Sometimes the fates (or gods, if you believe in such)—or the uncaring universe—are cruel. As the characters in Larry Niven’s Known Space universe are fond of saying, “TANJ!” (“There Ain’t No Justice!”) This year we lost Sir Terry Pratchett, who was a YEAR YOUNGER than I, to his early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. (He brought laughter—thought-provoking laughter—to many thousands, if not millions, of readers; and to cap it off, he seemed a genuinely nice guy!) And there are many, many less-deserving people—including some incredible jerks and really dangerous people—still walking around. TANJ indeed. But Terry left a written legacy that will be inspiring readers for decades to come, if not nearly forever. (Poignantly, the last tweet from the official Pratchett Twitter account, said this (according to Wikipedia):
AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.
Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.
Those of you who are regular Discworld readers know what the small caps mean; the rest of you can gather from context. But before I get into the review of The Shepherd’s Crown, a couple of personal reminiscences might be in order.
I first encountered Pratchett’s wit and wisdom in a Science Fiction Book Club edition of The Colour of Magic, which was the first Discworld book published (Figure 2). (I believe I got that particular book at Dean Wesley Smith’s Paperback Exchange, a used bookstore (not just paperbacks) in Moscow, Idaho.) In this book, we first encountered Rincewind, the worst wizard on the entire Discworld. Not the worst because he was incompetent; oh, no! He was the worst because the entire magical part of his minb was taken up—held hostage, you might say—with a Very Bad Spell, one which had leapt into his mind unbidden when he viewed one of the chained-up books in the Library at Unseen University, the Wizards’ university, in the city (really conjoined towns) of Ankh-Morpork. For those of you who haven’t yet read any Discworld books, I must explain: most planets are round-ish (the Earth is actually a bit pear-shaped, I understand). But the universe is so mind-bogglingly big, that there may actually be a planet that is flat, the way Earth was assumed to be for so many years. And there is such a world—the Discworld, which is round, and flat (more or less; there are mountains) like a pizza. The Discworld, when we first met it, was in a sort of medieval state, but it has working magic—all based on the oddest of the primary colours (called “Octarine”).
Yes, we first encountered all these things and more—and as far as I was concerned (this must have been in the early-to-mid 1980s, as the book was published in 1983.) a star was born—even though his first novels (The Carpet People, The Dark Side of the Sun, and Strata) were published between 1971 and 1981.
If you’re a Pratchett fan, you’re probably aware that between 1983 and 1989 inclusive there were seven more Pratchetts published, six of them Discworld books. They were The Light Fantastic (1986), Mort (1987), Equal Rites (1987), Sourcery (1988), Wyrd Sisters (1988), Truckers (1989), and Pyramids (1989). We met, through these books, such unforgettable characters as the Librarian of Unseen University (red hair, says “Ook” a lot), Death (skinny guy, all bones, really, who talks in SMALL CAPS), Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler (sausage salesman par excellence, although you really don’t want to eat one of those), Lord Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork and many more; very prominent among the cast are the witches Esme “Granny” Weatherwax—if the witches acknowledged a leader, she would be it—and “Nanny” (Gytha) Ogg, who might have been the inspiration for the song “Knees up, Mother Brown.”
The first paperback editions of Discworld books to hit North America that I was aware of had covers by the inimitable Josh Kirby. His multicoloured, manic covers were always illustrative of something—sometimes everything—happening in the books (Figure 3), and somehow added to the indefinable esprit of Discworld, in my opinion. Lately, the Discworld hardcovers seem to have all been by the good artist—I understand that he was Pratchett’s own favourite—Paul Kidby (See Figure 4), but although they’re painterly and competent, they somehow lack the energy of the Kirby covers. The thing you came to learn about Discworld books is this: although on the surface they were about people and events on the Discworld, that flat planet carried on the back of the giant space turtle A’Tuin (well, actually, Discworld rests on the backs of four elephants which are standing on the shell of Great A’Tuin, but I digress.), they were about our world. They were about people like you and me, even if they were made of rock, or were hairy dwarf people, or werewolves or wizards. And under everything ran Pratchett’s wry observations and comments about the everyday world we see around us, all under an hilarious series about a world that couldn’t possibly exist! A hard act to pull off, especially over some forty books! (Well, this book, The Shepherd’s Crown, is the forty-first, and the very last. Sigh.)
