Continuing my increasingly occasional series as I work my way through the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s delightful Discworld series, one novel at a time.
Today’s entry is on the 38th book, I Shall Wear Midnight.
First appearances: Does this matter anymore? I only have three books left and only one is a direct sequel to this one. Oh well. The Cunning Man appears for the first time here. And that Preston guy is probably important. And Mrs. Proust, the Ankh-Morpork city witch.
Introduced to Discworld: How to defeat what is basically a sentient idea.
Plot: Time has marched on for Tiffany Aching since last we saw her. She is the official witch of the Chalk, a fact that keeps her very busy. She’s learned how to redirect temperatures, remove pain (but not to eliminate its causes), and basically take care of everyone that can’t take care of themselves. Since the Chalk lacks anything like a doctor, that may be just about everybody.
She’s been treating the Baron for a while, and when the man dies, Tiffany’s friend Roland becomes the new Baron. But the two have become distant. Despite implied romance between the two in the last book, Roland is set to marry another woman, the lone daughter of a nearby Duchess. Letitia seems rather wet, as Tiffany sees it, and many wonder what happened.
The problem is the return of the Cunning Man. A one-time witch hunter for the Omnian Church, the Cunning Man literally lost his eyes to a fire when he fell in love with a beautiful witch he was putting to the flame. He didn’t die, but over time he kept coming back, first as a man, then as a ghost, and now probably not even that. The Cunning Man targets promising witches, and can cause general distrust in all manner of witches everywhere. When he comes back, people die, and generally not the witches (witches are generally too clever to get caught), but a witch needs to be more cunning than the cunning man to defeat him for a period, and even then he can’t be defeated the same way twice.
Can Tiffany beat him when even her tiny brawling protectors, the Nac Mac Feegles, literally can’t touch him?
Analysis: Much can be made of the Cunning Man. He comes with a distinctive (bad) odor, but he’s less a character and more of a general threat. Representing the idea of fear and distrust towards witches (insert any group you care to name as a substitute for “witches” since the way Pratchett describes these things it all makes sense), he seems to be the kind of thing Tiffany cuts her teeth on. The Wintersmith was more idea and season than anything else, and the Hiver basically took personality traits from his various victims. and the Cunning Man falls into that category. However, I don’t really want to dwell on him all that much. The real meat of this book is Tiffany’s relationship with Roland.
Yes, though Roland and Tiffany have always gotten along, and there have been hints they could be more than friends, that isn’t happening. Roland is set to marry the standard attractive blonde princess type in the form of Letitia. And there seems to be a real struggle for everyone to come to terms with that. Other characters in the book seem to assume Roland would marry Tiffany. Tiffany herself has some interesting thoughts on the subject. Is she in love with Roland? Well, the book implies she’s a bit hurt, not that she would ever say as much out loud, and she has enough problems when the last nurse treating Roland’s father accuses Tiffany of both killing the old Baron and stealing from him. Tiffany did neither. In fact, the money was a gift from the Baron worth a small fortune, and Tiffany does make good use of it in the last full chapter, so there’s that.
But the thing is, Tiffany soon realizes that she and Roland, while friends, weren’t meant to be more. They were thrust together mostly out of the fact the two were odd. One was to grow up to run the Chalk, and the other was to grow up to be a witch (arguably to also run the Chalk given the way Pratchett writes witches). They didn’t really have other friends as a result. And once Tiffany gets to know Letitia, she finds a rather sweet, clever girl who needs help. The only real terror is Letitia’s mother, the Duchess. That woman needs to be put in her place, and when a visiting city witch named Mrs. Proust shows up, that is more or less what happens, and in a non-violent way, so that works out. Heck, Tiffany is rather impressed with Letitia, a girl who wanted to be a witch herself, shows she has some potential, and Tiffany really needs help more than anything else at this point. A witch by herself can become the evil thing that stories tell about.
In fact, the more Tiffany gets to know Letitia, the more her problems with Roland gradually disappear, and Roland’s guest list includes King Verence and Queen Magrat from Lancre, so since a queen outranks a duchess, that should shut Roland’s mother-in-law up a bit. And to be really fair, Pratchett doesn’t make the Duchess all bad. While rude, stupid, and bossy, we also find out she’s concerned that her only child is leaving home, and she has a ton of servants mostly to take care of the older servants because she won’t toss anyone out when they get too old to do their duties.
Plus, anyone concerned that the now 16 or so Tiffany will be lonely without Roland can take heart because a new guard named Preston seems to be a much better match for her. Preston is someone who Tiffany can find reliable and who she has way more in common with than Roland. Since the two end the book a year later and in love, I think Pratchett could have made this the last Tiffany Aching book and probably satisfied everyone.
Of course, it isn’t the last. There’s one more, Pratchett’s final Discworld book. I’ll get to that when the time comes.
In terms of nice touches, Pratchett takes Tiffany to Ankh-Morpork. The Feegles go along, and we learn gnome Watchman Mad Wee Arthur was actually a Feegle. Bringing Feegles means problems with the law, and Tiffany and Mrs. Proust spend the night in the Watchhouse cells for their own protection. We get encounters with Sam Vimes, Captain Carrot, and Angua, though poor Nobby only gets a sentence or two before he’s knocked out by Feegles. Perhaps the best moment comes when Tiffany meets Esk, the little girl who got wizard magic way back in Pratchett’s first Granny Weatherwax adventure Equal Rites. Now an adult, Esk has mastered time magic and other stuff like that there, and proves invaluable for advice if you can figure out what she means. Tiffany does, but Tiffany also stops to wonder why no one can just give out a warning without making it all cryptic.
And though Verence and Magrat are silent, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax at the Baron’s funeral and Roland’s wedding certainly are not. Granny beat the Cunning Man herself once, but Nanny makes people enjoy themselves. She may be more clever than Granny, Tiffany concedes, and the best part of Nanny’s brand of clever is she is clever enough not to let Granny know it. In fact, Pratchett allows Tiffany some thoughts on how she really admires Nanny, because while Tiffany was learning all about temperature and pain manipulation, Nanny was learning about people, and that seems to be the wiser option.
This really could have been a good stop for Tiffany, but it isn’t. We’ll see her one last time.
NEXT BOOK: Sam Vimes may be vacationing in his wife’s country estates, which really isn’t his place, but crime doesn’t take a vacation, even in the countryside. Be back soon for the last Sam Vimes book with Snuff.