October 28, 2010


I Shall Wear Midnight: A Tiffany Aching Adventure. By Terry Pratchett. Harper. $16.99.

The Edge Chronicles X: The Immortals. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. David Fickling Books. $19.99.

     The words “fantastic” and “fabulous” have fascinating dual meanings. In common use, both mean “excellent” or “wonderful.” But each also ties, in its derivation, to the world of myth and fairy tale: “fantasy” and “fable.” Therefore, in a certain sense, calling a work a “fantastic fantasy” or “fabulous fable” is repetitiously redundant. But it is hard to escape those phrases in discussing these two books, because that is exactly what they are: fantastic fantasies and fabulous fables.

     I Shall Wear Midnight is the fourth and presumably final book in Terry Pratchett’s series about Tiffany Aching, onetime apprentice witch of the Chalk on Discworld and, at this point, full-fledged witch – which does not mean magic-maker, although it does mean rider of a broom (whose workings, however, she does not understand). In common with Pratchett’s other books ostensibly intended for younger readers – including the three previous Tiffany Aching Novels, The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith – this latest entry deals with more-serious and more-subtle issues of life and death and wonder than Pratchett handles in his books ostensibly for adults. Never mind the “why” of this; just accept it. Tiffany is only 15 as the book opens, but Pratchett makes it clear that she is 15 in a place where people not only have love affairs but also bear children at 13, so Tiffany is a teenager (and thus in the target age range of the book’s readers) but is also something more. Indeed, she is a lot more, as readers of her earlier adventures already know and as ones new to her story will soon find out. Pratchett weaves his wonders with such subtlety that it is entirely possible to read I Shall Wear Midnight and understand the whole thing without having read the earlier Tiffany Aching books – although reading this one will make you hunger to get to the others as quickly as possible. Unlike Pratchett’s Discworld books for adults, which tend to be picaresques, this and the other Tiffany Aching books have a strong emotional core, which Pratchett brings out expertly in as few as two words. For example, Tiffany at one point explains that, as a witch, she takes care of things, because “‘it’s what we do.’” But no, she realizes. “Only it’s just me; there is no ‘us,’ she thought as she flew through the mists of morning to the place of flowers. I wish, I wish there was.” Those two words – the extra “I wish” – convey Tiffany’s burdens, concerns, cares and responsibilities more effectively than would a long-spun-out description of her feelings. Pratchett is brilliant at this. The story of I Shall Wear Midnight grows from Tiffany’s continued association with the Nac Mac Feegle, the “wee free men” for whom she is a very special “bigjob” (why is explained in detail in earlier books). These tiny blue folk (also known as Pictsies – the Picts painted themselves blue when going into battle) are among Pratchett’s most wonderful creations: profane, brawling, knuckleheaded little thieves whose hearts are too big to fit in their tiny frames, and who are utterly fearless in battle because they believe they are already dead and so, at worst, can be sent back to an earlier world. They are Tiffany’s highly imperfect guardians and helpers, but in I Shall Wear Midnight, something is stirring against which the Wee Free Men, who are scarcely masters of deep thought or subtlety, cannot act – something dark and frightening that is fanning anger against Tiffany and witches in general. “‘Every few hundred years or so, suddenly everyone thinks witches are bad,’” one character explains to Tiffany, but what is happening is more than that, involving events of a thousand years ago as well as ones still developing. The core of the book – included not only in the story but also in Pratchett’s note at the end of it – turns out to be, “If you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going.” What happens in this book is that Tiffany finds out where she is going – and it turns out to be a place where she wants to be. The adventures, challenges and frights are only adornments of an inner journey on which readers will be delighted to accompany her.

     The timespan is much greater and the structure much more epic in The Immortals, the 10th and final book in the amazing saga called The Edge Chronicles, which Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell started in 2004. Stewart does the words and Riddell the ornate and exquisitely detailed illustrations, but this is so intimate a collaboration that joining the two men as authors with “&” between their names is the only adequate way to show what they have done. The first nine books of The Edge Chronicles were actually three trilogies, although published in rather confusing order: books 1-3 were “The Twig Trilogy,” books 4, 9 and 10 “The Quint Trilogy,” and books 5-7 “The Rook Trilogy.” Each trilogy is named for its central character – and each takes place at a different time in the long history of The Edge, that astonishing world where Stewart and Riddell set their tales. The Edge is literally the edge of something – what, we are never told – with gigantic storms sweeping in from the nothingness beyond and a variety of civilizations, or (perhaps more accurately) stages of a civilization, lying at a lesser or greater distance from the great blackness out there. The Immortals, which at nearly 700 pages is by far the longest book in The Edge Chronicles, takes place later than any of the other books and echoes all of them. Pretty much everything in the first nine books reappears here, one way or another, not excluding Twig, Quint and Rook, or something (somethings?) like them. The strange and fascinating creatures of The Edge are here in profusion: waifs, banderbears, wig-wigs, cloddertrogs, goblins of various types, and many more. Every once in a while, an echo of an earlier book shows up subtly and unexpectedly, as when the Professor – a key character here – sits at an old table, once kept in a tavern, and reads the names carved into the wood, including that of Cloud Wolf, Twig’s father. Amid all the bits of the past, the tale moves smartly ahead with the adventures of Nate Quarter, a humble lamplighter forced to flee for his life because of some of the nefarious doings that alone seem to survive unchanged from age to age on The Edge. The Edge in the time of The Immortals is a far less intricately settled place than it was in the past, as Riddell’s wonderfully detailed maps make clear – but within the few settlements, it is as complex as ever, as those maps also show. Nate and friends flee for their lives, with enemies on their heels and war preparations in the air, while in the darkest and deepest forest of all, the Night Woods, a waif guards the precious waters of Riverrise…and, equally far in the other direction, a storm even vaster than those typically threatening The Edge is building, bringing with it the unknown and the certainty of change. By the end of this far-reaching, wide-ranging adventure, pretty much every character from earlier books will be seen in a new or expanded light, and the mysterious and mystical caterbird that long, long ago took an oath to protect Twig will turn out to have made a decision that has resonated for hundreds upon hundreds of years. Sky pirates, shipbuilders, academics, phraxcrystals, prowlgrins, sumpwood, gabtrolls, the gloamglozer – the vocabulary has great resonance here, not only recalling the earlier books but also serving to establish an economy and ecology in which a reader can quite easily become enmeshed and enchanted. The Edge Chronicles has always been targeted at a very narrow age range – officially, ages 10-12 – but these books, including The Immortals, reach well beyond the bounds of preteen adventure even as they pile battle upon battle, treachery upon treachery, friendship upon friendship. Very interestingly, Stewart and Riddell give The Edge Chronicles a bittersweet rather than strongly affirmative ending, indicating at the conclusion of The Immortals that there are always new things to explore, new places to go, new adventures waiting to be experienced. The journey here has been a very, very long one – or rather the multiple journeys have been – and readers lucky enough to have stayed with The Edge Chronicles from the start will be left thinking, as in any superior work of fantasy, of all the things that might, just might, happen next.

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