Midnight hag

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I Shall Wear Midnight
by Terry Pratchett,
illustrated by Paul Kidby.
Corgi Books 2011 (2010)

How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags? What is’t you do?
Macbeth IV/1

Terry Pratchett is full of surprises. Because this, the fourth in the Tiffany Aching series of Discworld novels, is marketed as ‘for younger readers’ one might not anticipate that this is considerably darker than its predecessors, despite the expected humour and wit. And yet, with Tiffany being fifteen going on sixteen, perhaps with her growing maturity a more realistic view of what’s possible in Discworld is inevitable.

Neil Gaiman, in his introduction to Pratchett’s collection A Slip of the Keyboard, noted that “There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing,” and that is more than evident here in the stark opening and much of what follows. Some of that rage may have been tied up with his diagnosis for Alzheimer’s a couple of years before, but he had always been furious about injustices and that comes through very strongly here.

But don’t think I Shall Wear Midnight is a miserable instalment in Tiffany’s story: this is a heart-warming coming-of-age tale, even for a young witch who’s already mature and responsible beyond her years. The interweaving of the traditional folksong Pleasant and Delightful gives — for old folkies like me, born the same year as Pratchett — the story an added piquancy with its themes of love, leave-taking and loss, and may bring a tear or two to the eye.

It was pleasant and delightful on a bright summer’s morn,
When the fields and the meadows were covered in corn,
There were blackbirds and thrushes singing on every tree,
And the larks they sang melodious at the dawning of the day…

Being a witch on the Chalk has meant that Tiffany has become a combination of district nurse, midwife and unstinting care worker for her community, albeit one who can work magic. And she does it diligently because she does care about her community. But in recent months she has noticed a wariness amongst some people that occasionally manifests as suspicions and mutterings. And then there is an unprovoked fatal attack on a solitary old woman; and she witnesses the antagonism of a crowd who collect when a father beats his pregnant daughter so badly she has a miscarriage.

Furthermore there are the ramifications that arise when she removes the abused daughter to the safety of the mound of the Nac Mac Feegles, and the accusations of theft from and the murder of the Baron, which then sees her arraigned by her former friend Roland, the Baron’s son and heir, who is due to be married. Can it really all be because of something she herself was responsible for?

Tiffany has had mountains of monstrous challenges every year or two over the course of four novels — antagonists have included the Fairy Queen, a being called a hiver, and the Wintersmith — and now it’s another opponent, one who’s poisoning minds against witches. Pratchett had previously featured a witchfinder in Good Omens, his collaboration with Neil Gaiman, and another now appears in the person of the Cunning Man. Pratchett knows his folklore but has further fashioned this figure as the antithesis of Tiffany for reasons the novel hints at, the Cunning Man’s motivation being to scapegoat — with as much vehemence and malevolence as he can muster — the community witch.

Endpaper map @PaulKidby

There is, as ever, so much to admire and enjoy here: the Feegles and their loyalty to their Kelda, to their bigjob “hag o’ the hills” and to the fey Amber; Tiffany’s often mutating relationships with the Baron, with Roland and his bride-to-be — the surprising Letitia — with her own father, and of course with her older colleagues, Granny Weatherwax et al; I mustn’t forget Mrs Proust the purveyor of boffo merchandise in Ankh-Morpork (whose name, by the way, is an anagram of the surname of Professor Sprout of Hogwarts), nor the novice man-at-arms Preston who, I anticipate, may well reappear in the final Tiffany novel.

And I was glad to be reacquainted with Eskarina Smith, the admirable female wizard who featured in Equal Rites and whom I feared we’d heard the last of. But the spotlight must rest on Miss Aching herself, whose transformation from apprentice witch in sky-blue dress to midnight hag in black is accomplished through a baptism of fire in which she encounters death, abuse and antagonism and yet is still able to forgive, if not forget.

And ever and anon the lines of the folksong remind us of the fragility of our lives.

And the ship she lies waiting for the fast flowing tide,
And if ever I return again,
I will make you my bride.

The previous Tiffany Aching books (links are to my reviews) were

  1. The Wee Free Men (2003): 9 years old;
  2. A Hat Full of Sky (2004): 11 years old;
  3. Wintersmith (2006): 13 years old.

The fifth in the series (and the last of the Discworld novels) is The Shepherd’s Crown.

10 thoughts on “Midnight hag

  1. This is tantalizing, Chris. It sounds so much like something I’d like. But, I’ve not read the three that came before it. Does that matter?

    I’ve read a few of the other Disc World novels, and enjoyed them, but I’ve not been inspired to seek out the series.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I understand it, Cath, it’s perfectly possible to read each Discworld novel as though it’s a standalone, and Pterry was very adroit at giving you a back story in dribs and drabs without it being an infodump. That’s certainly the case here too, because each of the Tiffany stories is propelled by a combination of inner logic and an incandescent indignation, meaning that they work independently as well as a continuing narrative.

      So, briefly, it doesn’t matter that you mayn’t have read the preceding instalments! But it can help. And you can tell from my review how much I rated it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I just read the entire series, so I’m happy to see this. Anyhoo — The Cunning Man made me think of the situation in Earthsea at the start of The Farthest Shore, with magic and traditions seeming to disappear throughout the archipelago. (I think Le Guin’s book is more complex, but there’s nothing in Earthsea like the Wee Free Men — if ever there’s a movie, I hope they cast the two comedians from Burnistoun as Daft Wullie and Rob Anybody.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If I ever saw Burnistoun back in the day it would’ve been in passing as it was mostly shown on BBC Scotland, but the two you mention (Florence and Connell) are two among many Scottish character actors who would be great Feegles.

      The sheer malevolence of the Cunning Man is paralleled in many fantasies (certainly so in Garth Nix’s The Left-handed Booksellers of London which I’m reading at the mo) but of course is based on real life — we have only to think of one example who, with his attempts to portray himself as the victim of a ‘witch hunt’ — merely tries to cover up his own persecution of minorities and the vulnerable. At least in most fantasies the evil-doers finally get their comeuppance; let’s see if that plays out in real life.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers, Ola, I’ve enjoyed all the Tiffany stories so far, just one more to go, boohoo! Before I go on to The Shepherd’s Crown I aim to try another Discworld title, Snuff perhaps, or The Colour of Magic (which I still haven’t read). I’ll see what else I’ve got waiting…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Snuff is best enjoyed after Thud! IMO and generally I’d recommend reading the Samuel Vimes sequence in chronological order; he’s one of the few characters in Discworld who undergoes a lot of changes and it’s rewarding to see him grow.

        Liked by 1 person

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