke’s, and Mr Bason is saved. Or is he? He begins to indulge his passion for beautiful objects again, borrowing Father Thames’s Fabergé egg for a few days, carrying it around on his errands in a canvas shopping bag. In the end, he leaves the clergy house to run an antiques shop in Devon that serves teas in the season. Heaven for him.

finally, period good taste and a bit of character in the first edition
finally, period good taste and a bit of character in the first edition

Barbara Pym is fascinated by rules. Wilmet is always wondering about whether she can do this or that, or what people will think: her life seems to be constructed of rules that ought not to be broken. There are endless rules governing the peculiarities of the very high and celibate anglo-Catholic clergy in her Kensington parish, which provoke genteel tussles for dominance about which candle should be removed at which point in the service. These have nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with power and one’s place in the church’s local hierarchy. Rules about women and men in close proximity are more familiar: on the very day of Mrs Beamish’s death, poor Father Ransome, the youngish and rather handsome priest who is lodging with her, has to move out of the house hurriedly because otherwise he’ll be living there alone with Miss Mary Beamish.

A Glass of Blessings is a happy book. It’s a delight to read, because Wilmet is so nice, and so silly at the same time. She had lots of fun in the war, when she served in Italy as a Wren (as did Barbara Pym herself), but in peacetime, married to a boring husband, she finds her fun in having hopeful crushes. She has close friends, which is a relief: a heroine in a novel who does not have any close friends would be disconcerting. Her little dramas of unrequited affection, her obliviousness to the extraordinary campness in her church’s daily life, the London offices that she visits and peers into, and the heavenly lunchtime conversations, are so ordinary, and so lovingly described, that the book is like prosecco: mildly fizzy, warming and butterly and comfortably delicious.

 

Framework, unfinished: Terry Pratchett’s The Shepherd’s Crown

Crown 1You know that feeling of ‘damn, she got there before me’? That’s what I felt, listening to Helen Lewis on the New Statesman podcast talking about the last Terry Pratchett novel, The Shepherd’s Crown. At every point she made, I nodded, and chopped the celery a little more crossly while admiring, of course, her perspicacity in sharing my views. However, she didn’t put a lot of our points in her review in the print edition, so I feel I can have my say too.

I’ve blogged before about Terry Pratchett’s fiction: on Magrat here, as a podcast on The Truth here, as a beginner’s guide reading list here, and on Raising Steam here. Of his last novels, I hooted in delirium at Unseen Academicals, I was blown away by I Shall Wear Midnight, I really liked Snuff, I thought Dodger was a bit glib. I bought The Shepherd’s Crown in hardback (I very rarely do that), a week after it came out, and blinked at the price. HOW much? Blame the exchange rate, but €33 for a novel that isn’t even finished yet (as it says in the Afterword), is a rip-off. Yes, it’s Terry Pratchett, and yes it’s his last novel. It’s got to be bought. It’s also a great deal better (more satisfying, better written, more clearly worked out, a more impressive work of literary imagination) than Raising Steam, but still. HOW much? Obviously I have no idea of the price of hardbacks these days.

The Shepherd’s Crown is the fifth in the Tiffany Aching novels, and I don’t know what number in the loose sequence of Discworld novels where Pratchett tells us about the witches. Discworld’s witches are the midwives, health visitors, social workers, community police, and accident & emergency services. They have common sense and practical magic, are readers of people and keepers of the village memory. They do spells when needed, they understand the land and the land understands them. They have more power than wizards do, I expect, but they’re too busy seeing to their steadings (or parishes) to mess around with showmanship and foolishness (for that is what wizards do).

crown 2At the beginning of The Shepherd’s Crown, Tiffany Aching, barely in her twenties, has been a witch for nearly half her life and is delivering the babies of women twice her age without a qualm. She has a boyfriend, sort of, but he’s a surgeon in the big city, and their jobs are too important to put down for an hour, let alone a weekend off. So she lives with her loving, supportive family who feed her and make sure her clothes are clean when they can get her to have a night’s sleep. Tiffany isn’t quite happy with the way certain things are going in her steading, but she’s too busy keeping it all together to sit down and think this worry through.

Then Granny Weatherwax, the most experienced and powerful and inscrutable witch on Discworld dies, as Helen Lewis says, in the most natural way possible. She has a premonition, cleans the house, makes her coffin, tells the plants and bees what’s happening, cleans the house again, amends her notice of ‘I aten’t dead’ that she habitually places on her chest when she lies down to do a night’s flying by borrowing an owl’s body, to ‘I is probably dead’. There’s also a note for her oldest friend, Nanny Ogg, telling her that Tiffany gets the cottage. So Tiffany, when all the other witches have accepted that she, already known as the most powerful witch after Granny Weatherwax, gets to inherit the cottage, has not one but two steadings to be overworked in. And in amongst all this, the fairies have decided to come back and take over the Discworld. Fairies are not sweet and decorative and tiny. They are evil, malicious and cruel, and now Tiffany has to work out how to stop them without Granny Weatherwax at her back.

a perfect portrait of the witches of Discworld, by I don't know who, from the Hypable site so it's probably not fan art but from the Pratchett empire.
a perfect portrait of the witches of Discworld, by I don’t know whom, from the Hypable site so it’s probably not fan art but from the Pratchett empire.

That is the best part of the novel, because it’s the part that has been most worked out. It reads as vintage Pratchett, perhaps with a little bit here and there that could have been thickened up a little, but it’s definitely nearly final draft stage. The rest of The Shepherd’s Crown is largely the framework that Pratchett was writing towards. Two or three important new characters arrive and are barely explained, or woven properly into the Discworld’s back story. They’re good, and innovative. A fairy queen considers reforming by learning how humans think and feel: this is excellent, with room for a vicious satirical sideswipe. Geoffrey, third and unregarded son of Lord Swivel, is the first peaceweaver Discworld has seen. We need to know so much more about this idea, his role, what he thinks about, but his sketched-in beatific outline wanders through the story to the end with barely an insight or a nudge towards fleshing him out.

We have return visits from old characters, who behave better than expected (Mrs Earwig) or as bland as we’ve ever seen them (Queen Magrat). You the cat is clearly a character with a lot more to do that never got written, as is Maggie the teenage kelda who gets to fight in the battle, a thing no girl Feegle has done in generations. All these great ideas, half-told, gone for good. The Shepherd’s Crown itself, a fossilised sea-urchin, is the secret weapon that barely gets detonated before everything is over. Why? What happened? Tell us properly. I feel like a schoolchild at the library looking at the shut door when the storyteller has gone home.

Terry Pratchett, The Shepherd’s Crown (2015), ISBN 9 780857 534811, €33!!!!!!, or £20 in the UK.

You can get hold of that New Statesman podcast through this link; scroll down to the bottom of the page to click on the link for NS #113.