Friday, October 2, 2015

The Wee Free Men - Terry Pratchett

The Wee Free Men is the first of Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books in his Discworld sequence. It’s pitched at slightly younger readers than his broader body of work, but it has enough nods to the older demographic to make it perfectly enjoyable. It’s also, almost of course, very, very funny.

The Discworld, where this book is set, is a giant disc, carried on the backs of four elephants, themselves carried on the back of a giant turtle, as it swims between the stars. It’s a world where things can exist because people believe in them, spinning their stories into physicality by sheer force of will. A world of magic, and terror – but also one where people are still people, with all the petty nonsense and small triumphs that entails. And in this world, we’re taken to a small place, in the middle of, effectively, nowhere. Pratchett imagines a land filled with the hardy, pragmatic, common sensical shepherds – and those who are willing to guide those men. The place, though, is a wonder – looked at through the prism of Tiffany Aching’s younger eyes, the place feels alive. It has iron for bones, and soft grass and cheese for blood.  Pratchett’s in good form here – his descriptions are lyrical, but also precise, descriptive without falling into the danger of being flowery, and the voice they’re presented in has just the right pitch of curiosity and certainty. The Chalk, as it’s known, seems to have a sense of history to it – and a sense of beauty, and a sense of the comfort of the every-day.

There’s other places too – an excursion is made into a land of fairies; here the tone is far more grim. The fantasies are darker (though unlikely to terrify young-teen readers), and has the kind of sparkling, hard-edged, dreadful lucidity of a nightmare. Pratchett sets out to scare, without horrifying, and to give us a world with consequences, without making it brutal – and succeeds brilliantly.
The main focus of the book is the young Tiffany Aching, whom we first see preventing her brother from being eaten by a water monster, by less than mystical means.  What we see of Tiffany is charming, punishingly clever, and ever so slightly ruthless. It’s a wonderful portrayal, letting the reader see different aspects of the character, and emphasising that each of those aspects come together to make someone uniquely human. Not, perhaps, always entirely likable, but a person, nonetheless.

If Tiffany is the mind behind this book, cutting through problems like a buzzsaw, then the Wee Free Men are it’s heart. Tiny, blue, and filled with a level of amiable rage, these creatures look up to Tiffany. They attempt to help her out as much as possible, whether it be with well-meant but often hilariously inapt emotional advice, or in stand-up fights. They’re also given a startling amount of emotional depth, and deftly handled such that each feels unique, and the emotions that they, and the reader, feel, come across as genuine. That they’re given a broad brogue to speak in is simply icing on the cake(it does make the text fun to read aloud though).

The plot centres on Tiffany’s relationship with the Wee Free Men, and their quest together to retrieve her small, sticky brother from the grip of the Queen of the Fairies. Not to go into detail, this actually works very well – the whole thing rattles along nicely – the need to work together, and to retrieve someone, acting as solid plot hooks. It’s a fairly straightforward journey, but the emotional depths it opens up en-route are surprising, and well done. It’s a well paced adventure, mechanically, and a great deal of fun to read.

Is it worth reading then? Yes, absolutely. It’s a heartwarming and touching adventure, which also happens to be stormingly funny, for both adults and younger readers.

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