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This is the fourth book by Terry Pratchett concerning Tiffany Aching, a teenage witch on The Chalk (Discworld's equivalent to the south downs) who is protected by a clan of small ferocious fighters, the Nac Mac Feegles. The previous three books within this mini series within the Discworld series of books are Hatful of Sky, The Wee Free Men and The Wintersmith.
Don't worry if you haven't read any of the other three preceding books about Tiffany Aching as there's enough in the way of explanations in this installment to enable you to catch up and follow what's going on. The title of this particular book, "I shall wear midnight" comes about when Tiffany is asked why, if she is a witch, does she not wear black. She replies that she will only wear midnight when she is old.
Tiffany is doing the things that witches do (helping the old and infirm by rubbing ointment onto hard to reach bad backs, easing the suffering of those on death's door and in Tiffany's case, being very good at making cheese) when gradually, she notices a change for the worse in peoples' perceptions towards her and witching in general.
She discovers that this has come about by the re-emergence of an evil spirit - a spirit who belonged to a crazed and over zealous witch hunter a very long time ago. Every few hundred years this spirit comes back at times when people's memories have forgotten that witches used to be a force for evil and were to be persecuted and executed, as opposed to the important community spirited people they are today. Feeding on peoples' hate and fear, the spirit amplifies those two emotions and directs "the mob" to hunt the ladies with the pointy hats.
Tiffany must stop this, and seems to have been singled out by the spirit called the Cunning Man, who intends to kill Tiffany first then as many other witches as he can. In order to fight the Cunning Man, Tiffany must use some top class cunning of her own. Is she still a young girl incapable of showing the maturity required to banish the spirit of the Cunning Man, or will she develop into the great witch many tip her to become and save both herself and her sister witches?
I reckon "I shall wear midnight" is as good as any of the other Discworld related books, not including the Colour of Magic as I've always thought that was too random and crowded and a disjointed read. The story line is very strong, reinforced along the way by a few recurring themes that all join together at the end of the story to make sense in a way that had me thinking "of course, why didn't I see that?". For example there is a continual reference to "the hare jumps into the flames" - read the book and it will be a eurake moment for you when you discover how it is meant.
You may be aware that over the last few years Mr Pratchett has been coping with a form of dimensure - good luck to him in that fight and as far as I can see there's no sign of his usually high standard of work slipping in this book, published in 2010.
As with all the characters he populates Discworld with, the characters in this book are very colourful, intricate and come to life off the pages by their sheer realism. One of the things for me about Pratchett's writing is that makes him so good is the fact that he creates these characters in a fantasy world which are very easy to relate to, given the surrealism of their surroundings. For example, in this book you've got people who we all have an acquiantance in real life that is very similar - Nanny Ogg, the life and soul of a party and a loveable rogue and Roland, the son of a great man who struggles to be as respected as their father, can make a bit of a mess of how they deal with people but essentially mean no harm. I hope other Pratchett fans agree that he can make a character real in an unreal setting (Discworld is a disc shaped planet that sits on the shoulders of four giant elephants who in turn are standing on the back of a space travelling turtle called Great A'Tuin) and does this very convincingly.
Tiffany, the lead character is a reflection of most of us when we were at that awkward stage in teenage years when we're standing on ridge with childhood on one side and scary adulthood on the other and are pushed firmly off the side marked "grown ups only". This book is classed as being for young readers. I would say that it works on more than just this one level - my four year old would enjoy being read this story at bedtime as I think that the antics of the unruly Nac Mac Feegles would appeal to her, my eight year old would be gripped by what is, for an eight year old, a tale of great peril being faced up to by a girl who won't appear to her as ancient as distant as I do which I think would help her relate to the story and take it at face value. Also, I think that when my now eight year old daughter herself is at that stage in her life just like Tiffany is between being a child and becoming a young woman that she will get a lot more from the book in terms of comparisons between her life and the life and trials of Tiffany, rather than it just being a damn good story.
As for me, if Terry Pratchett re-wrote the phone book then I'd lap it up cover to cover. I've only got Snuff and Dodger to go then I've read all of his work. So, with that bias in mind you shouldn't be surprised that I give this book the full five stars. Bias aside though, even with the "younger reader" label I was gripped and entertained in equal measures when reading it, and I'm in my mid thirties, so don't be put off by the younger reader tag. It's currently available on Amazon £5.24 as a paperback, a quite steep £18.99 for the hardback version and £4.74 as one of those candle things that you can't display proudly on a shelf or bookcase. Thanks for reading.
