Ask Tiffany Aching, and she’ll tell you: It’s not easy being a witch, especially when you’re only almost 16 years old.
It can’t be easy being Terry Pratchett, either, an author known foremost, perhaps, for his screamingly funny Discworld novels, of which this is the latest. Beneath everything he writes, however, even as he has readers howling helplessly with laughter, is a fierce, palpable love for his fellow human beings, however flawed they may be. A love that causes Tiffany over and over to square her shoulders beneath her pointy black hat and do what’s needful.
He throws a lot at Tiffany, who crashed spectacularly into her calling when she armed herself with a skillet and, at the age of nine, ventured into Faerieland (which is not nearly as nice as it sounds) to steal her brother back from its Queen (The Wee Free Men, 2003). Here he challenges her with the Cunning Man, a centuries-old disembodied hatred that seeks ignorance and uses it—“Poison goes where poison’s welcome”—against witches.
Themes of memory and forgetting run throughout this tale. Books preserve all memories, even the ones better consigned to oblivion. The Cunning Man is resurrected when Letitia, Tiffany’s erstwhile swain Roland’s fiancée (Pratchett confronts her with this betrayal, too) summons him inadvertently when trying to work a spell against Tiffany. But one of the Cunning Man’s MOs is wanton book burning, a calculated obliteration of memories.
Witches, arguably, embody the accumulated wisdom of their craft, while the Cunning Man is a collective memory of evil. He operates by playing on fear and causing the common folk to forget what their witches have done for them. Tiffany must remember everything she’s gleaned from all the witches who have trained her to defeat him, and the key is a childhood memory the old Baron shares with her on his deathbed.
It’s not all heavy stuff. Pratchett leavens Tiffany’s passage into adulthood with generous portions of assistance from the Nac Mac Feegle, the six-inch-high blue men whose love of boozin’, fightin’ and stealin’ is subordinate only to their devotion to Tiffany, their Hag o’ the Hills. When they utterly destroy the King’s Head while on an errand for Tiffany, they rebuild the pub—back-to-front, rendering it the King’s…oh, crivens, never mind.
And even as he demands more and more of Tiffany—her beau engaged elsewhere, her old Baron gone, the people of the Chalk turned against her—he gives her an army of friends and someone who loves words as much as she does, someone who, like Tiffany and, one suspects, the author himself, knows that “forgiveness” sounds “like a silk handkerchief gently falling down.”
A passionately wise, spectacularly hilarious and surpassingly humane outing from a master.