Over the last year or two my brother and I have both chewed our way through Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series like a couple of termites through wood. But I finished reading the last one quite a few months ago — perhaps close to a year, in fact — and I’ve been hesitant to pick them up again. Sometimes it’s hard to re-read a book; you’re not sure how much you remember, or whether that remembrance will spoil it for you, or whether any of the jokes will be funny the second time around.
I am happy to report that Terry Pratchett is still excellent the second time through — and, presumably, the third, fourth, and nth time as well.
A Hat Full of Sky is the second Discworld to feature Tiffany Aching, a “big wee young hag”. She’s a young witch of some considerable power, and she has a good relationship with the Nac Mac Feegle, tiny Pictsies (not pixies, thank you very much: these fairies are red-haired, kilt-wearing, covered with blue tattoos, and will fight anything — including themselves — at a drop of a hat) who lives in the Chalk country and makes cheese. Of course, she’s also been the kelda (queen) of a Nac Mac Feegle clan, which makes things rather … interesting. In A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany leaves the Chalk to apprentice with Miss Level, another witch.
There’s trouble, of course. There always is. Tiffany is followed from the Chalk by a hiver, a semi-sentient being that feeds off the power of others — takes them over, in fact. Tiffany must find a way to get rid of the hiver, as well as come into her own power as a witch (or a hag, to the Nac Mac Feegle). These things are not very easy, although perhaps for different reasons than you’d imagine.
One thing that I like about Pratchett’s writing is that, among the qualities of intelligent insight, interestingness, and humour, he always has at least two out of three going, and usually all of them. Certain books run heavily to one or two of them, and A Hat Full of Sky — like most of the witch books, actually — runs heavily to insight. Here’s something from toward the beginning:
The trouble with Tiffany was her Third Thoughts*. They thought: She lives by herself. Who lit the fire? A bubbling pot needs stirring from time to time. Who stirred it? And someone lit the candles. Who?
*First Thoughts are the everyday thoughts. Everyone has those. Second Thoughts are the thoughts you think about the way you think. People who enjoy thinking have those. Third Thoughts are thoughts that watch the world and think all by themselves. They’re rare, and often troublesome. Listening to them is part of witchcraft. (p 71)
And something from toward the end:
What she wanted to say was: ‘Where I come from, Annagramma, they have the Sheepdog Trials. Shephers travel there from all over the show off their dogs. And there’re silver crooks and belts with silver buckles and prizes of all kinds, Annagramma, but do you know what the big prize was? No, you wouldn’t. Oh, there were judges, but they didn’t count, not for the big prize. There is — There was a little old lady who was always at the front of the crowd, leaning on the hurdles with her pipe ion her mouth with the two finest sheepdogs ever pupped sitting at her feet. Their names were Thunder and Lightning and they moved so fast they set the air on fire and their coats outshone the sun, but she never, ever put them in the Trials. She knew more about sheep than even sheep knew. And what every young shepherd wanted, really wanted, wasn’t some silly cup or belt but to see her take her pipe out of her mouth as he left the arena and quietly say “That’ll do” because that meant he was a real shepherd and all the other shepherds would knew it too. And if you’d told him he had to challenge her, he’d cuss at you and stap his foot and tell you he’d sooner spit the sun dark. How could he ever win? She was shepherding. It was the whole of her life. What you took away from her you’d take away from yourself. You don’t understand that, do you? But it’s the heart and soul and centre of it! The soul . . . and . . . centre!’ (pp 329-30)
Of course, the book has its fair share of funny as well, particularly when the narration is dealing with the Nac Mac Feegle — who are awfully feisty, stupid, and irascible, but also thoroughly inventive and loyal. And aren’t tiny blue drunks always good for a laugh? I assure you, they always are. But the humour is not limited to the Pictsies; as with most Pratchett, there are numerous authorial asides that make me giggle. Consider this footnote from page 176:
*The hermit elephant of Howondaland has a very thin hide, except on its head, and young ones will often move into a small mud hut while the owners are out. It is far too shy to harm anyone, but most people quit their huts pretty soon after an elephant moves in. For one thing, it lifts the hut off the ground and carries it away on its back across the veldt, settling it down over any patch of nice grass that it finds. This makes housework very unpredictable. Nevertheless, and entire village of hermit elephants moving across the plains is one of the finest sights on the continent.
It’s the last sentence that really makes that paragraph, I think. And it’s the last chapter that really makes this book — but of course, I will not spoil that for you. You will simply have to read it for yourselves.