Friday, 4 September 2015

The Shepherd's Crown - Terry Pratchett

The publication of the forty-first and final book in Sir Terry Pratchett's beloved Discworld series last Thursday was the saddest book launch I've ever known.* I sold two copies to a lady with tears in her eyes on the day of release, and, indeed, every time I pass the display stand I feel that twinge of sadness -  and I have not yet got used to reading the biographical blurb written in the past tense without wanting to hit something. There's been a sense of solidarity between bookseller and customer, a shared grief and love. The effect has been extraordinary.

Of course, favourite authors and people are always dying. Last year so many customers were grieving actress Lynda Bellingham, and we've lost Maeve Binchy, James Herbert and Iain Banks over the last few years; all of whom have been missed. Terry Pratchett was more personal. I first discovered the Discworld series in about 1999, around the time I turned 14 - these books have been close to my heart more than half my lifetime. And for a series for adults running to over 40 books is quite remarkable; I can't think of any others comparable. It's been going on so long it's hard to say goodbye.

But I think there is more to it than that. Terry Pratchett had a reputation as a writer of comic fantasy, a parody of fantasy tropes, and certainly that's how he began. But he was so much more than a sprinkler of cheap gags. As Discworld progressed, it gained a grounding in reality, thanks to its humanity, insight, the profound and hard-hitting truths cushioned with perfect wordplay that makes you think deeply as you laugh. He could skewer the flaws in people with a sharpened phrase; he also knew we could be so much better, and used his novels to spur his readers on, to be the best humans we know how to be - the rising ape. And so the setting became unremarkable, because despite the witches and wizards, werewolves and trolls, it was our world shown in the fairground hall of mirrors - strange, but showing the essence of reality in an unusual way.


"Times they is a-changing."
The Shepherd's Crown may not have been intended as the final book in the series, but there's no doubt that Sir Terry was aware that it could be, and I don't think you can divorce the novel from the context in which was written. There is a sadness within the pages, especially in the early chapters, a sadness but also comfort ant beauty that feels very, very personal, as Pratchett shapes his world with words. It weaves together story threads from throughout the series, especially the witch books (elder and younger generations) as well reflecting a poignant scene from Reaper Man and referring to the penultimate book (one of the four I have not yet read) Raising Steam. It very neatly bookends the series with Equal Rites which, while not being the first Discworld book, is the one that marked the series as being more than mere parody of fantasy.
"There will be a reckoning."
The Shepherd's Crown focuses on young witch Tiffany Aching, who is trying to protect her world from an invasion from fairyland. And these are no cute little fairies who grant wishes; these are the utterly amoral and terrifying. Pratchett creates an atmosphere of waiting and melancholy, of foreboding menace. It strikes me that the Discworld books for "children" have a darkness to them that is not featured so much in the books written for "adults" (although the line between these audiences is very fuzzy indeed.) It's a darkness of difficult decisions and everyday villainy, and Terry never talked down to his young readers.

But there are still lots and lots of punes, or play on words, and cultural references from the roundworld, and one of these made me groan so loudly that I alarmed my dad, who had read a few chapters but not yet finished the book.

There is a note from Terry's assistant at the end, explaining that although there is a beginning, a middle, an end, and all the bits in between, it is not perhaps as finished as it would have been if Pratchett had lived longer. And you can see that it is a bit rough around the edges. There are several very short paragraphs with elipses, and I wondered if they were intended to be longer. And perhaps the language is less polished than usual, the dialogue a bit more stilted, the subplots needing a bit more fleshing out. In some ways, The Shepherd's Crown is a skeleton novel. But Discworld fans know just how much life, warmth, wisdom and humanity can be found in Sir Terry's most famous skeleton. Terry continued to defy his "Embuggerance" to the end, as even in a slightly less-finished state, The Shepherd's Crown is one of the best things he's written in years.

And so, in a mixture of triumph and sadness, we've reached the end of the series, and it is a worthy and satisfying finale. But a world that stretches across continents and decades does not simply come to an end. Sam Vimes and the city watch still patrol the streets of Ankh-Morpork. Rincewind is still fleeing from one misadventure to the next, the Luggage hot on his heels. Right now, Nanny Ogg is probably quaffing scumble and carousing the seventeeth verse of the Hedgehog Song. Great A'Tuin swims on among the stars, and our beloved characters are still continuing about their business on his/her back, even if their exploits go unwritten now. And there are others, too, in another world, and we know that they in the good company of a reaper with a white horse called Binky and a love of cats. And perhaps, too, there is a man with a white beard and a black hat, a fire in his heart and a wit as sharp as Death's scythe.

Thank you, Sir Terry.


*although E.L. James's Grey earlier this year also made booksellers weep across the world. That was for very different reasons.

2 comments:

  1. I haven't bought the Shepherd's Crown yet. But I must. Thank you Katie for this piece (and for keeping spoilers out) I'm having a quiet moment. One minute of silence for Terry.

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  2. Katie this is beautiful, I actually have tears in my eyes. Thank you for writing so eloquently about Sir Terry.

    I haven't bought this yet (because I can't, obviously) but I'm planning to get it for my dad and probably Rhys as well for Christmas so no doubt I'll test read it before that. I'm both looking forward to and dreading it, although there are still a few I've not read as well it still feels like a big ending, and one I'm not necessarily ready for!

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