Saturday, May 26, 2018

Book Review: I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett (Discworld #38)

Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.”
                   -Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight

We all want to be different from each other and we express our individuality by the things we do in the daily lives ; such as the clothes we wear, the decorations in our homes, the vocations we chose, etc... In other words, we do things to set ourselves apart from others, because we all want self-identity so we can be unique, and have our voices heard as well as to be treated with dignity, which is a very good thing.

But is setting yourself apart the same as setting yourself above?

In I Shall Wear Midnight, our beloved Discworld heroine, Tiffany Aching, will come to realize the danger, that what started as setting yourself apart can become setting yourself above.

In this novel, which is the 38th installment in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, Tiffany Aching has finished her apprenticeship in witchcraft and now she is a fully fledged witch at her home town, Chalk. Tiffany does the things that witches on Discworld do – that is, works that don't involve waving the wands and throwing sparkly magic, but the unglamorous works that people seldom hear, like caring for the needy. But there is someone, or, something, out there, who is bearing a black hatred against all witches, and now it is coming to get Tiffany. In the past, The Wee Free Men have always been Tiffany's loyal allies, but this time, Tiffany must face and defeat this threat alone, because this battle is as much for the survival of Chalk as a trial for Tiffany.

The Tiffany Aching books are marketed as Young Adult novels, but I Shall Wear Midnight is perhaps the darkest outing for our young heroine. This book contains scenes of child abuse, teenage pregnancy, and an evil antagonist totally without redeemable qualities. Indeed, an evil antagonist, this is very rare in Discworld books considering in the past Terry Pratchett  treated his villains with a "there is a second chance for you" approach. The "absolutely evil" villain in this book, however, does not undercut the depths of its characterizations as one would expect of the thin characterizations in the fantasy books of the 80s. 

In this book, the villain was the embodiment, and sustained by, the human nature of hatred and fear. But here Terry Pratchett was not just talking about any type of hatred and fear, no, in this book he emphasized our hatred and fear of the type of people that we don't associate with hate directly but only abstractly. (i.e. When we think to ourselves, it was "just" Bob, or, "it was "only" Mary"). It is an evil that creeps up amongst the mundanes and we are often blind to it. Tiffany's battle against this villain, The Cunning Man, was then a test of her ability to not giving to her own hatred and fear. The protection against this hatred and fear, the story tells us, depends on our willingness and ability to build something that hatred cannot break, such as trust and affections with others. In the book, not only was The Cunning Man an external threat but he also represented Tiffany''s self-discovery about the unpleasant side of herself and how to overcome it. This also means the villain in this book gave Tiffany substance as a heroine – Tiffany discovered the dangers of what started as setting herself apart could turn into setting herself above, which was followed by an evil in her as she began to treat people as things, and that was where powerful witches on Discworld, such as Black Alice, tripped over in the past and went over to the "dark side".

This book also dealt with the theme of "doing things in the right season". Since Tiffany was small, she always wanted to be a witch of the Chalk and she worked very hard at it. Tiffany eventually succeeded at becoming an extra-ordinary witch at a very young age, but the price was her childhood. As a fully fledged witch, Tiffany refused to wear black clothing (wearing black cloth is a symbol of being a fully qualified witch on Discworld), because she wished to join the dance of life. In the book, Tiffany faced a conundrum; she was willing to sacrifice herself and die to protect the needy, but she prefers to live a life and grow old. Eventually, Tiffany came to understand that not only can she be both a witch and a woman, but being a woman in the dance of life makes her a better witch. Therefore, Tiffany concluded, while she shall wear midnight and grow old and die one day, but it is not today, for today she is still young and she will be sitting in the sun. Hence book's title – I Shall Wear Midnight.

I Shall Wear Midnight is a wonderful entry to the Discworld library. There is humor in this book, but the story here is also darker than the previous Tiffany Aching books. This book is a gem because Terry Pratchett weaved these powerful messages into a very well told, moving story. The last page in this book reminded me that I am left with one more Discworld novel to read. Upon this thought, I feel both excited but also apprehensive, it is like how you dread the arrival of the day when you must part with a dear friend, so you want to savor every second of the day when it does come. I don't want Discworld to end, but a conclusion is coming. Next time, I will review Terry Pratchett's final book, The Shepherd's Crown. Meanwhile, I highly recommend I Shall Wear Midnight to my fellow readers.

