The Shepherd's Crown
I have spent today trying different ways to review this book.
A straightforward unbiased critique of a young adult's fantasy story?
A potted history of my relationship with the books of this author?
Perhaps a tribute to the writer who has spent over 30 years of giving me a world to wonder over?
I can't do the first of these and do justice to the others. In fact let's make this simple...
Not an option.
So I'm warning you now. If you want to read a scathing review, I'm not going to be able to do it. I don't mean that as a challenge or some sort of belligerent fist-shaking rant either, I'm just stating a fact.
This is the last Discworld book. But you already knew that. I would go as far as to suggest that for the majority of anyone reading this, you may well agree that it should be as well. The series ends here, the estate of Terry Pratchett has decided that they don't want there to be any more. Personally I agree, you may not.
Every Discworld fan will read this book. Many will have finished it before I even started it yesterday morning, I suspect that there will have been trepidation much like my own. It is impossible to read this as a Pratchett fan without overlaying it with meaning. Like all of the Discworld books, there is Death here, life too of course since life always goes on in some form, but the tall thin fellow with the crop harvesting equipment has taken the author, and you can't forget it.
Death also takes another, which is something that sets this whole book in motion. This is not an unusual strand of story for the Discworld books, the demise of a character often sets off something new; in this case it leaves the world less protected. Unlike other books where the passing of a character goes unnoticed, the whole world is shaken. Everyone of importance is aware, many mourn, a spiteful few rejoice. Therein goes the problem. Elves.
Discworld Elves have been seen before, several times, the Lords and Ladies of the faerie realm, destructive, vindictive, vicious troublemakers. They've been slapped down before, defeated and humiliated, they all sit in their otherworldly dream palace champing at the bit to be let loose. Well not quite all. Their Queen remembers. She remembers the humiliating defeat at the hands of the little girl, Tiffany Aching. The Queen knows fear, her court sees this, a power struggle ensues and a new order is born, and it wants revenge, and the Elves want to be back on top.
Tiffany herself has new responsibilities, a bigger flock for a shepherdess to look after, more work. She is good at this, and because witches are human, she copes...just. Her attentions are stretched very thin, everyone is appreciative, it is just that others have ideas about how things should be done. You know. The Senior Witches...
Much like the Elves, getting agreement is not easy, with their customary and well known sense that 'All witches are right but I'm more right than they are'; everyone has an opinion, Tiffany just wants to do things her way.
Enter Geoffrey and Mephistopheles. A boy and his goat. A boy who wants to be a witch.
But Geoffrey isn't just any old nobleman's son on the run, he has a talent. He is nice. Supernaturally so. He is nice to people and they become nice in return. As ever in these stories the animals aren't just for show. Goat sidekick he may be but Mephistopheles is talented too, the most talented goat in the world.
Geoffrey also brings a new concept to the Discworld, one that revitalizes the old male population in these matriarchal societies.
There is an all pervading sense of change on the Discworld. The last few books have pushed into a more industrial age, there is still magic, but there is iron too. Whether or not Sir Terry did this on purpose to prepare us, or whether we are adding our own inference is probably open for debate.
One thing that hasn't changed is the nature of the Nac Mac Feegle, the little pictsies are, as always, spoiling for a fight. Their wish comes true in spades. But if the book has a central theme it is 'get along' learn how to accommodate, learn how and why people do what they do, be nice and it may well be returned, but never forget that if you break the rules there will be a reckoning.
As messages go this is simple and powerful. It isn't an over the top flag-waving 'conform or be crushed' demand, nor is there a 'stick it to the man' finger in the air. This, for all its simplicity treads a fine line. There is room for individuality, room for change, just think of the consequences to others. Nothing is perfect, and on the whole people will let you do what you want and leave you alone if you let them get on with their own lives, just understand the consequences of trying to to impose your will on others, show a little empathy and we'll all be fine.
Think about that message.
This is a book for 'Young Adults' , or 'People' if you will. You are a Young Adult from the moment you take your first breath, the elderly are often described as 'Young At Heart'. Who doesn't want to be young? I'm not saying this is a world changing book, that would be crass. Look at Pratchett's body of work though. The themes are consistent, 'Live and Let live', 'People are Important - whoever they are', 'People can only tell you what to do if you let them', 'The best answers are not supernatural ones' and 'You might be able to pick on a lone sheep, but just try that with the whole flock...and their Shepherds...'. If more 'Young Adults' read these books and behaved like this then it would be a win all round.
I'm a father with a young child. I will be starting her off on the Discworld soon. I hope she gets something from these lessons. She'll be a better person from it if she does.
