You 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).
At 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.
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.