Monday, December 06, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 306 (12/6) -- I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

No one wants to be a vulture. And very few critics start a book hoping to be able to attack it; we generally want to enjoy ourselves, and share that enjoyment with the world. (Or, at least, that tiny percentage of the world that both cares and notices.) It doesn't always work out that way, of course; the world is sad and full of woe, and plenty of things -- not just books -- are disappointments.

It's even worse when dealing with a work late in the career of a well-known, highly respected, and generally excellent writer -- the bar has already been set, by the writer himself. Does comparing a new work to the best of a long career inevitably mean that the new one will seem second-rate? (Even if, five years later, that then-new work will likely be retrospectively seen to be one of the very best?) And what does second-rate mean in that context -- "not quite as good as these particular books, but notably better than these other ones"?

And then if that writer is Terry Pratchett -- on one side, the second-bestselling writer in the UK (and pretty popular over here, as well), and, on the other, famously fighting a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's disease, which he's noted has started to affect his writing process -- the critic (and perhaps any reader) is left feeling deeply uneasy, picking up a new book with fervent hopes that it will be absolutely wonderful amid lurking fears about Pratchett's (and our own) mortality.

I found the most recent Discworld novel, Unseen Academicals, to be somewhat unfocused and minor, for a Discworld book -- and, at any other time in his career, that would be it. (Everyone has minor books; even Shakespeare inflicted Corliolanus on the world.) Pratchett followed that with Nation, his first non-series novel in quite a long time -- though it was deeply Pratchettian, and not particularly different in tone from the Discworld books -- which was stronger, but old-fashioned in a not-always-palatable ways. And now he's back to Discworld with the fourth book about young witch Tiffany Aching -- but this one, like Nation, is officially a Young Adult novel, which means, mostly, that it has an odd price point ($17.89 in US hardcover) and chapter breaks rather than a headlong narrative.

I Shall Wear Midnight is a perfectly solid Pratchett novel -- call it a stand-up double on this side of the Atlantic, and interpolate whatever incomprehensible cricket term would be used on his home turf -- with a slight inevitability problem and some too-quickly vanishing tension in the last third. In other words, it's a novel: a long piece of prose with something wrong with it. And I don't see any sign that could be discerned from it -- or from Pratchett's last three novels together -- about the course of his Alzheimer's; he's writing much like he has for the last two decades or so, with some books slightly more successful than others, but all of them falling at "pretty good" or better.

Tiffany Aching is just about sixteen for I Shall Wear Midnight; Pratchett has continued to move the Discworld one year forward for each year that passes in the real world. (When we met Tiffany, in 2003's The Wee Free Men, she was nine, and it's now seven years later. How old this makes Granny Weatherwax, who was not young when she first appeared in 1987's Equal Rites, I leave as an exercise for the reader.) She's solidly "the witch" of The Chalk, the local downlands populated by tough farmers and shepherds, and is doing an adult's work by now -- most days, more than one person's work. But what looked like it might turn into a budding romance with Roland, the son of the local Baron, never went anywhere: they were both different from the other local children, but different in distinct ways. Roland has grown into something of a stuck-up young lord, and is engaged to the very wet Letitia, who comes with her ferocious mother the Duchess in tow.

There's also an undertone of unease about witches in general spreading across the Chalk -- Tiffany is the first avowed witch in the area for a long time, and the old distrust bubbles back up, more strongly after she helps a pregnant teenage girl who was severely beaten by her drunken father. She comforts the girl, Amber, and puts her in the care of the Nac Mac Feegles, which we readers know is absolutely the right thing to do -- but can be spun by others as "kidnapped a girl from her family and spirited her away to the fairies." Tiffany is also present when the old Baron dies, which situation can equally be seen two ways. After that unease builds for a while -- along with a lot of Pratchett narration about the times when people turn against witches, every century or so, and start burning old women for being alone and unpopular -- we learn that the spirit of an ancient dead witchfinder, the Cunning Man, is behind it all, and that the events of the last Tiffany book, Wintersmith, woke him up and put him on Tiffany's scent.

The Cunning Man is yet another in the long line of nasty, nearly faceless Pratchett villains, who tend to be stand-ins for vicious parts of human behavior (and which need to be stopped by applied violence and cleverness in equal parts), but he functions mostly as a horror-movie figure here, always chasing Tiffany and potentially lurking around every corner. He's not nearly as dangerous and frightening as he should be, but, again, he is about the dozenth iteration of the same idea in a Discworld book.

Everyone turns against Tiffany -- well, many of them do, for a while, but she gets them back on her side before the big confrontation with the Cunning Man (which I kept thinking was a miscalculation on Pratchett's part; it felt too easy and made the confrontation a foregone conclusion). The humans fomenting the unease most strongly either completely disappear from the novel (in one case) or are quickly and entirely de-fanged by yet another of Pratchett's patent old ultra-competent witches (in the other) -- again, both stop being threats to Tiffany, but not due to anything Tiffany does.

So it all comes to the end, where Tiffany will either defeat the Cunning Man for this century -- he always comes back; Granny Weatherwax banished him once herself, when she was young -- or will be subsumed by him and have to be killed by Granny Weatherwax. Which do you think happens?

(I don't know if Pratchett's muse runs that way, but I'd love to see a tragedy from him -- or just a book in which really horrible, irrevocable things happen early on to the protagonist. His besetting sin is the ending that's just a bit too happy and too pat, so it would be nice to see some joy that was mixed with sorrow, for once.)

I Shall Wear Midnight is a solid mid-rank Discworld novel; better than The Light Fantastic or Moving Pictures but not as good as Small Gods or Lords and Ladies. The Tiffany books are particularly inviting to those of us who have read a lot of Pratchett because they get him to stop talking about how wonderful modernity and progress are; the Chalk is a place that has little truck with modernity and no belief in progress. And the best news is that he's still writing exactly like Terry Pratchett; his Alzheimer's has not touched the work so far, and we can continue to hope that it never will, that some very Pratchettesque last-minute unlikely contrivance will restore him to full health and let him keep writing deeply entertaining novels like this one for another thirty years.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

No comments:

Post a Comment