From a writing standpoint, there is no drop in quality here. I couldn't tell that this was written under failing health which just re-confirms the master-of-the-written-word status I, and many others, have conveyed on Sir Terry for many years now. Relentless slapstick has never really been a staple of these stories. It was always characters to the fore, with humour from behaviour and the odd fantasy trope thrown in. I had a wry smile about woodsmen and their choice of underwear. This is as strong a Pratchett book as I have seen in a while.
It is also full of characters from previous books, mostly witches and the obligatory wizard or two. Some are one-liners,some play much more central roles. This is a welcome development, it is always good to meet old friends, particularly if you know that you'll never meet them in new circumstances again.
I don't need to recommend this book to a Discworld reader. For anyone who has not read a Pratchett novel, treat yourself. Pick one . Some say 'Mort' is the first true discworld novel. Before that the world is very different, more fantastic, less about the characters.
I started my journey to the world on the back of a Turtle in a newsagent in my home town. I saw the release of 'Light Fantastic' when it first came out as a paperback. I picked it up and saw it was a sequel to a book my brother had brought back from his time at University. The blurb on the book told me it was 'Comparable to Jerome K Jerome at his best!'. I didn't have a clue. Jerome K Jerome, I'd heard the name, something to do with boats? The cover was bright, it had some sort of box on legs on it...
I was (and still am) a big Douglas Adams fan. A humorous fantasy writer called Terry Pratchett? How will this compare? Decisions, decisions?
So I went home, book unpurchased. I dug out my brothers' copy of 'The Colour Of Magic' and started to read. The next day I was back in the newsagent pennies in hand (well actually it was pounds in hand, I'm not THAT old)!
So there it began. As an avid reader and devourer of any Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror book I could get my hands on I was a regular at the library. As soon as a new Pratchett hardcover hit the library shelves I would sprint down there, usually to be told that it had already been lent out. So the challenge began. Be the first, get there before anyone else. Then I realised others were reserving the books BEFORE THEY WERE RELEASED! The cheats! Well we could all play that game... And indeed the number of players seemed to increase with every book, until it was ridiculous, even reserving it in advance would mean weeks if not months of waiting.
By now of course we were a couple of years in and I was a working man of (limited) means. Paperbacks turned into hardbacks, my bookshelves started to groan under the strain. If there's one book I regret not getting, it was a hardcover edition of 'The Colour Of Magic', an early one, a REALLY early one. A black cover with an illustration of a turtle on it with a couple of green and purple octagonal light flashes. Inside the dust jacket was a picture of the author, at least I think it was the author, this picture had a distinct 'Doc Brown' look, presumably before the advent of the hair-eating fedora. I think that the library sold it off for about 50p, I already had the book as the corgi paperback, what did I want the hardback for? I suspect I would be living the life I have never had a chance to become accustomed to if I had bought, kept and then sold it on.
A few years later, I met a girl. A girl with the the remarkable ability to put up with me! She also had a book hunger, worse than mine. Books fled from her ravenous gaze, no tome was safe, I was strictly amateur hour. I thought I would buy her a Pratchett for her to try, she thought the same about me. I turned up to her student digs clutching a copy of 'Thief Of Time', she already had one. At that point I knew...we had two copies. Two copies of all of them. When your book collections combine you know it's love at first footnote.
Over time we went down to a single copy of each book between us, and developed a simple reading order for each new book. Me second if I knew what was good for me.
A house was purchased, dogs next, then marriage, then child. Throughout this, there were Pratchett books, around one a year.
That era is over. Forty-One Discworld books, plus assorted sundries, all to enjoy over and again. To read to, and with, my daughter. I will be checking her future partner's book collection. No Pratchett - no relationship. Harsh but fair I think.
But here's the thing.
It's a big universe out there. A universe of infinite possibility, in a multiverse of infinite possibilities. Anything that can happen will happen somewhere and somewhen. There IS a turtle out there somewhere swimming in the void, carrying four elephants, a Disc and a whole heap of witches, wizards, policemen, dwarves, trolls, goblins and pictsies. It is still telling stories, we will never see them, but maybe the photons that bounced off Sir Terry will find their way there. These may pick up further tales, and transport them out into the universe, to orbit a sun somewhere for a few millennia while we all catch up. We might find a whole set of bookshelves, made of light, full of new tales.
I'll see you there, and we can all queue at the library in the stars. I just hope some bugger hasn't reserved them all before I get there.
And then I will read and enjoy.
After my wife has read them first of course.