Happy reading!

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett (Discworld #35)

Wintersmith, the 35th installment in Discworld, continues the unusual journey of Tiffany Aching to becoming a fully fledged witch. This book, marketed as an Young Adult novel, is different to the other Discworld books. It is about romance, growing up, and has many themes familiar to the readers of the YA genre.


It is winter time! Snowflakes are falling on the land and fishermen are sighting giant icebergs. Surely, these are signs announcing the winter's arrival. But hang on, there is something odd about the appearances of those snowflakes and icebergs, it is almost as if they look... human? Hmm, either I am going bonkers or my eyes are deceiving me because I swear that I am seeing Tiffany Aching's face in the snow flakes! What on Disc is going on?

Tifanny's face in the snow flakes? Mate, that sounds like trouble! How did we get here?

Well, it all started when Tiffany Aching, now apprenticed to Miss Treason (a really scary old witch), danced with Wintersmith and got his attention.

Crivens! So are you telling me that all of this is because the Winter fell for Tiffany? What are we going to do? We are all going to freeze to death!

No idea if there is anything we can do. But who knew, that love can make the world so cold?

My thoughts about this book:

The Tiffany Aching books are oriented towards young readers, but The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky both felt "adult" because they were deeply seated in philosophical themes. Wintersmith, however, feels more "YA" than its two predecessors because it has themes, such as teenage romance and growing up, which are more common in the YA genre.

I am not much of a YA reader because I think teenage romance and growing up are overused themes in the genre. Initially, Wintersmith didn't connect with me as much as the two books preceding it. This is not to say that Wintersmith is a bad book, I thoroughly enjoyed this book for its humor, atmosphere, and the intriguing story. The story has a good moral lesson about responsibility and owning one's mistakes, and it explored these themes in meaningful and powerful way. But after I put down the book, my initial feeling was that Wintersmith was just a tad too "YA" for me.

However, as I was sitting down and writing a review for the book, I discovered that I missed an important theme in this novel, and as this realization dawned on me, I had a new found appreciation for Wintersmith. What is the theme that I missed? It has to do with the story's antagonist, Wintersmith. Let me explain:

A lot of our (Western) medieval and modern stories/fables are influenced by the myths of the ancient near east (such as the Sumerian texts, which in turn influenced the opening chapters of the Bible). There are a lot to be discussed on this topic, but it suffices to say, in these myths and fables we see the archetype (in the Jungian sense) of good versus evil, where good is synonymous to order and evil is synonymous to chaos. In this archetype, the world is black and white, and people are black and white too, and our existence, according to this archetype, depends on the victory of order against chaos, and the heroes are those who have picked the "right' side to fight on.

While this artchetype has it usefulness at uniting a tribe of people against another, in an environment where resources are scarce, but it could also lead to tribalism and wars – it festered the thinking that I don't need to put myself in your shoes because you are siding with evil and I am siding with good. Today, we are still seeing the tragic consequences of this "order versus chaos, good versus evil" archetype, just look at the wars in the Middle East!

But not every ancient myth has this archetype. The Nordic and ancient Chinese stories, noteably, told stories about the cyclic nature of the world, and of our human condition and life therein. Make no mistake, there are protagonists and antagonists in these stories, but it is worth noting they are not clear cut into good and evil. Instead, in these stories we see our own reflections in the characters, who behaved strangely yet familiarly, because just like us, they were trying to make the best under the circumstances, circumstances that are opposite but cyclic in nature, such as the cycles of winter and summer, which are beyond the human control.

While I have not read every story and fable in our world, but the theme of the cyclic world and our human condition, it seems to me a more accurate depiction of the reality and a better way to understand mankind. Why? Because unlike the archetype in the ancient near east stories that could lead to war and tragedy, in contrast the stories about the human condition of living in a cyclic world, it can help us understand that the reality is not "all or nothing", it reminds us in the real life we need both - order and chaos, summer and winter, so on and so forth. This also means there are two sides to every story, it is not always about "right" versus "wrong", even if that "other side" is the story of the "antagonist". In other words, these stories tell us the fact, that we are all trying to make the best for ourselves in a world where its physical environment shifts cyclically, beyond our control, from one extreme to another, so we really ought to try and understand each other instead of caricaturize the other side as "evil and chaotic".

