Saturday, September 02, 2006

Wintersmith - Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching can be described as the successor to Eskarina Smith, the young protagonist of the third of Pratchett's Discworld novels, Equal Rites (1987). Esk (as she's known) is the eighth child of an eighth son (eight being the magical number on Discworld, not seven), but the wizard Drum Billet, believing she will be born a boy (and therefore the eighth son of an eighth son and a wizard), gives the new-born Esk his staff of power, allowing her to inherit his magical power – and a host of unanticipated problems since women are not meant to be wizards, and wizard magic is quite different from witch magic. In a way, Equal Rites represents a missed opportunity for Pratchett to demonstrate the education of a young witch because Esk is taken, aged eight, to Unseen University, the premier wizarding educational establishment, in Ankh-Morpork, in order to learn (without appearing to do so since women are not admitted to the University as students) how to managed the power she has inherited.

Tiffany Aching, on the other hand, is spotted as a potential witch at the age of 9, by Miss Tick, a witch who searches out girls with the potential to become witches (a witch-finder, in other words), and ensures that they are taught to use and manage their power. Having spotted Tiffany's potential (in The Wee Free Men), she sees to it that Tiffany begins her magical education, not at a Hogwarts-style school, but by becoming an apprentice to different individual witches for a period of time. Thus A Hat Full of Sky opens with Tiffany setting off to stay with Miss Level as her apprentice. She then goes on to become the apprentice of Miss Pullunder; most witches are known as "Miss", only a few witches, such as Nanny Ogg, ever marry, whilst Granny Weatherwax (as she's known to a very small number of people) is accorded a "Mistress" (or she'll want to know the reason why !). Tiffany's apprenticeship with Miss Pullunder is glossed over by Pratchett and Wintersmith opens with Tiffany having only recently been apprenticed to Miss Treason, who said she was 113.

One autumn night Miss Treason takes Tiffany into the forest to witness a very special Morris dance that is performed to welcome winter. Unfortunately Tiffany (who is usually sensible and practical) disregards Miss Treason's instructions not to move during the dance, and throws herself into the dance. This attracts the attention of the Wintersmith, an unseen elemental being, who normally dances with Lady Summer. As a result of joining in the dance, Tiffany inadvertently acquires some of the powers of the Lady Summer (such as the ability to make things grow where she walks with bare feet), and the Wintersmith becomes fascinated by her. It sets out to woo her, intending to marry her, without knowing that she is a human and therefore very different from an elemental being; it creates roses sculpted from ice, then snowflakes and icebergs that look like Tiffany, and writes her name in the frost. Then the Wintersmith tries to turn itself into a human, and Tiffany tries to learn how to cope with its attentions, and how to survive the story into which she intruded by joining in the Winter Morris.

Whatever else you can say about Tiffany (eg. that she is young and inexperienced, and occasionally foolish), she is also hard-working, caring, and not one to shirk responsibility. Thus she looks after everyone at the funeral for Miss Treason (held before Miss Treason's death, since witches know when Death is coming for them); she also teaches Annagramma (the eldest of the nearby witch apprentices) about the people who live in the area which she is inherits along with Miss Treason's cottage, so that they are not left with an arrogant, inexperienced and untrained apprentice witch. Annagramma's mentor, Mrs Earwig, is married to a former wizard and is very New-Age-ish in her magic; she believes in crystal therapy and other modern (and nonsensical) magicks instead of the older, traditional magic that is practised by most witches – and she has taught them to Annagramma, who has never been apprenticed to another witch. Thus Annagramma has to learn from Tiffany how to be a midwife, how to lay out the dead and sit up with them after they die, etc. And all the time, Tiffany is trying to cope with the attentions of the Wintersmith. But no one ever said being a witch was easy – or that life was fair.

There are some very funny moments in Wintersmith, such as when Tiffany is reading a romantic novel which Rob Anybody and the other Nac Mac Feegles have acquired for her so that she can learn about romance – and she critiques the lack of realism in the setting of a sheep farm (Tiffany being the youngest daughter of a sheep farmer) and its inhabitants. Her reaction to the novel is pure Tiffany and just what the reader expects from a character who measures soup plates in order to establish exactly how big are Jenny Greenteeth's eyes (The Wee Free Men). There is also an intertextual joke that will only be noticeable to those readers who have also read Pratchett's last Discworld novel (Thud) – at the end of the book, Rob Anybody is reading a book that is clearly Sam Vimes Jr's favourite book, Where's My Cow?.

This book also contains some beautifully evocative descriptions, such as "And then summer filled her up. It must have been for only a few seconds, but inside them it went on for much longer. She felt what it was like to be the breeze through green corn on a spring day, to ripen an apple, to make the salmon leap the rapids – the sensations came all at once and merged into one great big, glistening golden-yellow feeling of summer . . ." (ellipsis in original; p. 386) This book also contains a flashback that's 11 chapters long, so that chapter 13 starts where chapter 1 ended, the other chapters having explained the events that led up to where Tiffany is at the start of the book. Such a lengthy flashback is a first for Pratchett – and fairly unusual for a novel.

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My thanks to Nikki Gamble of Write Away for sending me this book to review for her site.


Anonymous said...

Good review, thank you.

One thing - isn't the eighth son of an eighth son just a wizard? The eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son is a sourceror, isn't he?

Michele said...

Oh yikes ! You're right - it's been a while since I re-read Sourcery (being less than fond of the Rincewind titles)... I will edit !

And thank you for the comment !