JM Williams

A home for all things fantasy and sci-fi.

My Review of “I Shall Wear Midnight” by Terry Pratchett

Feb
23

I Shall Wear Midnight (Discworld, #38; Tiffany Aching, #4)I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t really like this book as much as some of the other Discworld novels. Of course, dislike is a relative thing–not liking a Discworld book is very different from not liking, say, a Stephen King book.

This novel has a very straightforward, linear plot. The easiness of this book is certainly due to its younger target audience. I found the climax to be rather anti-climatic, an event that just sort of happens as other things happen. Tiffany manages to defeat the threat that follows her through the entire book a bit too easily. This devalues the prior tension quite a bit. The relationship “twist” at the end is rather expected, but I was delighted to see it happen nonetheless. I would have been rather mad if Pratchett turned away from the implied romance, though was happy it wasn’t stuffed into the core narrative.

I find Pratchett is at his best when the plots are complex, the story is scattered and even a bit confusing at the start. The best books start out with you wondering for a bit what exactly is going on, but at the end all the threads come together. The Watch novels are probably the best example. This book lacks in such complexity.

Even so, the book does have some interesting things to say. Pratchett always uses his books to examine and satirize the real world. This is one of the things that makes his work so enduring. In that case of I Shall Wear Midnight, Pratchett digs at power relationships, hierarchy, and the concept of duty. At its center is the question of what it means to be a witch, and where such a person (or any person) falls into the established order. This question takes up most of Tiffany’s time, and results in the most relevant satire in the work.

In general, a decent book but more appropriate for the clear young adult target audience than for someone like myself. Not in my top ten of the Discworld novels, but a good effort.

View all my reviews

Quotes from Discworld 38, Part 2

Feb
18

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I haven’t made a whole lot of progress on the book since the last post. Other things have been taking up all my time. There was the Lunar New Year, which is big here in the East, though not as much for my wife’s family. Still we had to go out to meet people and eat too much food. Not that I can complain about the latter part.

I also worked on the drafts for two new Storm Hamilton stories, which I plan to send out at the end of the month. The stories actually came to mind when I stumbled on a couple new publishers.

But I did make some progress on I Shall Wear Midnight. Pratchett’s skill at description,  both of characters and situations, stood out to me this time. Sir Terry always had the uncanny ability to write something completely ridiculous and yet perfectly clear and appropriate. At times his crazy way of approaching descriptions works even better that a straight-forward method would.

For example, there is this passage where he is describing Letitia, the mean duchess’s wishy-washy daughter (and Tiffany’s rival for the attention of the young baron Roland):

Her hobby, and quite possibly one activity in life, was painting in watercolours, and although Tiffany was trying, against the worst of her instincts, to be generous to the girl, there was no denying that she looked like a watercolour – and not just a watercolour, but a watercolour painted by someone who had not much colour but large supplies of water, giving her the impression of not only being colourless but also rather damp. You could add, too, that there was so little of her that in a storm it might be quite possible that she would snap. Unseen as she was, Tiffany felt just the tiniest pang of guilt and stopped inventing other nasty things to think. Besides, compassion was setting in, blast it!

This description is so dense; there is so much here. When we first meet Letitia, she is portrayed as bland and emotionless–in other words, colorless. She is also see as weak, being pushed around by her mother and others (“there was so little of her”). But this passage marks a turning point in how Tiffany, and the reader, views the girl. Letitia begins to deepen and even shine as a character. Over the stretch of the entire story, her development is masterfully done.

Another thing that Pratchett does well is dialogue and character interaction. He has great pacing and the humorous descriptive bits in between what is said serve to amplify the tone of the dialogue.

This is my favorite exchange (in part because the duchess had it coming for a while):

‘You there! Yes! You there in the shadows! Are you lollygagging?’ [the Duchess said].

This time she [Tiffany] paid attention. All that thinking had meant that she hadn’t paid enough attention to her little don’t-see-me trick. She stepped out of the shadows, which meant that the pointy black hat was not just a shadow. The Duchess glared at it.