And Wintersmith embodied this theme so well.

In Wintersmith, Tiffany's observations of people were often unflattery, and her apprenticeship in witchcraft meant that she often did mundane chores for the town folks (such as herding the goats and finding a lost cat for a blind old lady) instead of throwing fireballs and casting magic spells like the witches in the classical fairy tales. As the story progressed, Tiffany realized, what she observed in people and her trainings were all parts of coming to grasp with the reality of the human condition. Furthermore, at the beginning of the book Tiffany thought that Wintersmith was evil and scary while Summer Lady was warm and pleasant. Later on, however, Tiffany observed that despite Wintersmith fallen in love with her, yet he could never understand what it is like to be a human, no matter how hard he tried to become one, because after all Wintersmith is not human while Tiffany is only human. This is also when Tiffany came to understand that Winter and Summer could not be described simplistically as good or bad, because life could not go on without one or another, coming and going cyclically.

Wintersmith is oriented towards young readers, but rarely do books in this genre explore such deep and meaningful themes. Initially I missed the greater message, about the human condition, that Terry Pratchett was sending across in this book. Instead I discovered it during the process of writing this review. This is why I believe Wintersmith is one of the finest installment in the Discworld series, and like all other Discworld books, this one deserves multiple readings.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

A Book Review: A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett (Discworld #32)

"Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.

The words ran through Tiffany’s mind as she watched the sheep, and she found joy – at the new lambs, at life, at everything. Joy is to fun what the deep sea is to a puddle. It’s a feeling inside that can hardly be contained.

I’ve come back! she announced to the hills. Better than I went!

                - Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

Every Discworld novel is supposed to be a stand alone story, but I think the best way to appreciate A Hat Full of Sky is to read The Wee Free Men first. As a direct sequel to The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky continues the adventures of our young witch-to-be, Tiffany Aching, and her little but ferocious allies, the clan Nac Mac Feegle.


Tiffany Aching, now eleven years old (and still level-headed), leaves her home on the Chalk for the mountains to begin her apprenticeship in witchcraft. Tiffany expects to learn powerful magic and wonderful spells, the sort that witches do in the fairytales that everyone knows about, but instead Tiffany was given mundane chores, such as nannying the goats and washing the kitchen.

Surely witchcraft is more than this? While Tiffany continues with the grinds, Rob Anybody, the leader of the Nac Mac Feegle clan, settled down to a married life with a new kelda. So, everything is finally looking normal, right? Not quite, unknown to Tiffanny, an invisible and bizzare creature called Hiver is after her. The Hiver sustains its life by taking over the bodies of powerful sorceresses. Rob Anybody and his fierce clansman know the Hiver is coming for Tiffany, but neither clan Feegle nor Mistress Weatherwax can protect her this time. No, in the end, Tiffany must gather all of her inner strength to save herself.

My thoughts about this book:

A Hat Full of Sky is a wonderful book, but its opening chapters were recapping the events that took place in The Wee Free Men. The recaps are useful for the new readers, but it slows down pace of the the story. Otherwise, Tiffany's second adventure tells a fun story with great themes and good moral lessons. Speaking of moral lessons, it is worth noting that the narratives in this book, as well as in its predecessor's, both subvert the authorial tone found in the narratives of most young adult novels. In A Hat Full of Sky, the narratives spoke directly to its reader, yet it retained the satirical tone that is the hallmark for all Discworld novels; it is as if a peer is telling you a humorous and clever story with a cocked eyebrow, who trusts that you are perfectly capable to think for yourself and then understanding the jokes and the story's underlying themes.

This book is packed with cultural references galore, a few examples include Frank Herbert's Dune and the witch trials in the real history. Meanwhile, its setting resembles the rural England where Terry Pratchett grew up. The story is rich and exciting, it delivers a very satisfying finale where Terry Pratchett offered a touching, beyond good and evil solution to the Hiver, a finale that also highlighted Tiffany as a heroine of substance.

