Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

My Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.70 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 4.21 / 5.00

Note: I read this as part of a Read Along, which was jolly good fun.   Week 1   Week 2   Week 3

Tiffany Aching is a fairly normal child, although she is particularly good at making cheese. She is also very sensible; so that when a monster in the pond attacks her she simply smacks it in the face with a frying pan. As I said, she is very, very sensible, which is even more impressive when you consider that she is only nine years old. But then, she is the grandchild of the great Granny Aching, sheep whisperer extraordinaire and wielder of the Special Sheep Liniment*.

One day Tiffany’s little brother, Wentworth, goes missing, which seems unlikely because he is so sticky that he is usually safe left on his own. However, it seems that the Queen of Faerie has stolen him, possibly because she is determined to rectify his stickiness once and for all, and Tiffany is determined to get him back. Having been convinced by Miss Tick, the travelling Witch, that she should become a Witch herself, Tiffany ventures into the land of Faerie armed only with her trusty frying pan, a talking toad and her fierce intelligence. Oh, and the Feegles: did I mention them? The Nac Mac Feegles, or Wee Free Men, are all roughly six inches tall, covered in blue tattoos and are almost invariably drinki’, figthin’ or stealin’, or some combination of all three. Their language may be fruity but their arms are mighty and they are always good chaps to have with you in a scrap.

*Please note that this so-called ‘medicine’ has not been approved for use as anything other than paint stripper or fire accelerant.

This is one of Mr Pratchett’s many Discworld novels, number 30 I believe, and is the first of four in a shorter series that revolves around our young heroine, Tiffany Aching. I have read several of the other Discworld books, so I was well aware of Mr Pratchett’s writing style and his first YA title, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, is one of my favorites. I was expecting wit and clever humor wrapped up in a story that took the usual tropes and twisted them into amazingly entertaining shapes, and I was not disappointed.

Experienced readers of the Discworld series were first introduced to Mr Pratchett’s concept of Witches back in 1988 Wyrd Sisters and Tiffany and Miss Tick snuggle easily into that version of the practice. There are pointy hats, but that is only because people expect them; there are hairy warts, mainly because most women of a certain age get them; and there are flying broomsticks for some reason that is never explained but there is definitely no cackling. Cackling is something that all Witches strive to avoid and is a certain indication of impending madness. No, Mr Pratchett’s Witches are women who have a keen intelligence and an ability to apply hard work, excellent observation and a mass of headology (a brand of psychology only studied by Witches) to the everyday troubles of the people that they care for. Some have specialties, such as Granny Aching who keeps her Witching almost exclusively to sheep.

Young Tiffany is a great heroine to throw at a person who loves to read books, because she is so serious and bookish herself. She is not like the other children who dash about in a carefree manner: she is an outsider and observer, someone who immediately appeals to the geeky nerd inside all of us who are likely to pick up a book for entertainment. She does all the things that we wish we could have done when we were nine: she is calm in the face of danger and brave enough to trust her instincts; she is doggedly loyal to her little brother even though he is totally obnoxious and she is very, very clever. In short, she has you cheering for her within the first page of text.

Then we have the setting of the Chalk. This rolling grassland covered with sheep is very familiar to me from my childhood growing up amongst the fields of Lancashire, Cumbria and West Yorkshire. Although my part of the English countryside is not laid over chalk, I am very familiar with the traditions associated with sheep rearing, so I felt a certain nostalgia when reading this book. However, I do not think that a lack of this background would be a problem as Mr Pratchett paints a very vivid portrait of the landscape, which plays a large role in the story. I
particularly loved the inclusion of the White Horse carved into the hillside, which I always pictured like this one in Uffington because of its flowing lines and highly stylized form.

As a part of the Chalk, we have the presence of Granny Aching, who is actually dead at the start of the series. However, her influence lingers on and she is one of the most prominent dead characters that I have ever read. She was such a strong personality that the locals have almost made her a god, so that thunder is referred to as ‘Granny Aching cussin’. She lived an almost solitary life in a tiny, wheeled hut up on the hills, with her Jolly Sailor tobacco and Special Sheep Liniment. Although she is no longer present in Tiffany’s life she continues to be a great influence on her granddaughter, and her stubborn, taciturn personality is a constant inspiration for the young Witch. She dedicated her life to protecting the sheep, the Chalk and its people, a path that Tiffany seems destined to follow.

However, there is no doubt that the stars of this book, and indeed the series, are the Wee Free Men of the title. Whilst Tiffany is all common sense and thoughtfulness, they are the exact opposite. They are chaotic and unrelentingly aggressive towards anything and everything unless it is a lawyer, which they find terrifying, or someone they deem a friend. Once you have become a friend of the Feegles they will watch over you until you die, whether you want them to or not. Granny Aching befriended the Feegle Clan that lives on the Chalk, and they extend their protection to Tiffany as part of that friendship. They are impressed by her fighting skills because of the frying pan incident and are awed by her ability to read and think without having to hit herself on the head. She is constantly irritated by them and their behavior, but they prove to be wonderful allies and she eventually develops a deep affection for them.

Once again, my own background feeds into my feelings for the Feegles. I lived in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, for twenty years and the Feegles are based upon tiny, drunk Scotsmen. You can tell this by their bright red hair, filthy kilts and raucous behavior. Their dialogue is all produced in a Glaswegian dialect that I am quite familiar with, so that added to the entertainment value a great deal. There is a glossary included for those less fluent in the slang words, which includes some wonderfully polite definitions. The Feegles are not only entertaining as individuals, but truly come into their own as a group. Due to their hive-like structure, most of them are brothers, which makes them particularly argumentative so fights are a constant occurrence if they have to stand around for more than a minute or so. Only the Big Man gets to breed with the Kelda, who is the lone female in the clan, so he is nominally in charge, although few Feegles ever do what they are told without expressing an opinion.

My only criticism of this title is that the ending seems a little too easy to me. I wanted something a little more dangerous and challenging for Tiffany to overcome. However, this is a minor point to pick about a generally excellent and entertaining story. Plus, it will have you adding words to your everyday vocabulary: Crivens!

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