Dot writes: Terry Pratchett’s final novel is a poignant read. It starts with the death of one of his most beloved characters, Granny Weatherwax; clearly he was thinking about his own imminent death from Alzheimer’s, which came in March this year. I’m not the only one of my friends who was quick to buy The Shepherd’s Crown when it was published on 27th August, and my facebook feed has been busy with comments on it. On the one hand I’ve been seeing warm and emotional comments from readers, people who finished it crying and describe it (well, one friend described it) as “glorious”. On the other hand there has been considerable annoyance at an article by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian in which he wonders why there is such a fuss over this book, as “life really is too short to waste on ordinary potboilers” – and admits he hasn’t read a single word of Pratchett’s work and doesn’t mean to.
I’d be the first to get angry at the assumption that a popular author must by that token be a trashy one. However, I’m not quite such a passionate Pratchett fan as many of my friends. My main period of Pratchett-reading was my teens, and I’m not well-acquainted with his more recent work (meaning most of the last two decades of his work – oh dear…) My favourite books of his are Wyrd Sisters, Guards! Guards!, Moving Pictures and Men at Arms. Always fond of parody and allusion, I love his use of a mesh of cultural references – Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Wyrd Sisters, for example – and the way his books play with expectation and myth. He likes (liked) to unpack powerful narratives like these and turn around the assumptions they made about who was a winner and who was right; he was an extremely literary author, but not in a snobbish way, because he tended to pick stories with a general cultural presence, rather than ones you needed to have actually read. (This was good for me with all the film references in Moving Pictures as I’ve seen shamefully few classic films – but Gone With the Wind is so well known I can appreciate a parody of it without having seen it.) (Yes, you read that right. I haven’t seen Gone With the Wind.) Against the seductions of legend Pratchett asserted the heroic awkwardness of ordinary people. He disliked unquestioned hierarchies and celebrated the common man and woman while unsentimentally recording their faults. Sometimes his political and moral points seemed a little pat, and he had a stock of devices that he repeated. But at his best, yes, he was wonderfully funny and yet morally serious. Definitely not a writer of mere potboilers.
This said, I have to admit I don’t think The Shepherd’s Crown is especially good. It wasn’t fully finished at Pratchett’s death and this shows: there’s a flatness about the writing, a rather expository quality, which surely would have been livened up in subsequent drafts. I’m not well-placed to appreciate it because almost every aspect of it continues from earlier books, and as mentioned before I haven’t kept up with the more recent products of his pen. Granny Weatherwax, Granny Ogg, the wizards of the Unseen University and the elves are all characters I’ve met before, but Tiffany Aching isn’t and her prior doings are especially important to the story. However, many of the jokes seem to be repeated from earlier works too, and I do think this is a fault: I’m not sure how much new invention there is here, as opposed to resting on the assumption that tiny, warlike Scottish gnomes who believe they’re already dead are very funny (they are quite funny, but clearly the spark of excitement at this idea flared most brightly in an earlier book). It’s nice to revisit dear old characters, but some of those dear old characters have had the corners rubbed off them in the course of their many appearances. Magrat, for example, has become strangely efficient and determined, after many books of being basically rather wet; if you love Magrat you’ll feel pleased for her, but to me it felt like wish-fulfilment overtaking the acerbic side that I enjoyed in Pratchett’s vision. This book has a couple of characters who, to me, seem just a bit too perfect to be the best Pratchett. Geoffrey, for example, is altogether too convenient; and what’s all this stuff Tiffany Aching tells the Elf Queen about how humans co-operate and help each other? Help each other the way Cut-Me-Own-Throat-Dibbler always helps people, would that be?
I don’t want to be too critical. I did enjoy the book; it does tie up the ends in a way that is appropriate in the last Discworld novel; I did get a little lump in my throat on more than one occasion as I read it. But it’s not as complicated, not as inventive, not as funny and not as spiky as Pratchett as his best. For Pratchett at his best was very good indeed.