It is not necessary to know where exactly this book is situated inside the Discworld series. It is enough to know that this is a Terry Pratchett novel featuring a new character, and that in itself should push you to the bookstores to buy it. It is, however, very interesting to know that this is the first of five Tiffany Aching novels and an excellent starting point for people unfamiliar with the series.
The Aching books are commonly labeled as young adult, but Pratchett is such a treasure that these books should not be overlooked. We are now in the final stretch of Discworld novels, in which Pratchett’s struggle with Alzheimer slowly becomes apparent. But the Tiffany Aching novels see Pratchett still on top of his game and are one of the jewels in his crown.
Tiffany Aching is a nine-year-old girl living on the Aching farm in rolling green fields. A passing witch named Miss Tick (sounds like mystic) sees Tiffany hit a river monster with a frying pan, and sees great potential in the young Tiffany to become a witch. A good long conversation between the witch and Tiffany brilliantly lays out both of their characters and the way witches are regarded in this land and in this book. Terrific character- and world-building. Tiffany is a very smart girl, asking penetrating questions, and both think that the other one is a bit too clever. This is witches as we know them in Pratchett’s books. He loves writing clever, levelheaded people.
A year ago, an announcement came through that a movie adaptation is in the works. If that is still coming for us, then I am looking forward the most to the portrayal of the blue pixies named the Nac Mac Feegle, or the wee free men. Blue, tattooed and sporting bright red hair, they call themselves pictsies (after the Picts, iron age tribes from Scotland). They love fighting and stealing and talking in thick Scottish accents. Tiffany receives their help in her problems because the Feegles know that she is a “hag”. Whether you will like this novel, depends largely on how you will take these pictsies.
What I admire greatly in Pratchett’s writing is how this story is about common shepherd people in a medieval fantasy setting, and how he grounds these people so strongly in the land and the communities they live in. During Tiffany’s adventure, we get flashbacks to her memories of her grandmother, “Granny Aching”, who wields this great influence over the community while all she does is sit still and smoke tobacco. Her “witchery” is being smart and silent, similar to the “headology” of Granny Weatherwax in other Discworld novels. These characters are simply a stroke of genius.
The story is kept simple, mostly because Tiffany is the only one we’re following. Unfortunately, the plot suffers from a number of tired tropes. Tiffany is trying to rescue her brother, who is stolen away by the fairy queen, and so Tiffany has to cross over to fairyland. It’s a dream-world where people’s dreams and mythological monsters become true, blablabla. I suspect that an adventure on Discworld itself would have been a lot more interesting than another rendition of the land of Oz. After establishing Tiffany’s family so well and the land where she grew up in, it makes little sense that the adventure doesn’t take place in that environment.
What annoys me personally about dream-world tales is that the tension completely slips away because everything is possible and the stakes and rules aren’t clear. The second half of the book was therefore hard going. In addition, a dream quest also tends to turn into a meta-level story. It’s a story that is self-conscious about being a story, such as: “I remember this, this is my dream, and therefore we should go there and this and that is supposed to happen next”. Or someone says: “this should happen because that is how stories work.” In the end, Tiffany’s dream-quest ends in an affirmation of her own identity and her place in the land she grew up on. But this essential conclusion that is the theme of the whole novel is weakly delivered and over before you know it.
Overall, The Wee Free Men has some great characters and funny side characters, but the story itself doesn’t live up to that quality. I am still curious about where Tiffany and the Feegles will go next and I will be hoping for deeper storytelling next time round. This is after all a simple origin story for the start of her career as a witch.