One part in my ongoing (and going on, and on, and on…) Complete Discworld Reread project
Let’s try to list all the things I didn’t like about this book.
It still has too many Feegles in it. They’re amusing in very small doses, but the jokes quickly wear thin – and, more importantly, their presence and behaviour constantly undercut the tone of the book. The Tiffany books have grown more adult and serious with each installment, but the Feegles remain back where they started, so that they feel like heavy-handed comic relief when I want to be getting on with the main story.
Because Tiffany is still young and inexperienced, a lot of things have to be explained to her. A lot. Pratchett is pretty fond of Explaining Stuff at the best of times, but here it feels at times like she’s just wandering from one font of explanation to another.
Not unrelatedly, there are a few points where I felt it tipped over into lecturing the reader.
And on that note, there’s the gender politics. Which actually manages to irritate me from both directions. On the one hand, the latent feminism of all his Lancre books boils over here to the point of pretty much declaring that all males are useless and inferior and need to be controlled by women for their own good – and while of course that’s a conclusion it’s been not unfair to draw from the books since at least Witches Abroad, I’d really prefer that sort of thing to be left in the background, rather than stated outright by the author. As a male, it’s a little patronising, frankly. And yet at the same time, the way Pratchett pitches his female dominance is frankly reactionary, reinforcing the tired cliché that women should try to manipulate men through combinations of fear, attractiveness, passive-aggression, and large helpings of shaming, and that if a man doesn’t do exactly what a woman wants she just wasn’t devious enough about not telling him outright what she wanted. I don’t think this helps anybody.
Of course, Pratchett’s witches have always been a portrait of one particular kind (or a certain set of kinds) of woman, and as demonstrations of how women can have power and agency even in a society that on the surface seems entirely patriarchal this is not a bad thing. But here he seems to go over the line into presenting this as the only way for women to be, having an authoritative female character opine, without contradiction, that this is all automatically “written in [all women] somewhere”, and if they don’t know that then they just “haven’t read [that page of themselves] yet”. And I’m just not sure that that’s the best message to be aiming at the book’s intended young female readers. [It’s also notable that at this stage we are no longer using tropes about a certain sort of traditional female authority figure as background for the characterisation of the witches: we are now almost explicitly using the witches as symbols for that sort of female power].
And perhaps that wouldn’t aggrevate me as much if it weren’t alongside Tiffany’s otherwise inexplicable breakdown into Cliche Teenage Girl syndrome. Most of the time she’s a hardened woman of the world – she’s stayed up all night watching over corpses, she’s put her hand in a sheep to turn around a breach-birth, she’s a no-nonsense, sensible woman. Except that suddenly, for no apparent reason, the merest thought of her not-a-boyfriend-honestly even talking to another woman fills her with a jealous, giddy-headed, insecure rage. Instantly. Giddy. Now, I get that people can be irrational about loved ones, even sometimes when they don’t yet know they’re in love. Frightened, certainly. Jealous. Unhappy. And yes, sometimes even angry. But Tiffany, of all people, and with no build-up to it whatsoever? The implication very much seems to be that “losing all rational sense of perspective while becoming furiously, using-multiple-exclamation-marks-per-sentence angry whenever you read in a letter that a boy you like spent a few minutes talking to a girl about something innocuous” is just another part of what we’re expected to accept is just “written in” to the nature of women. And we’re not even talking coherently angry – not even “he knows I wouldn’t like that” or “she knows he’s mine” or even “what if he likes her more than me?”, just aimless!? hysteria!!! talking!! how could he?!. Politics aside, it feels like a betrayal of the character as written everywhere else – since, while I can imagine Tiffany being possessive, sometimes even irrational, one thing she never is is hysterical.
Also, it feels as though Pratchett is laughing at her, and at other women through her, and it isn’t pleasant. It’s not genuine character development, it’s an allegedly amusing “and women are like this!” routine stuck superfluously onto the side of the story (and basically never mentioned again).
Oh, and of course there needs to be a Hero. Even if he’s only there for show because women do everything important, every still needs a Hero to look like they’re doing the rescuing. Apparently.
Similar issues arise with the class politics, where again Pratchett turns support into what looks suspiciously like antediluvian thinking. As always, Pratchett is on the side of the common man, the ordinary person. We know this, because he has his heroine shout at another character that they’re failing to respect the common man, that they’re being patronising, that these are real people. OK. Except… well, the gist of it seems to be that we should accept that because these are real people, rather than witches or novelists, they’re all cretins. The Common Man, with his, to quote, “peasant ignorance”, is portrayed throughout as a bumbling nincompoop, barely able to survive a day without killing itself through stupidity, and desparate, no crying out even, to be manipulated, patronised, tyrannised and spoken down to by a properly educated sensible person.
That’s a little less unpleasant when we’re in Ankh-Morpork with Vetinari, where the properly educated sensible person is ruling the city, and the affairs of high politics are perhaps understandably not foremost in the minds of the citizenry. It’s less forgivable when we’re dealing with small communities of farmers and the most basic day-to-day decisions. And again, there’s nothing new here: this is inherent to the idea of the witches. But the difference is, it used to be that that we were told that the witches could serve a valuable purpose, that sometimes people would turn to them for help. But now it’s gotten to the stage where they need to ‘help’ (i.e. control) every single element of everybody’s lives because everyone else is too stupid to live. [In the earliest books, occasional worried people would make their way to Granny’s door for advice in a crisis; here, constant streams of people flock to every witch (and there’s a vast number of them) for instruction regarding the most minor things.]
And more, everybody is begging to be controlled because they know they’re so inferior. Oh no, not inferior, that’s the point. Nobody in the book actually says “how dare you look down on them! Just because they’re brainless idiots who are stupider, more ignorant, more irrational, less self-aware, less wise, less disciplined, less moral, and generally less likeable than us, doesn’t mean they’re inferior! Apart from in the obvious ways!”… but it almost feels like they do. “We must respect them,” they don’t quite say in so many words, “by making them do what we know they ought to do and not caring about their own feelings in the matter because what do they know they’re just peasants!”
So yes, that’s an irritation. And there’s a subplot that isn’t really necessary, but isn’t fleshed out enough to stand by itself either. And the ending… well it makes sense, but it seems to all happen a bit too quickly.
And the structural gimmick, while a break from Pratchett’s normal linnear methods, and while not exactly a failure, also don’t fully convince.
And “boffo” is a stupid word.
Oh, and there’s sort of a feeling that this is all set in a very small world, in a controlled plot, with a small cast of characters and none of the sense of scope, and of chaos, that the more ‘adult’ Discworld novels have.
But all that aside….
…this is a fantastic book.
Wintersmith is clearly the best of the first three Tiffany books, and while it may not have the depth to really rank with Pratchett’s greatest it certainly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as them. The writing is consistantly fantastic; the imagery constantly intriguing. It is highly polished, yet retains its character. It is, in essence, a Pratchett book that does almost everything right – for the handful of things it doesn’t get quite right, see above. There’s not a lot else to say, really.
[sorry! Left this in a file for too long before filling in the words here… now I don’t have any words to put it. Given how many Pratchett books I’ve reviewed already, however, the words probably aren’t necessary anyway at this point.]
Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD.
errr…. yes. It’s possible the balance of this review has been a tad misleading? It’s just really difficult to write about someone getting things really right that you’ve already described them getting partly, mostly or completely right in 40 other books…. it’s much easier to compile the wrong notes, as there are are so many fewer of them…