Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Hat Full of Sky: Book Group Discussion

Terry Pratchett's A Hat Full of Sky is my favourite of the "Tiffany Aching" series of Discworld novels for children. If anyone hasn't managed to read the first story in the series, The Wee Free Men, there's a review over on my main Blog. 11 year old Tiffany Aching, a young witch-in-training is about to begin her first apprenticeship to an older witch named Miss Level. Miss Level is rather unusual, even for a witch, in that she has two bodies that share one mind. Unfortunately, just before she leaves the Chalk (where she lives), Tiffany attracts the attention of a "hiver", a bodiless creature that likes to inhabit strong minds until the owners of those minds go mad and die. Despite the fact that she's no longer their Kelda (ie. Queen), several of the Nac Mac Feegle go after her, disguising themselves as a human by dressing up in stolen clothes (and a stolen beard) so that they can get the stagecoach up into the mountains. (Nac Mac Feegle are a Faerie race of mostly men who are 6 inches high and who love to fight, drink and steal. Female Nac Mac Feegles are very rare and they're commonly understood to get all the brains whilst the males get all the brawn.)

By the time the Nac Mac Feegle arrive, however, the hiver has already possessed Tiffany's mind and they find themselves forced to go after Tiffany (being otherworldly creatures, they're able to enter Tiffany's mind via her dreams) in order to help her to rescue herself. Tiffany manages to free her mind from the hiver, but it hangs around, wanting her power for itself and in the end she is forced to take it on and deal with it.

Things I love about this story:

1 - The remarkably mature way in which Tiffany deals with the hiver. Instead of trying to destroy it, she helps it to find peace, taking it into Death's Kingdom, giving it a name and telling it a story of how humans are made up of many aspects of their ancestors.

2 - Terry's comments about reading and writing being odd hobbies that aren't apparently much good for anything, although they do help to transmit history and experience to future generations.

3 - The reference, right at the beginning of the first chapter, to the secret fear that all witches have, of turning into their stereotype of a cackling, power-crazed old woman who cares nothing for anyone else.

4 - The way that Terry gives us philosophy with humour (in Chapter 11), making it non-didactic (Tiffany tells the hiver that humans know when not to listen to the monkey, which puzzles the hiver):

The old bit of our brains that wants to be head monkey, and attacks when its surprised. [...] It reacts. It doesn't think. Being human is knowing when not to be the monkey or the lizard or any of the other old echoes. But when you take people over, you silence the human part. You listen to the monkey. The monkey doesn't know what it needs, only what it wants.

5 - Tiffany's respect for Granny Weatherwax and her refusal to try to outdo Granny Weatherwax during the Witch Trials, and her understanding that Granny Weatherwax is tough on others because she's tough on herself.

So what did you think of A Hat Full Of Sky ? What worked for you, what didn't ? Did you like it enough to want to read the third book in the series (Wintersmith) ? Did anyone read this book without reading The Wee Free Men first ?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the prompt to re-read this book, Michele. I had forgotten how good A hat full of sky (what a great title) was! I think it might be my favourite of the three Tiffany Aching books as well, although I need to re-read Wee free men before I can make the call.

Unfortunately I can't think of any intelligent comments about it! I gobbled it down too quickly as a reader rather than as a reviewer. I think a lot of the aspects I liked about it were Pratchett trademarks, such as the practical and insightful character of Tiffany. There was the cast of interesting supporting characters (I liked Petulia, the super nice witch who stands up to the alpha girl by the end of the book). Underlying everything was the lovely solidity of discworld, which has magic as a type of science. And of course, there were many witty observations about people and society.

If I am struck by inspiration I will come back and add more comments!

Unknown said...

gI actually read this one last. I read Wintersmith first, because it was a Cybils nominee, and I liked it so much that I went back and read the other two. I love the whole series. It's hard to say which one I liked best. I think The Wee Free Men was the funniest, but I loved all the wisdom and philosophy tucked away in this one.

Things I especially liked:

- The Nac Mac Feegle, of course. I absolutely adore the Feegles and would love to have a clan of little blue men watching over me (but not when I'm changing). Crivens!

- I loved Oswald, the obsessive-compulsive ondageist.

- Did I mention the Feegles? I love Rob Anybody's PLN.

- I loved Granny Weatherwax's speech about the soul and center of witchcraft. I love that witchcraft isn't so much about doing magic as it is about taking care of people. Granny Weatherwax is a great character; I love the way she tries to come across as stern but she can't hide that she really cares. I also liked the echoes of Granny Aching in Granny Weatherwax.

There wasn't much that I didn't like about this book. I didn't particularly care for Miss Level too much. I didn't dislike her, I just didn't find her as interesting a character as the other witches.

Michele said...

I'm glad that you both enjoyed A Hat Full of Sky (yes Emmaco it is a great title!)...

Tiffany is a great character, especially for children, to aspire to... Petulia is very nice, isn't she ? But strong too, as it turns out.

I forgot to mention, in my discussion starting piece, how much I love the concept of witches having First, Second and Third Thoughts (and First Sight, although that doesn't get mentioned in this particular tale).

Michele said...

Hi David, thanks for your comments. Ondageist, like noonlight (in The Wee Free Men), is entirely made up by Terry Pratchett (he's good at it !)...

Yes - the bit where the Feegle-man tears itself in two is laugh out loud funny - I can just picture the looks of utter horror on the faces of the pub customers !

I'm glad that you want to re-read AHFoS at some point. You read Wintersmith during the Cybils, didn't you?

Anonymous said...

Sorry I am late, I had trouble with my google account!
I have not read the first in this series but I did like the Nac Mac Feegle, they are such funny characters. It was good the way they were able to combine their small brains into one workable intellegence!
Tiffany was mature well beyond her years - even for a trainee witch! I liked the way she handled the hiver, showing it a way out rather than destruction of another body.
Now the hiver I felt rather sorry for, to be condemmed to inhabit other bodies because you dont have one of your own - shame!!

Michele said...

Lesley, you're not late in posting ! The discussion is ongoing, even after a new one starts...

I'm glad that you liked the Nac Mac Feegle - I do too !

And yes, the poor hiver...

Catherine Uible Morgan said...

I liked the book and posted a comment last week (I thought) -- should have saved a copy as now my mind is blank and I returned the book to the library already... Here's a few things I remember:
1) Glad finally to have gotten into a Terry Pratchett book as lots of people rave about him/his books.
2) I liked Wee Free Men better, but perhaps only because I read it first.
3) I'm intrigued by Roland, the boy Tiffany rescued in Wee Free Men, and his importance in the second book by giving Tiffany the charm/necklace/pendant/whatever of the horse that she uses in the battle with the hiver.
4)Can't wait to start Wintersmith and then on to some adult discworld titles!

Thanks, Michele!

Michele said...

Er no, Catherine, I had nothing from you - mind you, Blogger was being a bit picky about comments last week !

Welcome to the wonderful Discworld!

Anyway I'm glad that you enjoyed the book, even if you preferred The Wee Free Men... I recommend Wintersmith if you want to know more about Roland !