“We heard a song, it went ‘Twinkle twinkle little star…’ What power! What wondrous power! You can take a billion trillion tons of flaming matter, a furnace of unimaginable strength, and turn it into a little song for children! You build little worlds, little stories, little shells around your minds and that keeps infinity at bay and allows you to wake up in the morning without screaming!”
I was delighted to open another Tiffany novel so soon after finishing The Wee Free Men. Tiffany was an instant fully formed Pratchett character – proud, moral, headstrong, somewhat selfish and a bit full of herself. She was someone who could stand easily alongside Vimes or Weatherwax as great Pratchett characters.
In his two YA books to date, Pratchett has taken classic folk tales, dismantled them and fitted the constituent parts back together with a lot of darkness and not inconsiderable intelligence. They have been among Pratchett’s most neatly plotted and satisfying reads among the entire Discworld series, so I was anxious to see what came next.
While Wee Free Men dealt with Tiffany growing up and realising her responsibilities as an elder sister, A Hatful of Sky forces her to confront the darker side of her nature. This is The Dark Phoenix Saga, Luke being tempted by the Dark Side, Clark Kent slugging it out with evil Superman in a scrapyard. These books are morality plays but the existence of the chaotic Nac Mac Feegle, a blue army of drunken riotous pixies, keep them from being too much like serious tracts.
When we left Tiffany at the end of Wee Free Men, she had gained the respect of Granny Weatherwax, something that never happens. She is promptly packed off to Miss Level to work there as a maid. Miss Level is one mind inhabiting two bodies. She reminds me of the brilliant Lutece twins from Bioshock Infinite.
Tiffany quickly grows impatient with the mundane tasks she has to carry out for Miss Level. She feels looking after the local community is not what witches do. After being humiliated by the horrific Anagramma (the Regina George of apprentice witches), Tiffany decided to retreat to look at herself from outside her body, a bad habit she has fallen into. It is at that moment that a hiver that has been stalking her decides to strike and inhabit her body. Grisly consequences ensue.
The book sees Tiffany enter adolescence, with all the impatience and self-righteousness one would expect from a precocious teenager. The narrator follows on from Wee Free Men by lightly mocking Tiffany’s self-belief. The hiver looked like Tiffany, although here it was slightly taller because Tiffany thought she was slightly taller than she really was. She also cannot fly to save her life, vomiting everywhere en route to her destination.
While Tiffany was immature and cruel about her younger brother in the previous novel, she wants the power she feels she will learn from the witches now, even though the regular reader knows a witch’s power comes previously from not using it. I love the foot-stomping tone Tiffany’s thoughts are soaked in:
Where was the magic? Oh, she understood that you had to learn about the basic, everyday craft, but when did the ‘witch’ part turn up? She’d been trying to learn, she really had, and she was turning into…well, a good worker, a handy girl with potion and a reliable person. Dependable, like Miss Level.
Tiffany mistakenly sees herself as a really nice person, even though she is filled with contempt for the local people she helps with Miss Tick. We are in deep Spider-Man territory here, with great power requiring great responsibility. Tiffany fails to see this and the parasitic hiver awakens her evil self, killing(!!!!!) one of Miss Level’s bodies and cruelly humiliating her junior coven.
The murder of one of Miss Level’s selves is dealt with in such a matter of fact way, it feels all the more horrific. The reader knows at the start of the book that hivers don’t just target anybody. We cannot guess what frightens a hiver, but they seem to take refuge in bodies that have power of some sort – great strength, great intellect, great prowess with magic. We know Tiffany has all three so her evil self coming to the fore is worrying.
It’s down the Nac Mac Feegle to rescue her true self. Yet again, I feel I am underplaying how much I enjoy this chaotic group of drunken pixies. They are deeply comic and I feel I can’t write about how effective they are without just listing a bunch of funny scenes featuring them and following it with ‘see? They’re funny’.
But it is testament to Pratchett’s considerable strengths as a writer that he makes a riot of blue so enjoyable to read. Speaking of things I have failed to do, I’ve probably not conveyed how good a writer Pratchett is during the past 31 write-ups. I’ve drawn attention to his intelligence, anger, humour and superlative characterisation. But occasionally he will hit you with a neatly written paragraph that just stops you:
The sky was black, even though the sun was high. It hung at just past noon, lighting the landscape as brilliantly as a hot summer day, but the sky was midnight black, shorn of stars.
This was the landscape of Tiffany Aching’s mind.
I love this. It shouldn’t work. The repetition of black should be superfluous but there’s something about the paragraph that stuck with me. Also brilliant is his description of how the Nac Mac Feegles can enter Tiffany’s mind, to free her from the influence of the hiver. They just can. So deal with it. Knowing when to elaborate and when to hold back is the sign of a great writer.
Wee Free Men hearkened back to Lords and Ladies with an icy tinge to the narrative. A Hatful of Sky follows in this vein, with the hiver seeking sanctuary in someone else because they literally cannot cope with reality. The quote that opened this post underlines what Pratchett sees as one of humanity’s strongest and weakest traits – that they can process the chaos that is everyday life through storytelling and boredom.
I love the bleak conclusion to the hiver’s life, where Tiffany literally walks her into the afterlife. She has no easy way of returning but she knows this is selfless and how a witch should act. So, thought Tiffany as she stared through the doorway, this is what we do. We live on the edges. We help those who can’t find the way…Tiffany realises a witch must be selfless and not self-absorbed, best described in how she gives Granny Weatherwax’s hat back because “I think everyone has to find their own hat.” The fact she chooses the titular Hat Full of Sky from her homeland is a nice throwback to Wee Free Men. What made Tiffany is her background and her family. She realises she must never forget that.
I’m slightly concerned I am not giving this novel the credit it deserves. I feel it’s a bit ‘this happened…then this happened…then this happened…and they’re all great!’. I had the same issue when I talked about Lords and Ladies, one of my favourite Discworld books. A Hatful of Sky is not quite that but it is an excellent addition to the canon. Pratchett’s embracing of folk and fairy tales, throwing in his customary provocation of the reader’s thoughts, is a joy to read. I am as excited about opening the next Tiffany novel as I was this one.
But first! I have some books to get through first. Next up, we are introduced to Moist Von Lipwig, arch conman and…the Discworld’s answer to Postman Pat? Seriously? See you next week.