Friday, 28 December 2012

I Shall Wear Midnight - Book Review

It starts with whispers. Then someone picks up a stone. Finally, the fires begin. When people turn on witches, the innocents suffer...

Tiffany Aching has spent years studying with senior witches, and now she is on her own. As the witch of the Chalk, she performs the bits of witchcraft that aren't sparkly, aren't fun, don't involve any kind of wand, and that people seldom ever hear about: She does the unglamorous work of caring for the needy. But someone or something is igniting fear, inculcating dark thoughts and angry murmurs against witches. Aided by her tiny blue allies, the Wee Free Men, Tiffany must find the source of this unrest and defeat the evil at its root before it takes her life. Because if Tiffany falls, the whole Chalk falls with her. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

I Shall Wear Midnight is the fourth book in the series of Tiffany Aching novels by Terry Pratchett, set in the Discworld. I’ve enjoyed all the other ones, and this didn’t disappoint either.

Tiffany’s a great character – she’s a powerful witch, but not yet as sure in her powers as characters like Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, which means that there’s always more feeling that Tiffany is in real peril. She’s an extremely practical and capable girl, despite being very young for the jobs she is expected to do. She won’t take nonsense from anyone, but she’s also very caring, and she puts a lot of responsibility on herself. She is the strength of her community – fiercely protective of her home – and she’s as far from a passive character as you could hope for. But she’s also a normal girl, with normal worries on top of the supernatural ones. She’s the kind of character that readers can admire and easily get behind.

On top of this, Tiffany is intelligent and thoughtful, and she will often look at the world in a slightly skewed way compared to other people, seeing things that everyone else misses. This makes her an interesting point-of-view to follow.

Terry Pratchett’s books are always bursting with extraordinary characters, and this book is no different. Apart from Tiffany there are a few eccentric witches, some very put-upon guards, the new baron and his slightly irritating fiancĂ© and her mother, and a truly creepy villain. Even characters who seem soppy or ineffectual, such as Roland and Letitia, have hidden depths and fears that bring them to life, and that move the story in unexpected directions. The Nac Mac Feegle make their usual appearance and are as funny as ever. And there’s even a certain pin-sized watchman that readers will recognise from other Discworld books.

Oh, and this time there’s the suggestion of love in the air too, and this story has one of the most romantic endings I’ve read. This is probably the last Tiffany book, and it wraps things up in a very satisfying way for all the characters involved.

This being a witchy Discworld book, there’s also a fair amount of philosophy, mind-twists and word games, introducing new ways of thinking about the world. Terry Pratchett is very good at observing the weird things people do and how everyday life functions. He shows how small, seemingly inconsequential things can turn into disasters if sparked in the wrong way, and how human nature leads to certain inevitable conclusions. This is a surprisingly dark story, focussing on the evil that arises from fear and scapegoating, and how even the nicest, most ordinary people can form into mobs and commit horrible acts. But it’s a fun book too, with plenty of light-hearted moments to lift the darkness, and it makes sure to show the best of people alongside the worst. The morality of the story can sometimes be complex, but in the end the message is simple: good can triumph over evil.

I only had one niggle about the story, and that was that Tiffany refused all help from the other witches at the end. She had formed some notion that she had to prove herself, which is fine, but what I take issue with is the idea that proving oneself necessarily requires doing things alone. There’s nothing wrong with accepting help when it’s needed, and using friendship and resources to your best ability to achieve an important goal. Proving yourself can sometimes be about showing humility, and knowing when to let others in. Tiffany is naturally a very isolated figure, and at several points in the book she points out how this kind of isolation is actually very bad for witches. And in fact, Tiffany does win with the help of her friends, even though she hadn’t planned for it. There’s really no reason, beyond her own stubborn pride, to have refused help from her fellow witches. Independence might be a good trait, but misplaced pride very rarely is.

As part of the Tiffany Aching series, this book is essential reading, but it would also be a funny, gripping and surprising story for newcomers too. Established Discworld fans are already familiar with Terry Pratchett’s ability to twist genre tropes and expectations, and new readers are in for a treat. There is a fair bit of referencing back to earlier moments in the series, however, so for the best experience I would recommend picking up the Tiffany Aching books in order before starting this one.

Funny, thoughtful and magical, this book was a great addition to Tiffany Aching’s story.

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