Terry Pratchett has written about a zillion Discworld novels, and I read nearly all of them in my lumpy, bespectacled adolescence (it’s amazing how much free time you have when you lack anything resembling a social life). My interest in sci-fi/fantasy isn’t what it once was, so I’ve taken a pass on Pratchett’s last few offerings. But The Wee Free Men seemed like a perfect chance to renew my acquaintance with Discworld, that wacky and magic-filled alternate universe where humans coexist with an assortment of mythical beings, and terrible puns and social commentary run rampant in equal proportions.
Tiffany Aching is a young girl in a sleepy rural shepherding community, deep in Chalk country. Here, the biggest thrills are the periodic visits from the bands of wandering teachers who roam the countryside, bartering dubious information for fresh produce and dietary staples. Although reading and writing are considered woman’s work, being too wimpy for real men to bother with, not even the women have much time for school; they’re too busy with the daily challenges of the farming life. The Achings, whose forefathers have lived in the area for centuries, run a dairy, and Tiffany’s specialty is cheese- and butter-making.
Much to her chagrin, she’s often called upon to look after her sticky, spoiled little brother, Wentworth. Whiling away an afternoon at the river, Tiffany and Wentworth have a nasty run-in with an unpleasant creature. Resourceful Tiffany recognizes the beast from one of her favorite books; using her brother as bait, she whacks the monster with a frying pan and calls it a day. Little does she realize that many eyes are upon her and watching her fearless antics with interest; ever since Tiffany’s grandmother died, the region has been without a local witch to watch over things.
Soon after, Wentworth disappears. The Achings are frantic, figuring he’s lost or run away, but Tiffany knows better: there’s just too much weird stuff going on lately. Suspecting dark forces at work, Tiffany joins up with the Nac Mac Feegle, a race of fierce, six-inch-tall, blue-tattooed men (also called pictsies. Picts? Pictsies? Get it?) who love nothing better than drinkin’, fightin’, and fightin’ aboot drinkin’, aye. With the help of the Wee Free Men, the girl embarks on a quest to retrieve her brother from the evil Queen, who weaves her magical realm from stolen dreams. On the way, she’ll discover the magical potential handed down from her grandmother, and learn that the true exercise of power is, often as not, the wisdom not to use it.
Pratchett has written twenty-seven Discworld novels thus far, and five more in collaboration with other people. You could hardly blame the guy if he were a bit tired of the shtick by now. But Pratchett doesn’t seem bored so much as slowed-down. The Wee Free Men lacks the manic, slap-happy punning and goofy hijinks of previous Discworld novels; most unusually, there’s a complete dearth of cameos from other Discworld characters (even Death doesn’t rear its bony head in this one). Instead, the tone is much more straightforward and earnest, without any of the gleeful satire that we’ve come to expect from a Discworld jaunt; in fact, it could nearly pass for a regular fantasy novel (a genre singularly lacking in humor, as a rule).
Unfortunately, the novel’s oddly serious tone isn’t matched by a corresponding depth of character development. Much is made of the Wee Free Men’s reputation for being mighty and terrible folk, but they’re more or less played for laughs as a horde of incredibly strong little buffoons with funny wee Scottish accents; since they’re all burdened with unwieldy names like Not-as-big-as-Medium-Sized-Jock-but-bigger-than-Wee-Jock-Jock, they’re rarely singled out as individuals and, therefore, don’t get a chance to display many character traits. The mighty Queen is a stock villainness, and Wentworth is a sticky, blubbery, barely sentient blob. Only Tiffany enjoys any kind of character development. A prickly, bookish witch-nerd, she struggles with the inner conflict of knowing she’s not a normal girl, and with her complicated feelings of resentment and annoyance toward her little brother (which, she is vaguely aware, is not how one should feel about a sibling).
The book is entertaining enough, if a bit formulaic, and mildly amusing throughout (though nowhere near as funny as classics like The Colour of Magic). But there seems to be a spark missing; Pratchett’s trademark goofy pratfalls are gone, but they’ve been replaced by a rather bland earnestness that doesn’t seem very Discworld at all. Pratchett’s still a funny guy and a talented writer after all these books, but quantity, alas, doesn’t equal quality.