It was six years ago, late summer in 2013, when I decided to read through Terry Pratchett‘s Discworld. At that point, the fortieth novel had been published and we already knew that Pratchett had a terminal illness. There might have been one or two more books to come, and fans were split on the Moist von Lipwig character. I suspect they were mostly disappointed that the series would end, sad that Sir Terry Pratchett was going to die, and wanting more of their favourite cycle in the series. For some, that is the Witches, for other the Watch or the Wizards. Some are taken with how Tiffany Aching is an offset of the Witches, or the one-off “civilization” novels, or the Ankh-Morpork economic development novels, which came to a point with Moiset’s genius. And there are some that could live the rest of their lives reading Death novels.
Rather than continue to read higgledy-piggledy, or try to read them in their cycles or according to another internal method, I decided to take the chronological approach. Having only discovered Pratchett in 2004, I had read probably half of them by 2013 and even named a registered business The Octarine Group. I started again at The Colour of Magic, reading a Discworld novel about every eight weeks. I followed Rincewind on his way, got to know the witches, saw Death emerge from his shadowy realm, and saw Sam Vimes transform the City Watch as Lord Vetinari and Moist von Lipwig would transform the city in their own peculiar ways.
The books weren’t all genius. Monstrous Regiment was a bit forced, though better on second reading. Though the characters of Tiffany Aching and Moist von Lipvig were strong–and Tiffany’s books each have brilliant titles, after Wee Free Men that is–the books were uneven. Jingo is far from the best thing that Pratchett ever wrote, and there are some books that are simply romps, like Raising Steam and Unseen Academicals. No doubt there are gaps in quality, but Discworld novels are almost always a four- or five-star book for me.
A series finale like this can go a lot of ways. Think of the terrible Seinfeld ending, or The Game of Thrones. Blessedly, The Shepherd’s Crown works super well. It is nicely written, well-paced, and organic to the world that Pratchett spent more than three decades shaping.
The Shepherd’s Crown begins with the death of Esme Weatherwax–what I’m sure is one of the voices of Pratchett’s own worldview, along with parts of Lord Vetinari and Sam Vimes. This death, early in the story, gives Discworld-lovers a chance to mourn its creator before moving on into the main crisis of the book: Esme Weatherwax was the most powerful witch between the Ramtops and Ankh-Morpork–indeed, perhaps the most powerful magical being–and her absence exposes the connections between the comfortable agricultural civilization of Lancre and its environs and the restless, careless evil of the elves.
Fortunately, there is Tiffany Aching to stand in the gap. The Shepherd’s Crown is about what it means to fill Granny Weatherwax’s shoes. It is a nearly impossible task as a teenage Tiffany tries to maintain her ministry of common sense and healing on her home turf of the Chalk while continuing to occupy Granny Weatherwax’s steading. As life-givers tend to be, Tiffany is torn between impossible expectations–her village’s needs, her own sense of responsibility, and the sheer size of Granny Weatherwax’s boots. As the novel comes to its climax, Tiffany needs to negotiate her own pathway to victory–both in the battle against the troublesome elves, as well as in her own vocation as a witch.
There are some unfinished bits in this novel. The battle scene needed ten more pages for balance, I think. The temptation to make Tiffany a Teflon superhero is only resisted by her rootedness; many of Tiffany’s well-loved flaws have receded to the background. The threads of Geoffrey Swivel’s character are not fully tied together. Geoffrey is a calm-weaver, more witch than wizard, and there is more to his impressive goat, Mephistopheles, than we might first imagine. And You, the cat, makes me wonder if Granny Weatherwax isn’t so far away as Death has taken here.
Overall, though, The Shepherd’s Crown is a satisfying way to end a series–and it would be tough to create a capstone project for a world with more than fifty memorable characters over forty-one novels. Read together with the deus ex machina-filled Raising Steam, in The Shepherd’s Crown Pratchett has allowed Pratchett’s fans the chance to say goodbye to almost all those characters that we love–without sacrificing the quality of the stories themselves.
What now? My Discworld checklist is covered with pink checkmarks and there are no books to come.
I might read Nation, which I have had on my shelf for a while, and is the book Pratchett was writing when he got the news of his impending death. There is the Long Earth series, and Johnny Maxwell. I have been toying with reading Ursula K. Le Guin chronologically, or try Anne McCaffrey‘s Dragonriders of Pern series after faltering last year. Or, I might do what I was tempted to do when I finished my chronological reading of C.S. Lewis: I might start again, from the beginning.
And this time with footnotes! Not just the hilarious little sidebar conversations throughout the novels, but with a serious attempt to find the elusive Once More* with Footnotes–which I have never actually seen in real life.
Maybe, we’ll see.
Meanwhile, if I had a black Louisiana fedora, I would doff it to honour Sir Terry Pratchett. Thank you for giving me years of pleasurable reading. It was first suggested I read your work because my writing voice sounded like yours. In one way it is sad to me that, like Granny Weatherwax, there is no one to fill your shoes. But, like Tiffany Aching, I think the key is not to fill another’s boots but to work in our own. Like Sam Vimes, I’m starting to feel the cobblestones through my literary soles, starting to find my way around my own created worlds. And that only heightens my admiration for your imagination and style, Terry Pratchett.
See below for Discworld maps and book lists, as well as a vlog version of this blog, part of a “10 Minute Book Talk” series I have begun. If you enjoy, please subscribe to my youtube channel.