It was time for Tiffany to break the ice, even though it was so thick as to require an axe. She said politely, ‘I don’t know how to lollygag, madam, but I will do my best.’

‘What? What! What did you call me?’

The people in the hall were learning fast and they were scuttling as quickly as they could to get out of the place, because the Duchess’s tone of voice was a storm warning, and nobody likes to be out in a storm.

The sudden rage overtook Tiffany. It wasn’t as if she had done anything to deserve being shouted at like that. She said, ‘I’m sorry, madam; I did not call you anything, to the best of my belief.’

This did not do anything to help; the Duchess’s eyes narrowed. ‘Oh, I know you. The witch – the witch girl who followed us to the city on who knows what dark errand? Oh, we know about witches where I’m from! Meddlers, sowers of doubt, breeders of discontent, lacking all morality, and charlatans into the bargain!’

The Duchess pulled herself right up and glowered at Tiffany as if she had just won a decisive victory. She tapped her cane on the ground.

Tiffany said nothing, but nothing was hard to say. She could sense the watching servants behind curtains and pillars, or peering around doors. The woman was smirking, and really needed that smirk removed, because Tiffany owed it to all witches to show the world that a witch could not be treated like this. On the other hand, if Tiffany spoke her mind it would certainly be taken out on the servants. This needed some delicate wording. It did not get it, because the old bat gave a nasty little snigger and said, ‘Well, child? Aren’t you going to try to turn me into some kind of unspeakable creature?’

Tiffany tried. She really tried. But there are times when things are just too much. She took a deep breath.

‘I don’t think I shall bother, madam, seeing as you are making such a good job of it yourself!’

I don’t know what else can be said about this passage. It’s like a perfect joke. There’s the setup, and then, with perfect timing, the punchline. I was enjoying the work in audiobook format.  Stephen Briggs has been the primary Discworld narrator for some time, and his delivery is just perfect. 

It’s rather funny that this bit of conflict begins with a miscommunication and a differing understanding of the meaning of words. More humorous is the choice to use a word like “lollygagging” which is almost out of place in this setting. As a mid-19th century word, it is a bit recent, even for the industrialized Discworld. I don’t know if Pratchett is trying to suggest that the duchess is a person who tries to be on the top of fashion and culture trends. It does exemplify the cultural distance between her and Tiffany very well–not only in class and rank (at least in the duchess’s mind), but also in culture, urban versus rural.

But mostly, this is a great example of Pratchett giving us his usual morally-strong characters. Unlike the colorless Leticia, Tiffany is not willing to stand around and take the duchess’s abuse. For good or bad, Pratchett’s leads are typically morally straight and as this passage shows, morality is often an important aspect of the conflicts in his work.

I hope you enjoyed these two quotes. As I mentioned in the last post, if you haven’t read a Discworld novel before, I strongly urge you to give one a try. The best place to start, in my mind, would be with Small Gods or Monstrous Regiment, which are two of my favorites and are both stand-alone stories.

Thanks for reading!

~JM

Some Quotes from Discworld 38–Pratchett Talks Power

Feb
14
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38th Discworld Novel

I am currently enjoying Terry Pratchett’s 38th novel set on the Discworld, I Shall Wear Midnight. This is the fourth Tiffany Aching witch novel and, so far, is doing a decent job of further developing that character.

I don’t really like this book as much as some of the other Discworld novels. Of course, dislike is a relative thing–not liking a Discworld book is very different from not liking, say, a Stephen King book. This novel has a very straightforward, linear plot. I find Pratchett is at his best when the plots are complex, the story is scattered and even a bit confusing at the start. The best books start out with you wondering for a bit what exactly is going on, but at the end all the threads come together. The Watch novels are probably the best example. The easiness of this book is certainly due to its younger target audience.

Even so, the book does have some interesting things to say. Pratchett always uses his books to examine and satirize the real world. This is one of the things that makes his work so enduring. In that case of I Shall Wear Midnight, Pratchett digs at power relationships, hierarchy, and the concept of duty.

