Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett

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.

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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….

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…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.

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Adrenaline: 3/5.

Emotion: 3/5.

Thought: 4/5.

Beauty: 5/5.

Craft: 5/5.

Endearingness: 4/5.

Originality: 3/5.

[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…

The Top Ten Books I’ve Reviewed On This Blog

I’ve been running this blog for – as of a few days ago – seven years now. Long time. Fair few books reviewed over that time (though nowhere near as many as I’d have liked). So, with the seven year mark gone by, and the weather being wet and cold and dreary, I thought it might be nice to draw up an updated countdown of the best books that I’ve reviewed over that time.

There is, however, a slight complication. In recent years, a lot of my reading has been two big re-read projects of the works of two of my favourite authors – Robin Hobb and Terry Pratchett. This means that any brief list would be overrun by their works – in particular, I’ve reviewed around 35 of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, and a lot of them are very, very good. A list of Discworld novels with a couple of other things thrown in just doesn’t seem that useful.

So, a compromise: this is a list of the ten best books I’ve read in the last 6-7 years, but with only one book per author. Just for fun, I’ve also thrown in the opening paragraph or two of each novel.

So, here we go….

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A Shadow in Summer, by Daniel Abraham

“Everything is going to be fine.”
“It isn’t,” [he] said. His tone wasn’t despairing or angry, only matter-of-fact. “Everything is going to be broken, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

 

Sometimes, the popularity, or lack of popularity, of a book perplexes me. An example I’ve used a lot this year is James Branch Cabell – how has a writer of such fluency, pathos and humour, of novels so easily read, been so forgotten in an age in which pale imitators of his style continue to be sucessful? Only sheer bad luck seems to explain it.

Daniel Abraham is not James Branch Cabell, in almost any way. But his name’s trajectory through the consciousness of genre readers seems to show a similar pattern, albeit in miniature. Abraham attained considerable notability as a short story writer – nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the WFA – before producing this debut novel, A Shadow in Summer, to great acclaim, if not to immediate blockbuster sales. My copy comes complete with blurbs from George RR Martin, Connie Willis, Jacqueline Carey, S.M. Stirling, and Walter Jon Williams. Jo Walton thought it worthwhile including reviews of all four books of this series in her collection of writings on “re-reading the classics” of the genre (though to be fair, it’s a big collection). In my poll back in 2010 of around 100 members of a fantasy fan forum, Abraham ended up in the top 20 living authors, and this quartet, The Long Price Quartet ended up in the list of 10 genre works to read from the 21st century (alongside works by Abercrombie, Bakker, Chiang, Erikson, Lynch, Mièville, Morgan, Stover and Valente – books like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, American Gods, The Road, and Cloud Atlas all got runner-up honourable-mention placings). Six years ago, people were excited by the name of Daniel Abraham, even if they hadn’t always gotten around to reading him.

Now, they aren’t. Well, I’m sure some are, but more don’t seem to have heard of him; his books rarely if ever feature these days in the endless merry-go-round of Goodreads group read nominations, and hardly anyone I know has read his works, at least under that name. The Quartet was followed by the Dagger and Coin series, which apparently is still ongoing, which I didn’t even know because his new works don’t seem to make any waves in the various circles of bloggers and reviewers I loosely keep an eye on. Now I should be clear: the guy’s not suffering. In fact his popularity is growing all the time: it’s just that that fandom is attached to a different name, that of James Corey, author of the (as seen on TV) Expanse novels, of whom Abraham forms one half. He’s also probably made a fair few pennies as the writer for the graphic novel adaptations of A Game of Thrones. So, well done Daniel Abraham, he’s doing pretty well for himself. But part of me has always wondered what happened to the original version – how come so many people recommended these books to me, and now how come so few people seem to have heard of them today?

Like I said, sometimes the fickleness of public interest is just inscrutable.

Other times it isn’t, and this is one of those times.

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Thud!, by Terry Pratchett

Opinions are strange things. We all disagree, and so vociferously, on so much, that we often forget that on most basic issues most of us are in complete agreement. By and large, conflict between dissenting views does not arise from fundamental differences in moral, aesthetic, or interpretive instincts – but simply from differences in how competing factors are weighted. Almost everyone wants liberty, for example, and almost everyone wants security, but how we balance one against the other differs from person to person. Most of us perhaps don’t think about this consciously, but it’s not controversial. It’s how political campaigning works. Candidates rarely try to change  your opinion about this issue or that – instead, they try to frame elections in ways that highlight one issue (the one where you agree with them) and obscure another (the one where you disagree). It’s why care has to be taken when administering polls, surveys, questionnaires and so forth – even something as simple as changing the order of questions can change what it uppermost in your mind at any given time, which can change what seems to you the most important issue at the moment, changing your answer.

Which is a longwinded way of saying: this is going to be another of those “on the one hand, but on the other” reviews of late Discworld that I’ve been doing for a while now. And in this case, I’m going to put that in a slightly odd and perhaps too callous way: I think Thud! has improved considerably with the death of its author.

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Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett

But what was happening now… this was magical. Ordinary men had dreamed it up and put it together, building towers on rafts in swamps and across the frozen spines of mountains. They’d cursed and, worse, used logarithms. They’d waded through rivers and dabbled in trigonometry. They hadn’t dreamed, in the way people usually used the word, but they’d imagined a different world, and bent metal round it. And out of all the sweat and swearing and mathematics had come this… thing, dropping words across the world as softly as starlight.
The mist was filling the streets now, leaving the buildings like islands in surf.

I’ve been aware for a while now that there are two radically different interpretations of Going Postal’s place in the Discworld cannon. In one interpretation, Going Postal is The Beginning Of The End, give or take a book or two in either direction – the tipping point into the declining standards of the final run of the cycle. In the other interpretation, Going Postal is a wonderful entry point for new readers, a turn away from some of the more tentative novels of the preceding era, a celebration of a mature Discworld that has found its voice at last.

It’s possible that both of these interpretations are true.

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Watership Down, by Richard Adams

CHORUS: Why do you cry out thus, unless at some vision of horror?
CASSANDRA: The house reeks of death and dripping blood.
CHORUS: How so? ‘Tis but the odour of the altar sacrifice.
CASSANDRA: The stench is like a breath from the tomb.

  • Agamemnon, by Aeschylus, as quoted in Watership Down

I couldn’t find my copy of Watership Down, so I bought a new one. Mysteriously, it’s twice the size of my old one and it’s not in big print – we must all have had great eyes in the olden days. The point, though, is where I found this copy in the bookshop: on the shelves labelled “Ages 9-12”.

Well, when a book is marketed for 9-year-olds and begins with a quote about death and dripping blood, out of a Greek tragedy, it’s fair to say that we’re in odd territory; and it’s hard to know exactly how to evaluate it. Perhaps the distinction between books for children and books for adults has simply grown over the years: a book must be one thing or the other. Watership Down, however, is a kid’s book with Aeschylus quotations. It has genocide, bloodshed, people ripped apart, and women reabsorbing their own foetuses as a result of the depression induced in them by systematic rape and then singing songs about it. It’s a book that has a reputation for giving children lasting nightmares, for scarring them for life (and the film adaptation is still spoken of with awe and horror).

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a book for children. The thing is, most children’s books today essentially set out to teach children to be… well, children. Doing children things, acting and feeling and speaking childishly. Watership Down comes from an older tradition – a tradition in which the purpose of a book for children is to teach children how to be adults.

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A Hat Full of Sky, by Terry Pratchett

…whoops. I sort of forgot to write a review of this one. That… probably doesn’t bode well.

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