“It’s like a disease,” Miss Proust said. “It sort of creeps up. It’s in the wind, as if it goes from person to person. Poison goes where poison’s welcome. And there’s always an excuse, isn’t there, to throw a stone at the old lady who looks funny. It’s always easier to blame somebody. And once you’ve called someone a witch, then you’d be amazed how many things you can blame her for.”
Terry Pratchett’s young adult fiction doesn’t spare the reader. His first, Amazing Maurice, was a maelstrom of horror, with cannibalism among that thrown at the reader. It was completely unflinching and quite brilliant for it. I Shall Wear Midnight opens with something equally horrific; a young girl has been beaten so severely by her father that she miscarries. Tiffany has to step in and save Mr Petty from brutal mob justice, before saving him a second time from hanging himself.
This is bleak stuff, particularly as Mr Petty is taken back by his wife and while the young girl Amber goes on to play an important role in the book, there is no real justice for her abusive father, just Tiffany’s judgement:
“That’s the sound of rough music, and they are playing it for you, Mister Petty, for you. And they have sticks! And they have stones! They have everything they can pick up, and they have their fists and your daughter’s baby died, Mister Petty. You beat your daughter so hard, Mister Petty, that the baby died, and your wife is being comforted by some of the women and everybody knows that you have done it, everybody knows.”
The only remorse he seems to show is trying to set up funeral rites for the dead child before he hangs himself. But life goes on and the reader needs to deal with that. It’s gruesome, deeply unsettling (the mania in Tiffany’s quote above shows that) but it happens in the world the reader lives in, let alone the Discworld. The best we can do is manage and try and change things in our own way.
Even though The Shepherds Crown is to follow, I was quite sad to reach I Shall Wear Midnight. While the quality of Pratchett’s adult novels has slipped since his unbelievable second golden age ended with Monstrous Regiment, the Aching novels have been a joy. This one sees our favourite teenage witch accused of murder after the Chalk’s baron dies in her care. His son Roland has been the subject of a literal storybook romance with Tiffany but he is now engaged and she is short of friends.
What’s worse is her being pursued by the Cunning Man, a deeply creepy figure with holes for eyes. He has been summoned by Roland’s fiancee Letitia, who is jealous of Tiffany. The witch of the Chalk needs to defeat the Cunning Man but also allay the fears of her homeland, who are becoming increasingly suspicious of her.
The Cunning Man is a fantastic dark creation. The Discworld’s worst stalker has an epic origin, which he was a witchfinder who fell in love with a witch. When she was being burned at the stake, he was on the verge of freeing her when she seized onto him, burning him to death and producing the horror that stalks witches to this day:
“So great, so fearsome was his hatred for anything that he thought of as witchcraft that he somehow managed to live on despite finally having no body. Though there was no skin to him, no bone any more, his rage was such that he lived on. As a ghost, perhaps. And, every so often, finding someone who would let him. There are plenty of people out there whose poisonous minds will open for him. And there are those who would rather be behind evil than in front of it.”
Across the entire Discworld series, Pratchett has explored the darkness that lies within us all and the Cunning Man is a personification of that:
There will be no mercy for a song now silenced. No redemption for killing hope in the darkness. I know you.
You are what happened in Petty’s ear before he beat up his daughter.
You are the first blast of the rough music.
You look over the shoulder at the man as he picks up the first stone, and although I think you are part of us all and we will never be rid of you, we can certainly make your life hell.
I think he represents something more than darkness though. I’ve written before about how the Aching novels are about the challenges we face as we grow old and move through life. Wee Free Men talked of the need to leave your childhood behind, A Hat Full of Sky built upon this, stressing the importance of maturity and selflessness. Wintersmith went further by throwing love into the mix and how it can test a person’s priorities. Midnight (as I shall dub it from now on) brings doubt into the series for the first time.
Tiffany’s world is not as it should be. When she meets Eskarina Smith (she of Equal Rites fame), she is told how “boy meets girl [is] one of the greatest engines of narrative causality in the multiverse”. But the narrative of the childhood friends falling in love, her and Roland, does not happen. She’s left to one side as he gets engaged.
Similarly there is fear and agitation about her presence as a witch. A lot of it is to do with the Cunning Man but we have been shown that the Cunning Man is us. She is bluntly told that if she does not have what it takes to confront and defeat him, the witches will take her down when he inhabits her. The stakes are somewhat high.
As ever, there is some lovely messing around with convention. Typically Tiffany would break the spell Roland is under, banish Letitia for casting it and the childhood friends would live happily ever after. In the end, she finds out she actually likes the somewhat wet Letitia, with shades of Magrat from the original Witches series, and the pair along with Amber are subtly drawn as a new coven.
Letitia’s monstrous mother is initially drawn as a villain whose comeuppance in the third act will be a fist pump for the reader. But it then turns out the reason she is so horrible is that she is deeply, horrifically nervous about arranging her daughter’s nuptials (although she was also threatened by the witch Miss Proust that her former days as an Ankh-Morpork showgirl would be exposed if she kept carrying on).
There’s a lovely throwback to old Discworld, in this rather superfluous but excellent footnote:
A message from the author: not all cauldrons are metal. You can boil water in a leather cauldron, if you know what you are doing. You can even make tea in a paper bag if you are careful and know how to do it. But please don’t, or if you do, don’t tell anyone I told you.
Unfortunately I knew about the reappearance of Eske, one of my favourite Discworld characters from my original reading of the series. Eskarina Smith seems like a missed opportunity that Pratchett got right with Tiffany. By making the wizard Smith so powerful in Equal Rites, she was written into a corner from the off. I assume it was difficult to make her work narratively. It was a shame – I saw her as the Discworld equivalent of Franklin Richards, from Jonathan Hickman’s ace Fantastic Four run; a character who could remake the world on a whim.
While Eske was expected, Aching’s conversation with future Tiffany at the end of the book came as a joy.
It’s a lovely book and such a neat end to the series that I wonder where The Shepherd’s Crown will take us. One quibble was I felt the romance with Private Preston was rather heavily dealt with. It became clear this intelligent, cheeky, inquisitive soul would be the perfect match for Tiffany from very early on. But it gives us one of the best final pages of the Discworld saga – it’s up there with Thief of Time for me but hard to convey how much heavy lifting the word “Listen” does.
Preston becomes the Chalk’s first permanent schoolteacher to pay for his medical training. Pratchett has spoke before about his own tricky relationship with some of his teachers but this doesn’t cloud his message of what learning should be about:
“I want a proper school, sir, to teach reading and writing, and most of all thinking, sir, so people can find out what they are good at, because someone doing what they really like is always an asset to any country, and too often people never find out until it’s too late…Learning is about finding out who you are and what you are good at and what’s over the horizon and, well, everything. It’s about finding the place where you fit. I found the place I fit, and I would like everybody else to find theirs.”
So we wave goodbye to Tiffany for now and head back to Ankh-Morpork, where we learn Sam Vimes has been confronted with that despicable thing. A holiday. Can the Discworld’s top copper swap a truncheon for a bucket and spade? See you next week.