July 28, 2016
(++++) SIR TERRY, AT LAST
The Shepherd’s Crown. By Terry Pratchett. Harper. $18.99.
Now that Terry Pratchett (“Sir Terry” since being given a knighthood in 2009) has been gone for more than a year, it has become more possible to look at his last works with clear rather than tear-misted eyes and have a better sense of their strengths and weaknesses. The conclusion of such an examination is that of his three final books, The Shepherd’s Crown, nominally intended for younger readers, is a far better envoi for Pratchett’s long and distinguished career than the last “Discworld mainstream” novel, Raising Steam, or the coauthored conclusion of the interminable The Long Earth series, The Long Cosmos.
The Shepherd’s Crown reads like a book in which Pratchett suggests how he prepared for his own inevitable end, and how he thinks readers would do well to prepare for theirs – and even more, it suggests how he would prefer that readers think about him after he is gone. It seems only fair to try to do so. Pratchett, who became a strong advocate of assisted suicide after he was diagnosed with an unusual form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, focuses in The Shepherd’s Crown on accepting the inevitability of death (or, in Discworld terms, Death, with a capital D) and preparing suitably for it, but not rushing matters unduly (in the real world, Pratchett kept writing almost until his own passing at age 66 in March 2015). The Shepherd’s Crown marks the final appearance of young witch Tiffany Aching and her mentor, Granny Weatherwax. Things are very definitely final for the older, much-feared witch, who in this book makes careful preparations for her own death and then comes to it. Or rather it, or he, comes to her: Death, a skeleton with glowing blue eyes, always-capitalized conversation and a courteous manner, takes Granny Weatherwax so gently she does not even notice what she considers the “inconvenience” of leaving her life. This is a wonderful part of The Shepherd’s Crown and is written with more detail and more care than other sections of the book – which, in parts, is definitely rushed and unpolished: Pratchett finished the novel but did not live long enough to smooth out its many rough edges.
The book’s plot makes perfect sense: the death of so powerful a figure as Granny Weatherwax inevitably causes imbalances in Discworld, allowing the evil Queen of Fairyland – a longstanding enemy of Tiffany – to return. Tiffany must confront the overt menace of the Queen and the bored and violent King while also dealing with subtler issues, including her relationship with her boyfriend, the ongoing sneers of older witches such as Mrs. Earwig, and the helpful but thoroughly irresponsible (and irrepressible) little blue men known as the Nac Mac Feegles, who get many of the best lines and best chances for fights in The Shepherd’s Crown. These Wee Free Men are, in their own way, as brilliant a creation as Death and Granny Weatherwax are in theirs, and living with them one final time is one of the great pleasures of this novel. Indeed, The Shepherd’s Crown presents quite a few “one final time” characters and references – unusually many for a Discworld installment, as if Pratchett here is deliberately drawing the series together. For example, The Shepherd’s Crown has passages about the way the rise of railroads in Raising Steam has changed the world forever – which, readers will realize, means turning it from something vaguely Medieval in style and soaked in magic into something more science-driven, realistic and altogether more familiar and, as a consequence, mundane. Indeed, Granny Weatherwax's death itself symbolizes the end of a Discworld era and the need to make peace with increasingly prominent technology as a driver of events.
The Shepherd’s Crown is rough-hewn, with some subsidiary matters playing out at length and some central ones passing so quickly as to lose substance, and with some characters appearing and disappearing less adeptly than is usual in Pratchett’s work – all these matters being traceable to the novel’s unfinished state. But what is finished, what is complete in the best sense in this book, is the underlying kindness of Pratchett and the consequent kindliness of his world. Bad things certainly happen here, and Tiffany herself is responsible for one of them when, in a moment of fury, she kills some elves that are kidnaping a baby. But even then, violence is not an answer and is scarcely triumphant, with Tiffany realizing that it leads only to the grim stuff of Grimm fairy tales, “to, oh, to poisoned apples, spinning wheels, and a too-small stove…and to pain, and terror, and horror and the darkness.” As Tiffany explains to the Queen – actually former Queen, since she has been ousted in a coup – it is wrong to be selfish, nasty and spiteful, and kindness is worthwhile because it makes you feel better and because other people matter. What a treacly notion to find at the end of the Discworld saga and the end of Pratchett’s life! And yet anyone who reads – and re-reads – the Discworld novels will find this sentiment underlying them again and again. Rarely stated as explicitly as it is in The Shepherd’s Crown, this foundational, unforced goodness is what made Pratchett’s Discworld different in kind from other great British fantasy worlds, such as Narnia and Middle-earth. The Shepherd’s Crown is in some senses a summation of the Discworld canon and in others simply the last entry in it, an indication that things would have gone on much as they were going if Sir Terry had been there to chronicle them, and perhaps are going on much that way in whatever place Death has taken their chronicler to now.