The Wee Free Men; A Hat Full of Sky; Wintersmith; I Shall Wear Midnight
This sequence of four books, targeted primarily at children/YA, tracks through much of the later childhood and early teen years of young witch Tiffany Aching. Although started well over ten years ago now, it was all written within this century and completed not too long ago so emphatically needs to be included in my quest for high quality contemporary magical fantasy for children. It is another jewel. Of course the quartet is a sub-set of the hugely popular Discworld comedy fantasy series, largely adult orientated but of immensely wide appeal. However this sequence stands apart and has a rather different quality, perhaps because of its primary audience. Certainly these books contain many of the wonderful elements of classic Pratchett, but they also have a sensitivity and a simple sincerity very much their own. They are both hugely entertaining and deeply enriching reading.
Key characters throughout the books are the Nac Mac Feegles, the Wee Free Men of the first title, clearly based on the traditional 'little people' of so many folklores, but here painted as wildly anarchic, fighting, lying, stealing, arguing little blue men. They are Pratchett comic creations of the highest and most entertaining callibre. Yet is is their unswerving and, indeed, loving devotion to young Tiffany, adopted as their own 'wee hag o'the hills', that begins to flag up the warmth and sensitivity of these stories.
The books abound in Terry Pratchett's trademark and quite brilliant use of language and word-play. Not least amongst his innumerable and often hilarious felicities of English usage is an ability to coin imagery of quite breathtaking originality that makes you see things freshly and vividly. For example, I recall readily an intensity of sound that 'wrapped itself around you and tried to followed you home', a character described as 'so stiff you could have ironed sheets on him' and I just love Tiffany's rather sniffy reaction to the name Letitia as sounding 'like a cross between a salad and a sneeze'. So many such instances make reading these books a constant joy. In itself this feature would be enough to lift these works well above mere 'farting fairy' humour (although Pratchett can offer his share of this too).
But the Tiffany books are much more even than this. Discworld is of course an enclosed world fantasy, albeit a vast and rich one. 'The Chalks', on which Tiffany grows up, is presented as an area of Discworld, but is in fact very clearly and blatantly based on the South Downs of England; it has a much more 'real' and grounded feel than much of Pratchett's fantastic, and often self-lampooned, imaginary world. This particular setting has a certain historical feel too, built alongside elements of fairy tale, although this does not prevent the author from treating, usually very insightfully, with many situations and issues that remain all too common in our own times: prejudice, domestic violence, teenage pregnancy and a good many more. But it is in the character and development of Tiffany herself that the greatest depth and most meaningful sensitivity of these books lies. This often shows real insight and compassion. She frequently demonstrates an admirable strength and feistiness, but can be surprisingly lacking in self-confidence underneath. She has foibles too and can be arrogant and hasty, she is sometimes silly, but she always engenders warm empathy. Collectively the stories involve exploration of what it means to grow up, both as a 'real' girl and as a witch - cleverly, both at the same time. At their heart lies Tiffany's development from the early discovery of her own destiny, through adolescent self-doubt to her ultimate acceptance of who she is. And becoming who she is requires a good deal to be sacrificed and a good deal to be endured. Witch or no, though, she is fundamentally a good person and becoming a wise one.
Like much of the very best fantasy fiction, these books draw extensively from tradition and folklore, evoking archetypes and deep resonances that expand and enrich our experience as human beings. And in this particular sequence of books, unlike some other Discworld titles, genuine exploration of the power and potency of these elements wins out over the primarily comic 'sending up' of fantasy worlds. They are something of an exploration too of what magic itself is and means.
This sequence is, classically, more than the sum of its parts. In the final analysis, though. I think the books are just a little too episodic and inconsistent in quality to rival the absolute all-time greats of children's magic fiction. But they come very close. Pratchett shows amazing wit, genuine wisdom and a great deal of humanity and Tiffany Aching is a character to treasure for a lifetime - not to mention the Nee Mac Feegles.