A Hat Full of Sky also dealt with themes such as peer pressure, power, self identity and destiny. On the surface, Tiffany's apprenticeship in witchcraft may seem familiar to the story of Harry Potter going to Hogwarts. As we read on, however, we discover that Terry Pratchett and J.K. Rowling handled these themes very differently, and it has to do with the meaning of this book's title, "A Hat Full of Sky". Let me explain:

(spoilers ahead):

Harry Potter had super powers because he was born with the blood of wizards. In other words, Harry's powers were "given" to him. Furthermore, Harry was "destined" to be a hero and fight the evil wizard Voldemort. The archetype, of a specially appointed hero who inherited his power and destiny to do big and important things, such as restoring order and battle against evil, this archetype is found not only in modern stories, but also in ancient myths.

What about Tiffany? On Discworld, a witch's signature is her pointy hat, and a witch's works consist of solving mundane problems for everyday folks, problems that witches resolve with common sense and kindness. During this book's pivotal moment, Tiffany was recognized as a witch by her brethren, and she had to choose the type of pointy hat she will use from now on. Her options include: 1) A classy, star-spangled hat from the leading shop in the village. 2) An old, battered hat that belonged to Granny Weatherwax (the most famous witch on Discworld), and Tiffany won the hat from a prestige witchery competition. 3) A hat that Tiffany will make for herself from everything that is valuable and close to her heart. It suffices to say that our heroine chose the third option, hence the meaning of the book's title, "A Hat Full of Sky". I believe this book offers a valuable lesson not only for young readers, but also for adults as we toil away in our daily grinds.

(the end of spoilers)

My favorite Discworld books remain those ones featuring Samuel Vimes and his band of city watchmen, but I am finding myself enjoying these Tiffany Aching books too. After reading both The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky, I came to realize that even though Tiffany Aching books are oriented towards the young readers, but they also have in them the marrows of Terry Pratchett's worldview that continues to be inspirations in my own life. As I venture into the series' next installment called Wintersmith, I will highly recommend A Hat Full of Sky to my fellow readers.

Until the next time, happy reading!

Saturday, May 5, 2018

A Book Review: The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (Discworld #30)

"If you trust yourself...and believe in your dreams...and follow your'll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren't so lazy."

            - Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men

After thirty six books, I arrived at the final sub-series in Discworld. This sub-series, marketed as young adult novels, consists of five books, and they feature a young heroine called Tiffany Aching. Many reviews on Goodreads rave about how good these books are. What is it about Tiffany Aching that people adore so much? Two weeks ago, I read The Wee Free Men, and I too became very fond of this character. What I like about Tiffany the most, is her propensity to question the things that most people take for granted and then basing her conclusions on evidence. Not many literary heroes and heroines possess this quality. However, just like all other Discworld books, there is so much more about The Wee Free Men than meets the eye. My short review will not do justice to this book, but I am hoping to provide you with a brief overview, and some of my thoughts, about the book. Let me begin my review, with a synopsis for the story.


Chalk, a green and sun-filled country town, is the home to a budding witch called Tiffany Aching. Her little brother was kidnapped by the creatures of the fairyland, and young Tiffany was determined to rescue him. Armed with a frying pan and her common sense, Tiffany set out on a quest in the domain of the elven queen, and nothing will stop her from bringing her baby brother home. On the way, Tiffany made allies with the Wee Free Men (AKA Nac Mac Feegle), this is a clan of six inch tall blue men. Whatever the Wee Free Men lacked in size they made it up with their ferocity, humor, and their love for stealing sheep.

Together, Tiffany and clan Nac Mac Feegle journeyed to a world where the reality entwined with nightmare, but it is Tiffany alone who must confront the queen of the elves...

My thoughts about this book:

This book is marketed as an young adult novel, but adult readers will also appreciate the story's complexity and its important themes. One of Sir Terry's best quality was that he never patronized or condescended his readers, and he approached the underlying themes in his books open-handedly. The Wee Free Men embodies this quality; here Terry Pratchett trusted that his readers, especially the young readers, are capable to think for themselves about the far-reaching themes that he embedded in the story. 

There are many themes in The Wee Free Men. The themes that stood out to me the most, are the ones about "supernatural" and "power". Let me put it this way, The Wee Free Men, and the Discworld series as a whole, subverts the archetypes about the supernatural found in the traditional myths, and that is a good thing!