Regarding power relationships and protocol, there’s this humorous passage about arranging the meal table at the castle for a significant event:

And then there would always be the problem of seating. Most of the guests would be aristocrats, and it was vitally important that no one had to sit next to somebody who was related to someone who had killed one of their ancestors at some time in the past. Given that the past is a very big place, and taking into account the fact that everybody’s ancestors were generally trying to kill everybody else’s ancestors, for land, money or something to do, it needed very careful trigonometry to avoid another massacre taking place before people had finished their soup.

I just love how he points out the absurdity of holding on to past legacies and past grievances. Go back far enough and you can find justification for anything.

Here’s another funny passage:

There is a lot of folklore about equestrian statues, especially the ones with riders on. There is said to be a code in the number and placement of the horse’s hooves: if one of the horse’s hooves is in the air, the rider was wounded in battle; two legs in the air means that the rider was killed in battle; three legs in the air indicates that the rider got lost on the way to the battle; and four legs in the air means that the sculptor was very, very clever. Five legs in the air means that there’s probably at least one other horse standing behind the horse you’re looking at; and the rider lying on the ground with his horse lying on top of him with all four legs in the air means that the rider was either a very incompetent horseman or owned a very bad-tempered horse.

It is important to not here that Pratchett attributes this idea to “folklore” or what “is said to be a code” rather than delivering it as a certain fact, as he often does with funny details of life in the Discworld. It is clearly a conscious choice.  I think what he is getting at here is the ability of people to read meaning into things separate from any real truth or established fact. When you think of it logically, how could every artist in the world that ever sculpted a horse be in on this secret code? They couldn’t. But people believing in some hidden conspiracy in horse statues is quite possible.

And here’s one last bit that gets deeper on personal relationships and the ideas of duty and loyalty:

When Mr Aching had worked for the old Baron, they had, as men of the world, reached a sensible arrangement, which was that Mr Aching would do whatever the Baron asked him to do. Provided the Baron asked Mr Aching to do what Mr Aching wanted to do and needed to be done.

That was what loyalty meant, her father [Mr Aching, Tiffany’s father] had told her one day. It meant that good men of all sorts worked well when they understood about rights and duties and the dignity of everyday people. And people treasured that dignity all the more because that was, give or take some bed linen, pots and pans and a few tools and cutlery, more or less all they had. The arrangement didn’t need to be talked about, because every sensible person knew how it worked: while you’re a good master, I will be a good worker.

I will be loyal to you, while you are loyal to me, and while the circle is unbroken, this is how things will continue to be. And Roland was breaking the circle, or at least allowing the Duchess to do it for him. His family had ruled the Chalk for a few hundred years, and had pieces of paper to prove it. There was nothing to prove when the first Aching had set foot on the Chalk; no one had invented paper then.

Rulers try to claim ancient roots to defend their right to rule, but most are just momentary regimes in the larger scheme of things. It is the people who have true roots in the land, who have community and history, continuity.

Here is also an important lesson on leadership, relevant even in the modern age–“while you’re a good master, I will be a good worker.” A respected leader is one who offers respect in return. And a respected leader will always be more productive. Regardless of the rigidity of a hierarchy, there will always be a little back-and-forth between leaders and the led. Those on the bottom have as sense of what should happen, and if it doesn’t, there will be discord. Good leadership and proper rule is that which synchronizes the two ends of the rope, binding them into the “circle” as Pratchett describes it. Bad leaders break the circle and damage the relationship.

Well, that’s it for now. I still have about a quarter of the book to finish and will offer my final thoughts at that time. If you haven’t read a Discworld novel before, I strongly urge you to give one a try. The best place to start, in my mind, would be with Small Gods or Monstrous Regiment, which are two of my favorites and are both stand-alone stories. As many of the Discworld books are part of different series and use recurring characters, it would be best to start with a stand-alone.

Thanks for reading!

~JM