The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett, book review: A fairy tale ending for Discworld series

The final instalment of Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld series is a joyful sign-off from a master of fantasy fiction, writes Nicholas Tucker
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The Independent Culture

Fairies, elves, pixies and goblins, exiled from contemporary literature of any quality by the end of the 19th century, have gradually worked their way back into popular adult imagination. Rescued from sentimentality by Kipling and Tolkien, given new life by Philip Pullman and the late Diana Wynne Jones, their most popular advocate over the last 40 years has been the one and only Sir Terry Pratchett. His death in March, aged 66, after writing 70 novels enjoying sales of around 85 million copies, has robbed fantasy literature of its brightest star. But there was still one more novel to come before he succumbed to early-onset Alzheimer's disease, first diagnosed in 2007. And against all the odds, it remains 343 pages of high-octane literary enjoyment.

The Shepherd's Crown, the 41st addition to his Discworld series, continues the story of young witch Tiffany Aching, first met four novels ago in The Wee Free Men. But this final work contains no bewildering flashbacks or anything else taken for granted in the Discworld cosmology. Sir Terry had a new tale to tell, and launches into it at top speed. The basic situation is familiar to fantasy writing going back at least as far as Malory's 15th-century Le Morte d'Arthur, in which a junior acolyte is forced to take on heavy adult responsibilities and avert widespread disaster following the death of their trusted mentor. For Tiffany, this happens after the passing of her adored old witch friend Granny Weatherwax. Times are dangerous, because previously excluded elves with "cold narrow faces" are now planning to retake Discworld for good. Believing only in "nastiness for the sake of being nasty," and with hints of diabolical torture methods thrown in but never described in detail, they are evil personified. Their final elimination in this story through war is complete but unsubtle, reminiscent of the moral oversimplifications also found in the various battle scenes in CS Lewis's Narnia series.

 

But while the structures of The Shepherd's Crown are not new, the treatment is. Tiffany is more district nurse than traditional witch, flying on her broomstick between mostly aged patients, helping out even to the extent of having to cut old, gnarled toenails. Too busy to pursue her romance with nice young man Preston, working as a doctor in a faraway town, she lives in a traditional rural setting among farmers and blacksmiths. There are also pig-borers, who save a lot of squealing by talking to pigs at such length that the poor animals finally die of boredom. This information is conveyed in one of many fun footnotes. Sir Terry also clearly enjoys himself whenever the Feegles come on the page. These six-inch-high redheads share the same physical toughness found in Richard Dadd's fairy paintings and speak in Scottish dialect as broad as it is long. The same could be said about some of the author's other introductions of humour. Knicker jokes abound, along with jocular references to privies and "no trousers" areas.

There is no evidence that Sir Terry's degenerative illness affected the quality of this prose. Some scenes were written two years ago, given that he usually had more than one novel on the go. A few clichés of the "foaming tankard" type get past, but this is still an author delighting in the fertility of his imagination. Granny Weatherwax's collection of herbs, for example, includes "Doubting Plums, Ginny Come Nether, Twirlabout, Tickle My Fancy, Jump in the Basin, Jack-go-to-bed and-never-get up, Daisy-upsy-Daisy and Old Man Root". There are also affectionate references to Dad's Army, and one particular witch, stuck-up Mrs Earwig, is given a line made famous by Mrs Thatcher. But Sir Terry never becomes stuck in the past. While the male Feegles only think about fighting while leaving their wives to get on with household jobs, Tiffany herself is very much a new woman, taking on a male apprentice for the first time in witch history.

The message of this novel is not a complex one. Tiffany epitomises and preaches humanist tolerance, kindness and understanding, and finally manages to convince the once vicious Queen of the Elves about the importance of forming and then preserving friendships. This message is repeated several times, but who would wish to deny the old word wizard a final extended say in what turned out to be his last book (although there were others still at the planning stage)? With each chapter heading accompanied by an illustration from Paul Kidby in the softest of pencil sketches, this story is the ultimate in crossover fiction, extending a continually seductive welcome to readers of almost any age. But what an uninspired cover! Young witches are better imagined than pictured, and Tiffany, along with her cat named You, is made to look more smug head girl than a soon to be super-hag.

But Sir Terry's prose is so richly visual that readers will soon find themselves substituting their own mental pictures instead, which is probably what he always wanted. The moment when Mister Death, who talks in capital letters, tells Granny Weatherwax that her time is up is also moving, given that Sir Terry knew that his own end was shortly to follow. "YOU HAVE LEFT THE WORLD MUCH BETTER THAN YOU FOUND IT," Death informs her. The same could and should be said of this extraordinarily hard-working author, creator of so many fascinating new worlds peopled by unforgettable characters.

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