The traditional archetypes slap the "supernatural" into the stories to solve problems, and also to fill the gaps left by the unexplainable. This is when "destiny", rooted in the supernatural, happens to a hero by special and divine appointment, to fight big wars between good and evil. Furthermore, these archetypal heroes were also given supernatural powers to aid their epic battles against evil. When you think about it, none of it makes sense. For example, Harry Potter and Jon Snow came back to life, but how does that work? Here is another one, Frodo cast a magical ring into a volcano and a distant stone tower exploded into pieces, but how? It is almost as if this archetype is telling us that our best chance at improving things and finding answers to questions is waiting on the acts of supernatural forces!

More importantly, these archetypes can lead us to a contemptuous view about justice. It tell us to accept the status quo; it portrays that what really matters is the big war between the good and the evil, order versus chaos, where a few chosen elites (such as Aragorn, Harry Potter, and Jon Snow) get to be heroes because of their special "bloodlines and powers". And so if you are an everyday citizen, then you better stop complaining about the injustices experienced by the normal folks, and leave the heroes to fight the big wars and saving the world.

Needless to say, these archetypes, when transposed to the real life, is most unhelpful. We have seen these archetypes in ancient myths and they are still prevalent in our modern culture. If history is a teacher, then it shows us that these archetypes led our ancestors to a world of blood and fire; the witch hunt, the crusade, the medieval church's superstitions and its persecution of scientists, the corrupt noble class who caused the French Revolution, the anti-vaccination movements and prayer healings, not to mention, the ongoing, thousand year old struggles in the Middle East. These are all tragic consequences of ancient archetypes about mysticism and the supernatural. 

Discworld, on the other hand, subverts these traditional archetypes and then it gave us a better alternative. Terry Pratchett turned the troupe of "supernatural and magic" on its own head. Discworld is a fantastical place where magic is a reality, but in these stories, using magic often caused more troubles than solving problems, and the results are hilarious. In Discworld, the characters are surrounded by the supernatural, but they still maintain some level of common sense, which they use to come up with ridiculous but hilarious ways to stating that that is"just how things are". This is often depicted humorously in the stories, but it is a recurring theme in the series. What is Terry Pratchett's view about it all? I believe he already spoke about his view through his Witches books, but his view of the subject is more apparent in The Wee Free Men. In this book, Tiffany faced mysteries galore. Where many would have faltered, Tiffany's level head and analytical reasoning exposed the fairy queen's facade and her supposed dominance over the realm. In the end, the witches respected Tiffany and saw her as one of their own, because being a witch in Discworld is about using "headology" to get ahead - that is, using reason and her own knowledge to solve the problems, it is not about throwing fireballs, casting spells and abusing magic as a tool.

The Wee Free Men's  major themes also include "identify" and "perseverance". At the beginning of the book, in a village where everyone took things for granted, Tiffany, a farmer's daughter who lived in a feudal society, questioned everything. She did not feel the sense of belonging. Her identify, however, gradually came into its own as things went on. In the book, Tiffany took life by the reign and she did not wait for the Baron to rescue her brother like in the classical fairy tales. No mysticism and supernatural force could dissuade Tiffany from rescuing her brother. During her quest, Tiffany endured hardships but she remained level-headed, and ultimately she saved her brother. In other words, Tiffany subverts the archetypal heroes of the traditional myths. Where the archetypal heroes were entrusted with supernatural powers and destinies by special appointments, Tiffany is just a nobody who took life by the reign and she is equipped with nothing but good common sense and an iron determination. Very early on in the book, Ms. Tick, a teacher, expressed her observation that Tiffany was not some blank book waiting to be filled by teaching, but a young girl who was determined to challenge anything she did not believe in or could not understand; these were the qualities the witches were looking for in their kind.

There is much more to discuss about this book, but it suffices to say that The Wee Free Men, though marketed as an young adult novel, is no less serious and humorous than Sir Terry's thirty six other Discworld novels intended for adults. It is also worth mentioning that the parts of the book with Nac Mac Feegle are the funniest moments in this book. The Wee Free Men is set in a fantastical world, yet it is grounded in the real world. It is an entertaining story with good moral lessons. This book subverts the harmful archetypes found in the traditional myths, and then handing us a better alternative. I think The Wee Free Men is one of Terry Pratchett's best books, and I highly recommend it.

P.S. To my dismay, I discovered that a beautifully illustrated edition of The Wee Free Men is out of print, where a second hand copy would cost me an arm and a leg. Hopefully the publisher will reprint the illustrated edition (like when they reprinted the illustrated Eric), because I would love to add it to my collection. The above illustrations were taken from that book.