So in August of 1989, I got married to the Beautiful and Talented Lynne Taylor in Edmonton, Alberta (having moved from Pullman/Moscow [a pair of towns not unlike Ankh-Morpork, although separated by the Washington-Idaho border, rather than the Ankh River] in 1985; thanks to some inconvenient laws, she had to go back to Washington the very next day! So in September or October of 1989—after taking care of the legalities—my new wife and I filled a pickup truck with all her possessions and drove back to Edmonton to drop off her stuff, then headed straight to Banff, Alberta, for BanffCon (a joint production of PESFA [the Palouse Empire SF Association] and ESFCAS [the Edmonton SF and Comic Arts Society], who put on, respectively, MosCon and NonCon). The pro GOH was Brian Aldiss, whom I’d known for years (thanks to Harry Harrison), but whom I’d never met; and to top it all off, the Special Guest was one Terry Pratchett! (Not yet Sir Terry, BTW.) Woo-hoo!
So after going to the gift shop and buying wedding rings for each of us from the available jewelry—and we’re still wearing those, 26 years later!—we went to check in at the desk, only to be told they’d lost our reservation. Or somehow had failed to save us the room we wanted. Eventually, it developed that they had to give us this giant suite at the same room price for a single room—the mixup was, after all, their fault—which made for a killer party later that convention! Then we went to wander the halls and see who we could see… and almost the first person we saw, sitting by himself, was Terry Pratchett! (I got all my Pratchett hardcovers and softcovers autographed; and the fun thing was that he put a different little personal message—and sometimes a quick sketch—in each book!) He was very personable, although he had that British issue with the “R” sound that some people (“Wewease Bwian!”) like Jonathan Ross have (who recently said, on Penn & Teller’s Fool Us, “Parting is such sweet sorrow, which is hard for me to say, as I can’t pwonounce the word ‘sowwow’!”). We spent a while with Terry; he even put on full wizard regalia for the masquerade later that convention. Alas, it was the only time we were to meet.
But he continued to write funny and amazing novels—not only Discworld books, but also collaborations—serious SF—with Stephen Baxter, as well as some stand-alone stuff. He left behind a body of work that anyone would be proud of. Lynne (the B & T), whose art now consists of making “bots” out of upcycled materials, has made at least three bots that are direct tributes to Pratchett’s wizards: the first, Wizbot, now resides at the home of Randy Reichardt in Edmonton; the second, Rincewatter, will be on display at VCON this very weekend, and the third—named Loblolly Smoth Wizbot—will also be on display at VCON (See Figure 4). Which leads us to the Last Pratchett Book.
I can’t go into too much depth on this one, because it begins—or at least happens very early—with a very significant death. While the book is mainly about Tiffany Aching, young witch that we saw in such books as A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith, what happens to Tiffany and the Discworld very much hinges on this death. It’s a major character—a character we know well, who has kept the barrier between the Discworld and that other world strong, and who has been a bulwark against the so-called “Fair Folk” (see Lords and Ladies, the fourteenth Discworld book), the elves. You see, the elves in a Discworld book are not the happy shoemaker type; they’re not the fairies you’d find in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, although there is one named Peaseblossom. The pranks these elves/fairies get up to are usually bloody, and often involve things like skinning knives.
The first to notice the weakening of the barrier are the Nac Mac Feegle, those valiant little (about 6″ tall) blue warriors, and their kelda, kind of a combination mother and witch. Then we find out that Tiffany Aching, not a full-fledged witch for ages, like Nanny Ogg, for example, has to step up and take over as leader of all the witches—that is, if witches had a leader, which they don’t—against the opposition of Mrs. Earwig (pronounced “Ah-widge”), who’s been a witch much longer (but really isn’t much of a witch), and who wants to be in charge. Eventually, all the witches must band together to end the menace of Peaseblossom (who has destroyed the Queen of the Elves), and even taking on a new male witch—Geoffrey Swivel who, with his goat Mephistopheles, has proved that males can be witches after all (as opposed to wizards, don’t you know).
It is a joy to see a lot of old friends again—especially the Nac Mac Feegle—including Magrat Garlick, a young witch from long ago who became the Queen of Lancre—but it’s a sad occasion, not only because it’s the last Discworld. The ending seems a bit rushed, but that might be mainly because Terry did rush to get this finished; it seems typical of him to want to let us read another book or two even when he knew he was in danger of dying—either physically or mentally. While it’s not the best Discworld book (I’m the last person to say which one is the best—it’s like choosing your favourite child!), it ranks up there very closely in my opinion. If you’re a Discworld fan, and if you’ve been following the adventures of Tiffany Aching, this is a good book to go out on.
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