This is getting to be a habit. A new Pratchett comes out, I read it, I get nostalgic for the old days, I worry about whether the old days were only ever in my memory, and so I go and read something else by him. Only this time I cut right to the chase. I’m struggling with a painful (in a good way) book, the nights are drawing in and it’s getting cold… so I read Hogfather.
I wasn’t wrong after all. This is the real Pratchett. And boy, he’s good.
Hogfather, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a Discworld novel about Christmas. Santa Claus (or his Discworld equivalent, the Hogfather) is under attack by the dull, life-hating Auditors of Reality, through their chosen tool, the mad, childish assassin Mr Teatime (it’s pronounced teh-ah-tem-eh. He’s very clear on that point). With the Hogfather out of action, somebody needs to step in, and that task falls to the ever-helpful (and always eager to explore alternative careers) Death, he of the scythe and the CAPITAL LETTERS VOICE. And his un-elflike assistant, Albert.
Let’s start with the bad. This is a mess of a novel. There are essentially four different storylines: Death delivering presents and learning about the true meaning of Hogswatch (Christmas); Death’s grand-daughter (don’t ask), Susan, trying to put things right; Teatime and his merry band of criminals having fun in a strange location; and the Faculty of Unseen University, trying to deal with some of the peculiar household gods that are popping into existence as a metaphysical result of the whole affair. The first three storylines intersect only briefly, while the fourth touches on them barely more than tangentially. The four storylines can only go together by explictly bending the laws of time and space, and as a result of shoving them all together we miss the most important bit – we see hardly any of Teatime’s actual assassination plot (no, hearing about it in hindsight doesn’t count).
Right. Got that out of the way.
In defence of the book, I’ll say this first and foremost: it’s hilarious. The Faculty subplot in particular, irrelevent though it may have been, had me uncontrollably laughing out loud on half a dozen occasions (which is impressive, given the short length of the book), fully justifying its otherwise unjustifiable inclusion. Runner up prize would have to go to the brilliant double-act of Quoth the Raven and the Death of Rats, but there are laughs on almost every page.
It is also very dark, and really very creepy. One of the central theses of the book is that childhood is not a comforting time, but instead is much like adult life written in larger letters, and this sort of high-contrast long-shadowed aesthetic is obeyed by the book itself, which contrasts the humour with quite a lot of killing, a frightening psychopathic serial killer as a villain (and a bunch of murderers as, paradoxically, the ones we sympathise with compared to him), and a number of nightmares come to life. And if this all sounds a bit silly – well, it is, but it’s also a serious essay about the meaning of life (particularly, about the role of symbols and convention in constructing meaning). This puts it a bit at risk of being twee, but I think he stays just on the right side of preaching. What’s more, the central themes (childhood and symbolism) are only the most important and consistent of the dozens of observations on life, the universe and everything, which range from funny to intelligent to both. This, frankly, was a surprise to me – I’d remembered that Pratchett’s musings had been more interesting in the past, but I’d forgotten just how much more numerous and varied they were.
I don’t really know what else to say. There’s not a lot to analyse here, because it’s a short book, and it flagrantly ignores any attempt at structure (while nonetheless feeling quite complete and self-contained and right). And it’s very good.
Oh, and he’s extremely erudite. There were some very clever in-jokes, referencing both his own work and the real world. He’s the kind of author who benefits from annotations.
I suppose I might wish it were longer. And I think the ending could have been better – as it is, it’s a bit of an anticlimax.
Nonetheless: I’m not sure that Hogfather is the best book Pratchett’s written, but even if it had been the only book he had written, it would make him an author worth keeping an eye on. Never again will I doubt the heights he has achieved or suspect his reputation in my mind as being the result of nostalgia. No, he really was this good.
Adrenaline: 4/5. The short scenes, quick cutting, high stakes, creepy darkness and sheer exuberant energy of the writing made it a gripping read. No, perhaps, thrilling – it’s too disordered for that, without a big enough climax. But gripping.
Emotion: 2/5. A possible complaint is that it’s not a very emotional book. I was never really upset, or really elated. I like the characters, but I don’t feel for them all that much.
Thought: 4/5. Not a great philosophical essay, but it’s got sophisticated ethical themes, and a whole host of astute observations that at the least encourage the reader to see the world in a new way, and sometimes are actually thought-provoking as well. Add to that the unpredictable (and somewhat metaphysical) plot, and this may be fun but it’s certainly not brainless fun.
Beauty: 4/5. Pratchett may not construct sentences that make you gasp out loud at their beauty, but he’s a consistently elegant and graceful prose stylist, and in Hogfather that prose is turned to the service of stunning images and an elegaic humanism.
Craft: 4/5. It’s able to make me laugh out loud, ponder a little about the human condition, and yearn for somebody to get a poker through the heart, often all in the same page. The prose is great, and the fact the plot is able to fit together at all is a testament to Pratchett’s feel for balance and form. On the other hand, the plot IS still a mess, and some scenes aren’t as good as they might have been, particularly the ending. There are also a handful of scenes that should have been cut entirely.
Endearingness: 5/5. How can you ask? It’s really funny. Plus, childhood! There’s not an objectionable moment to be found.
Originality: 2/5. OK, nothing about stealing Christmas is all that unique, though this is certainly a unique take on the idea.
Overall: 5/7. Very Good. I’m a little torn on whether this is Good or Very Good, but I think I’ll opt for the latter. It’s at the low end of Very Good, admittedly, but I think it qualifies. And now I want to go and re-read all those other classic Pratchetts…