April 12, 2024

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Discworld Read-Along #41: The Shepherd’s Crown

Terry Pratchett's last novel discussed.

Continuing my increasingly sporadic series as I work my way through the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s delightful Discworld series, one book at a time.

Today’s book is the last Discworld novel, The Shepherd’s Crown.

First Appearance:  Anyone appearing here for the first time is never going to appear again, so does it matter?

Introduced to Discworld:  Well, it looks like we got male witches and almost a nice elf.

Plot:  Tiffany Aching is coming into her own as the witch of the Chalk.  She has her duties helping everyone, the Nac Mac Feegles more or less do as she says, and she has a nice boy named Preston training to be a doctor in the big city of Ankh-Morpork.  But what is life without a challenge, and Tiffany’s comes unexpectedly when Granny Weatherwax dies peacefully in her sleep.  Granny has a nice chat with Death, and then leaves behind a will where she leaves her cabin and the unofficial title of head witch not to another older witch like Nanny Ogg or the obnoxious Mrs. Earwig, but to Tiffany.

Now Tiffany has to work two steadings, and she’s being stretched thin.  Help comes in the form of Geoffrey, the third son of a nasty lord, who decided he wants to be a witch.  Geoffrey is actually good at the witch stuff, so that makes sense.

Bad times come when the Elves realize Granny’s gone, and after the Queen of the Elves is overthrown by the vicious Lord Peaseblossom, he wants to take over the Disc and remind the people what life under the elves is like, particularly as the train seems to be putting iron everywhere.

Can Tiffany rally all the witches of the Disc she can find, find a balance in her life, and stop the elven invasion before its too late?

Commentary:    As explained in an afterword, Pratchett’s style of writing was often to write multiple books at once, throw a bunch of scenes he wanted to use out, and then stick them together, fine-tuning everything until it was sent to the publisher.  Pratchett’s death meant The Shepherd’s Crown was mostly finished, but was probably not as good as Pratchett would have wanted it to be.  That’s a bit too bad, as the book is fine, but seems a bit short.  Then again, Tiffany Aching’s stories were meant for younger readers, so if it seems less sophisticated, that would probably be why.

The thing is, Tiffany’s previous book I Shall Wear Midnight actually would have made the perfect ending for Tiffany.  She grew up, met Preston, and everything seemed to work out.  This book doesn’t have that tidy sense of ending, and I wouldn’t claim that had anything to do with Pratchett’s death.  The Afterword also tells us of a few books Pratchett was working on at the time of his death, including a follow-up to The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents and a murder mystery involving the country constable introduced in Snuff.  Those will never be finished, so they’ll be forever left to the imagination.

But what about this book?  In a way, it does make a sad bit of sense that Pratchett would begin the book with the death of fan-favorite Granny Weatherwax.  Granny gets a premonition and dies peacefully in her sleep.  She and Death have a final chat, and Granny’s death weighs over the rest of the narrative.  Tiffany has to somehow succeed (she could never replace) the strong-willed Granny, and the elves are seeing Granny’s death as an invitation to return.

Though the book makes clear that the Queen of the Elves seen in this novel is the same character to have messed both with Granny in Lords and Ladies and with Tiffany in her first adventure, The Wee Free Men, this book acts mostly as a sequel to Lords and Ladies.  Much of that book is referred to, and given Tiffany was meant for younger readers and Lords and Ladies decidedly wasn’t, longtime Pratchett fans might appreciate the book as it is.  Magrat, now Queen of Lancre, finally comes back for a Tiffany book to have a decent-sized supporting role, and Nanny Ogg is there for the usual saucy talk (made a bit more kid friendly in tone).  If anything, this book is tied more directly to regular Discworld continuity than most, what with references to how goblins are now respected and the railroads are everywhere.  Given elves are weakened by iron, the railroad is an important development, one Pratchett himself hinted about in Raising Steam as a sign that maybe the Discworld is growing up and didn’t need magic and superstition anymore and science was killing that stuff.  The elves, as a result, represent a force against progress, and even though there’s frequent humor in this series about how the old ways aren’t necessarily the bad ways, the idea in many of these books is in social progress, where many races gradually become accepted by the rest and everyone becomes more or less an equal.

Heck, that nearly happens here with the elves when Tiffany takes the dethroned Queen under her wing and tries to teach her to be nice and helpful.  It almost works, but the problem comes not from the Queen, but her usurper Lord Peaseblossom.  It’s even appropriate that Tiffany banishes the King of the Elves when he finally shows up, but even he seems to be enamored with the new technological ways.  He just can’t deal with iron like any other elf.

Social progress is also visible when Geoffrey arrives at Tiffany’s door.  There’s never been a male witch, but Equal Rites, the book that introduced Granny Weatherwax, had the character of a female wizard, so it seems only fair.  There’s some symmetry there.  Good also for Pratchett not making Geoffrey a love interest for Tiffany.  Preston appears in the novel only briefly, but it makes for a nice scene to remind people these two have a real connection that would probably go somewhere if Pratchett had lived longer.

And, for a nice callback, Archchancelor Ridcully comes to mourn the only woman he ever loved.

So, that’s that, right?  Aside from some short stories and some “science” textbooks, there really isn’t any more Discworld for me to cover.  And let’s face it, I got a lot slower as this went on.  I started at a book a week, and then they started coming whenever I had the time between everything else I was reading.  This project, as a result, took a bit longer than I had anticipated.  I’m glad I did it.  I definitely appreciated some of the books I hadn’t read in a while more the second time around, and aside from a few at the end, the ones I got to for the first time were often a bit of fun on their own.

But I can always extend this project by a few more books.  Pratchett wrote other things, some of which were collaborations with other authors.  Shepherd’s Crown was only the last book he wrote by himself.  He had another series I know very little about that he co-wrote with someone else, so I’ll cover those seven books or so, plus one more for next time.

NEXT BOOK…YES, THERE IS A NEXT BOOK:  We’re going for one of Pratchett’s best-known collaborations, this one with his good friend Neil Gaiman.  Yes, we’ll be looking at the apocalypse comedy Good Omens, which does feature a character that looks an awful lot like Death.

Previous entries:

You know, this always takes a lot of cutting and pasting, so let’s just direct you to the Special Project Page for the Discworld Read-Along.