Book review: Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

If this was a movie, it would be Harry Potter And The Logic Of The Diminishing Returns.


Another figure-scaled illustration from Paul Kidby, Pratchett’s regular cover artist since Josh Kirby passed on. It features the Nac Mac Feegles (foot-high blue Scottish warrior/pixie things).

The plot

This is the third book featuring Tiffany Aching, originally a humble farm girl, now an adolescent witch-in-training, and the Nac Mac Feegles (see above), whose clan she became involved with in the first story.

When Tiffany is taken by her mentor Miss Treason to witness the Dark Morris, an arcane winter ritual (and joke for English people), she joins the ceremony on instinct and finds herself subject to the attentions of a very unusual admirer: The Wintersmith, elemental spirit of winter. Not only does it/he seem dangerously besotted with our heroine, but she also discovers that, by placing herself in this position, she is expected to adopt certain responsibilities, and frankly being the village witch at the age of thirteen is responsibility enough. The only person who can help is Roland, a prince in waiting and DEFINITELY not Tiffany’s boyfriend, who spends most of his time locked in a high tower in his castle. The most powerful witches in the Kingdom and Tiffany’s own clan of woad-covered warriors may not be enough to help her this time.

The good

As always, Pratchett is readable above all else. His characters are fun to be around, except when they’re meant to be nasty or irritating, in which case they’re enjoyably nasty or satisfyingly irritating. Tiffany is a pleasant linchpin, and the (very) young adult given a disproportionate dose of power and responsibility is as intriguing a type as ever. However, the supporting cast take at least half the weight–outside of Ankh Morpork, at least, the witches Weatherwax and Ogg are surely Pratchett’s best characters, and they’re more than cameos here. There’s something so immovably earthy about them that they ground the giddiest flight of fancy or, as here, pin the most vaporous plot to the page. Under Pratchett’s pen, even uber-witch Granny Weatherwax’s ever-growing power somehow turns into a crotchety old spinster living in a tiny, freezing cottage with a kitten for company, getting on the nerves of the few witches game to stop by and ensure she hasn’t succumbed to the lure of supernatural senility, or “cackling”, as they call it. Likewise, Tiffany’s apprenticeship, far from Harry Potter’s magical public schoolery, largely involves a shitload of housework and an uncomfortable level of reliance on her meagre skills from adults, including her parents, whose ignorance of what witchery involves is actually a vital part of it–as her wizened mentor teaches her, when you’re blind, half-deaf and a hundred and thirteen years old, a bit of spooky razzamatazz goes an awfully long way.

So, as with all the Discworld books involving witches, the meat of the book lies in the relationships between the women at the core, and their relationship to the Zen-like power and simplicity of Pratchett’s (feminine) “witch” magic, which is the opposite side of the coin to his (masculine) “wizard” magic, and fittingly so–while the latter is universities, books, arcane mechanisms and years of study in dark rooms achieving a few majestic goals and a lot of bugger-all, the former is infinitely practical, self-limiting, and fundamentally concerned with life itself, except every so often when it goes batshit crazy and wrecks up the place. Like Pratchett’s writing, the idea’s not obtuse, but that doesn’t stop it being as deep as necessary and extremely effective nearly all the time.

The bad

Pratchett’s first forays into the Young Adult category were the ‘Johnny’ stories. At the time, these character-based tales of a typical British high-school kid to whom bizarre things would occasionally happen were a surprising departure from his all-fantasy repertoire, but quite enjoyable all the same. There was something quite emotionally involving about this boy whose simple niceness and honesty put him at odds with a world of impersonal education, divorce, adult agendas and the grit and grey of urban Britain, and, ironically, this emotional reality gave the books a maturity which his “adult” fiction often lacked.

With the Tiffany books, Pratchett has returned to familiar fantasy territory but begun with a younger character, who he’s said he plans to age naturally between instalments, and I think he might have hit a snag there. The fantasy of the Discworld, while not as kid-centric as J.K. Rowling’s work (no action figures just yet), would probably be considered by all but the most Christian of parents as safe for the adolescent reader. Critics would call this the source of its appeal, but I prefer to think that part of the fun of Pratchett’s prose is that he recognizes the joy of the implicit. Regardless, as the main character here is now adolescent herself, what you’ve got is a Discworld book, featuring Discworld characters and a cover which makes no attempt to dissuade the adult purchaser, yet which still seeks to come across as being written for a slightly younger reader than normal.

This goal is feeble in intent and execution, and what the reader ends up holding is an (expensive, hardcover) Discworld instalment with a monster font size and a plot that goes the only place it can within these boundaries, i.e. down the sink.

You see, this story is about life, the seasons, the land, and the farm. It features a force of nature who falls in love with, and tries to seduce, an adolescent girl who has potent magical powers which she doesn’t quite understand yet, and who, not entirely against her will, must assume an ancient, divine feminine mantle in order to fulfil an eternal role and perpetuate life itself. You see where I’m going with this? Give it to a European filmmaker and there’d be clumsy fondling in the barn by the half-hour mark and babies well before the credits, but Pratchett dials back the naughty/nice content of his basic style to the point where, rather than playing like reality through young eyes (as Johnny’s stories did), or like a fantasy movie cut for prime-time TV like his typical stuff, this instead feels like a big-budget Hollywood kid flick completely lacking the courage of its own convictions. Like Harry Potter. It’s a credit to Pratchett, I suppose, that reading this of his thirty-plus books was the first time I’d thought to compare the two worlds. I’d still take Pratchett any time, don’t get me wrong; I had fun here, especially during his typically irresistible opening, but I’d just like the comparison to return to irrelevance as soon as possible, please.

(The annoying thing is that I suspect Pratchett, if anyone, COULD have done something really fantastic with the sexual subtexts notably neutered from this story–he is nothing if not a talented euphemiser and his intentions toward his readers are beyond question.)

What I learnt

That even if they’re not, you know, John Grisham, it’s still quite possible for a writer to be too productive, particularly once they’re climbing that treacherous profit-versus-edit curve.

In short

Title: Wintersmith
Author: Terry Pratchett
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0060890312
Year published: 2006
Pages: 324
Genre(s): Fantasy, Young adult, Humour

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here

Wintersmith review

Is this reviewer out of his/her freaking mind? The entire 'Potter' series is but a bucket of simplistic drivel compared to Prachett's Tiffany - Mac Feegle magic.
Please. Is there not a reviewer with a little depth out there?
Dr. Queague