Jan 03 2018

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

What a lovely start! In The Wee Free Men, the thirtieth Discworld book and the second explicitly marked as intended for young adults, Terry Pratchett introduces Tiffany Aching, a young witch who would go on to feature in four more novels, including Pratchett’s last. Likewise, he introduces a new setting, a rural area known as the Chalk. It’s sparsely settled by shepherds and a few farmers.

At the beginning, Tiffany naturally does not know that she’s a witch. She knows she’s been left to look after her baby brother again. She doesn’t know that Miss Perspicacia Tick, a wandering witch and misfortune-teller (“Ordinary fortune-tellers tell you what you want to happen; witches tell you what’s going to happen whether you want it to or not. Strangely enough, witches tend to be more accurate but less popular.” (p. 2) So Miss Tick tells misfortunes.) has seen two of the main problems already and is watching Tiffany to see how she fits. The first is that there is a “definite ripple in the walls of the world. Very worrying. There’s probably another world making contact. That’s never good.” (p. 2) It’s a common Discworld danger, and long-time readers know that trouble is not far away. Miss Tick can sense that there’s another witch near the incursion, but “You can’t grow a good witch on chalk. The stuff’s barely harder than clay. You need good hard rock to grow a witch.” (p. 2)

Tiffany turns out to be right at the border where the other world — and more to the point something with long skinny arms, “a thin face with long sharp teeth, huge round eyes and dripping green hair like waterweed” (p. 5) — is trying to come through to the Chalk. She scoops up her baby brother just in time and dashes away, not so much scared as mortally offended that a monster would turn up in her river. Back home, she pages through her grandmother’s old book of fairy tales until she finds a description of what she has just seen. Tiffany then grabs an iron skillet, a bag of sweets as bait for her brother, her brother as bait for the monster, and returns to the river to sort things out.

She ran out of her hiding place with the frying pan swinging like a bat. The screaming monster, leaping out of the water, met the frying pan coming the other way with a clang.
It was a good clang, with the oiyoiyoiyoioioioinnnnnngggggg that is the mark of a clang well done.
The creature hung there for a moment, a few teeth and bits of green weed splashing into the water, then slid down slowly and sank with some massive bubbles. (p. 13)

Miss Tick is not the only one to have noticed Tiffany’s unusual traits. The Nac Mac Feegle, sometimes known as pictsies and who appeared in a supporting role in Carpe Jugulum, have taken considerable interest in Tiffany. Unusually, they have also taken a liking to her, instead of just taking whatever of hers they can carry off. As Miss Tick tells her familiar, they are “The most feared of all the fairy races! Even trolls run away from the Wee Free Men! And one of them warned her!” (p. 7)

A description of the Wee Free Folk comes a good bit later:

They were all about six inches tall and mostly coloured blue, although it was hard to know if that was the actual colour of their skins or just the dye from their tattoos, which covered every inch that wasn’t covered with red hair. They wore short kilts, and some other bits of clothing too, like skinny waistcoats. A few of them wore rabbit or rat skulls on their heads, as a sort of helmet. And every single one of them carried, slung across his back, a sword nearly as big as he was. (p. 81)

An initial meeting between Tiffany and the wandering witch is inconclusive. Tiffany is not terribly impressed, the older witch is impressed but thinks the girl has a lot to learn. Unfortunately, the incursion of the other world is starting to look like a big one, and she deems it best to seek witchy reinforcements. She departs, leaving her familiar, a talking frog, to help out some.

In classic fairy tale form, Tiffany is left effectively alone by other humans, with some uncertain non-human allies. The world that is trying to reach into the Discworld is a dreamworld, and Tiffany squares off against its Queen to protect all that she knows and loves. There’s a Baron’s son, too, though he is not quite as worthless as the actual Baron.

Tiffany has to navigate her own nightmares, the demands of the Nac Mac Feegle (and fairy marriage politics on top of that), and the dangers thrown at her by the Queen.

In the end, everything works out, even the Baron’s son. Miss Tick returns with reinforcements just in time to discover that the danger has been seen off, and that witches can grow on chalk after all. The denouement with Nanny Ogg and Mistress Weatherwax is a delight. It’s the end of the book, but the beginning for Tiffany Aching.

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