To date, I've not been too impressed with the Tiffany Aching books, and personally thought her last outing - Wintersmith - was a rather dull, under-par effort from the normally reliable Pratchett. Generally, I have put this down to the fact that the Aching books are "for the younger reader" and since I can't even remotely claim to belong to that category, I assumed that was the reason for my lack of interest.
Fast forward to I Shall Wear Midnight, Pratchett's latest Discworld book, and my opinion has been modified. On the evidence of this, Tiffany Aching has the potential to establish herself as a firm fan favourite and become as popular as fellow Witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. In her latest adventure, Tiffany faces a new menace: The Cunning Man - a long-dead witch-finder - who is poisoning the minds of ordinary people against witches, with Tiffany as his main target. Will she have the power and cunning to beat him or will she be defeated and fail witches everywhere?
The first thing it's important to say is don't be put off that this is published by Doubleday's Children's Books label, this is every inch a "real" Discworld book and one which can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. Despite the "for younger readers" tag Pratchett really makes few concessions to his style - a very good thing in my opinion. Unlike some authors, he does not assume that children are thick and patronise them feeling the need to explain every joke in tedious detail. Rather, he assumes children just as intelligent as adult readers and sees no need to dumb down his style.
The only real concession to those "younger readers" is that I Shall Wear Midnight arguably has a more straightforward narrative than most Discworld novels. Again, that's not a criticism, rather a strength. Since the narrative is less complex and strange, it leaves the reader free to concentrate on the wonderfully observed characters and the superb, genuinely laugh-out-loud humour.
All of Pratchett's trademark humour remains present and correct. Indeed, this is one of the funniest Discworld books for quite some time. As ever, the humour is both wide-ranging and full of variety. One minute, Pratchett is crafting an intricate gag with a long lead up to the punch line; the next he is throwing in a quick-fire gag; then he might make a humorous, sly (but oh so true) observations about human nature.
It's probably in this latter area that I Shall Wear Midnight is particularly strong. The book is littered with observations about how foolishly people can act, particularly when driven by fear or uncertainty. This is one of the key, underpinning themes of this book and it's one that Pratchett uses to great effect to mine both humour and menace from his plot.
Crucially, the humour is an important, integral part of the plot. Many "humorous" books simply tell a bog-standard story, and then throw in a few gags. With Pratchett, this is not the case. The humour grows organically from what we already know about the characters or the situations in which they find themselves. It's also very well paced. With many humour novels (and in fairness, with some Pratchett novels), the jokes start to run out of steam towards the end and give way to the plot. I Shall Wear Midnight is just as funny at the end as it was at the beginning.
It's through the characters that the book really comes to life. After several previous adventures where I hadn't really warmed to her, for the first time I really grew to like Tiffany Aching. Pratchett writes her as someone who is 15 going on 50; someone far wiser, more experienced (and much more cynical) than her tender age would suggest. This effectively leads to a role reversal for much of the book, where the youngest character acts like an adult and adults act like young children. Pratchett uses this to brilliant effect to create a strong plot which will be of immediate interest to young children (who always think they know better than adults!) and as a springboard for many of the jokes.
Of course, no Tiffany Aching tale would be complete without the appearance of the blue, fighting-obsessed Nac Mac Feegle, a scary sight for most, but fiercely loyal to Tiffany. Although many of the individual Feegles take a back seat in this one (leader Rob Anybody does most of the talking for them), they are still a brilliantly funny creation and their twisted sense of logic and morality is a joy to behold. After several books together they have developed a real rapport with Tiffany and the interplay and bickering between them is sublime, providing many of the book's funnier moments.
Despite the general lack of opportunity for individual Feegles to shine, there are still some hilarious instances of Pratchett using the characters to great effect. The passage where Daft Wullie tries (and fails) to explain to Tiffany why her broomstick is suddenly on fire is absolutely priceless. It's one of those classic Pratchett asides that have absolutely nothing to do with the main plot, but turns out to be one of the funniest passages in the whole book.
Fans of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg who feel that the characters have been out of the limelight for too long (I'm one of them), will be pleased to see that both make strong cameos towards the end. It's good to see that they have lost none of the qualities - Nanny Ogg's lewd sense of humour and Granny Weatherwax's bad-temper - that made them such great characters to being with and they still bicker like two cats in a bag. Their appearance feels very natural and important to the plot and not forced (as can sometimes happen), but it still makes you wish Pratchett would write another "proper" witches book!
Last year's Discworld release (Unseen Academicals) was a solid, but slightly disappointing effort. I Shall Wear Midnight is Pratchett back to his best. I wasn't sure I'd ever say this, but I'm aching to read more about Miss Aching!
I Shall Wear Midnight
Doubleday Children's Books, 2010
© Copyright SWSt 2010