Sadly, ‘The Shepherd’s Crown’ will be the last DiscWorld novel*. I had in my head drafted a response to the critics who claimed that the impact of Terry’s illness can be traced in the overall quality of this novel. The problem with that way of reading the novel is that once you start to look for such connections you inevitably find them. But why stop there – can you find the pages in Great Expectations where Dickens had a heavy cold in 1861 (yes, I had to look that up), or the chapters in Mrs Dalloway where Virginia Woolf was feeling particularly depressed that day. The book is what it is. However, in a well meaning but ultimately unhelpful postscript to this edition, Rob Wilkins, Terry’s assistant, wrote “The Shepherd’s Crown has a beginning, a middle and an end, and all the bits inbetween. Terry wrote all of those. But even so, it was, still, not quite as finished as he would have liked when he died. If Terry has lived longer, he would almost certainly have written more of this book”. Once you know that, you can’t un-know it, and it influences the way you read the novel. You start to look for weaker passages of descriptive writing, jokes that fall slightly flatter than usual, plot lines that dwindle away. The fact that every DiscWorld novel has similar features seems irrelevant. It devalues what would otherwise have been a marvellous addition to the series – and which I stubbornly think it still is.
The Tiffany Aching series of DiscWorld novels was always positioned as Young Adult fiction. I am not sure whether if you didn’t know that, it would affect your overall enjoyment of the novel. This series is slightly less complex than the usual DW affair, and the level of menace toned down. But not much – this novel still has some seriously nasty elves who torture babies and dismember cuddly bunnies. These scenes are balanced by the way the elves are easily dispatched by Tiffany and her ragtag army of old men in sheds, part-time witches, and the glorious Mac Nac Feegles.
I’ve made no effort to avoid spoilers in this blog thus far, but I am going to make an exception here. One of DiscWorld’s best loved characters dies in the opening chapters of ‘The Shepherd’s Crown’, and if you don’t want to know who it is, look away now.
One of the reviews I read online in preparing this blog entry very insightfully observed that in describing Granny Weatherwax’s death, Pratchett was teaching us how to mourn. How right that is. These scenes are some of the best in the whole canon. Granny had fought Death tooth and nail at other points in the series, but here she accepts her fate with calm fortitude. The characters who survive her mourn her and then carry on doing the work that is in front of them, as we should.
Other things that are wonderful about this novel and the overall series:
1. The highbrow jokes. Pratchett throws in casually some “English” jokes that might elude international readers. There is an extended reference to ‘Dad’s Army’, and at another point to Monty Python’s ‘Lumberjack’ sketch. Quotes from and allusions to Shakespeare echo throughout the series, and I even spotted a reference to Keats – one characters reference to someone looking with “wild surmise” which is a quote from the sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”.
2. Untypically for this genre, DiscWorld has many well developed female characters. Almost all of them are stronger in their own ways than the menfolk, and all are completely believable and convincing. They are flawed and often full of self doubt, which makes them all the more convincing.
3. There’s a lack of sentimentality about the novels. People die, back guys do bad things, and while good always triumphs there is a price. ‘The Night Watch’ is a wonderful example of this.
4. The novels fizz with ideas, some silly, some magnificent. In ‘The Shepherd’s Crown’ the world is changing, seeing the beginning of the Railway Age, and with it the beginning of the end of the world of magic. What better time and place for Terry to take his bow.
*Except of course it won’t be. The DiscWorld is far too vibrant not to survive the death of its author, and it will continue in fanfiction, incomplete work finished by others, and other work licensed by his estate and publishers.