Earlier this year, the world lost one of its great fantasy authors. Sir Terry Pratchett passed away on the 12th of March 2015, at the age of 66. Over the course of his career, Pratchett has sold over 85 million books. He won the Carnegie Medal in 2001 and was knighted for his services to literature in 2009. His works have been adapted on radio, television and stage.
Pratchett had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2007. He spent the final years of his life raising awareness of Alzheimer’s disease, along with adding to his already vast body of work. Remarkably, his embuggerance, as he called it, had little impact on the speed at which he turned out novels. Even after he lost the ability to type, he wrote by recording his own voice.
The renowned fantasy author is best known for the Discworld series, a collection of 41 fantasy novels all set in the same universe. Unlike other fantasy series, each novel works as a stand-alone story, and the main characters and locations change from novel to novel. There are certain characters that Pratchett has only used once, but the majority of his novels are centred around one of the following groups/characters:
– The Ankh-Morpork City Watch
– The witches of Lancre
– Moist von Lipwig
– The wizards of Unseen University
– Tiffany Aching
Five months after Pratchett’s death, the final Discworld novel was released. It’s titled The Shepherd’s Crown. I’m not going to officially review this novel, as I don’t think I could provide an objective opinion on it. Terry Pratchett has been my favourite author since I was eight years old. His writing has influenced the way I look at the world from an early age and no artist of any kind has ever had more of an effect on me. So instead of trying to actually grade the final Discworld as we often do on Novacritic, I’m just going to talk a little about the novel and Pratchett’s work as a whole, and why he’ll be so sorely missed.
The Shepherd’s Crown is the fifth novel about the young witch Tiffany Aching. It’s worth noting that while these books are appropriate for fans of all ages, the Tiffany Aching novels in particular are focused more towards younger readers. Many fans might have thought it more appropriate for the final Discworld novel to be about Rincewind, the protagonist of the first Discworld novel. Or Commander Vimes, who is perhaps Pratchett’s most popular character. However, there’s something hopeful about the series ending with its youngest protagonist. In a troubling time for Pratchett’s fans, it serves as a gentle reminder that life goes on.
In fact, the story that’s being told here is such a fitting send off for both the series and the author himself that it almost feels like Pratchett planned it this way. That’s almost certainly not the case, as had he lived another year or two, I’m sure he would have written more novels. But in many ways, it’s the perfect note to end things on.
I’m going to include some spoilers for The Shepherd’s Crown in discussing the novel, so be warned before reading any further. The event I want to talk about actually happens right at the start of the book, so I’m not even certain that it qualifies as a spoiler. But it’s a significant moment, so I’d prefer to give people the opportunity to read it for themselves first.
Everybody got that? Okay, here goes. Spoilers after the break:
At the beginning of The Shepherd’s Crown, Granny Weatherwax dies.
For those unfamiliar with Granny, she is the protagonist of the various Discworld novels about the witches of Lancre. She’s one of Pratchett’s oldest and most beloved characters, first appearing in Equal Rites – the third novel of the series. After the release of The Shepherd’s Crown, many fans found it difficult to begin reading Terry Pratchett’s last novel right away, as they were still too upset over the author’s passing. For those readers to then have to endure the death of one of his best characters is almost cruel.
It’s not difficult to see a connection between Granny’s death and Pratchett’s own. She did not die as a result of magic or violence, but of natural causes. It was a bittersweet end for a great character. She died peacefully and with her dignity intact, having left the world better than she found it. The same thing can certainly be said about Sir Terry.
One of the most heartbreaking things about Granny’s passing is that she has a premonition about it a day in advance, and she spends her final hours preparing for her own funeral and tying up any loose ends, trying to make things easier for everyone else. It’s likely that the author went through some similar experiences during his struggle with Alzheimer’s. Part of me wonders if this novel itself was one of those loose ends that he wanted to tie up before he left us. Maybe Granny Weatherwax’s death was intended to help his readers – and specifically his younger readers – come to term with his own passing.
Along with being the central figure in the Lancre novels, Granny Weatherwax has also played a more minor role in the Tiffany Aching books. Tiffany’s novels are very much a coming-of-age story. They focus on her growing up and taking on responsibility and learning how to be a good witch. Granny Weatherwax’s role in the novels is to be the perfect example for Tiffany. An elderly witch who has it all figured out; someone who doesn’t struggle like Tiffany does.
The plot for this novel is brilliant in its simplicity. With Granny Weatherwax gone, there is a void. Tiffany is forced to take on even more responsibility, and she no longer has her mentor to fall back on if she makes a mistake. She feels unable to fill Granny’s shoes and worries that she’s letting down the people around her. Meanwhile, dark forces from another land have noticed Granny Weatherwax’s absence and strike out while the community is at its most vulnerable.
The entire novel is a demonstration of both the massive impact the old witch’s death had on the world, and how she will continue to live on through the lessons she taught others and the stories they recite about her. Throughout the novel, Granny Weatherwax continued to make me smile and laugh, even after death. Much like the great author himself.
Impressively, this affectionate portrayal of the departed does not stand in the way of one of the novel’s primary messages: that it’s important to move forward and not cling to the past. Tiffany struggled to fill the void left by Granny, but ultimately realised that she could not take her place. She needed to do things her own way. To move things forward, while respecting those who had come before.
Pratchett has always had a talent for handling the delicate subject of death in his novels. One of my favourites of Pratchett’s characters has always been Sarah Aching: Tiffany’s grandmother. The interesting thing about Granny Aching is that she’s never actually appeared in a Discworld novel as such. She had already passed away prior to the events of the first Tiffany Aching novel. But that hasn’t stopped her from being a huge presence in these books. In many ways she’s one of the author’s finest creations. Though the reader only learns about Granny Aching through anecdotes, stories and jokes recited by others, she still comes across as a real, well-drawn Character. Not just the kind of character that you’d find in a novel, but the kind of Character you might meet in real life. The sort of person that everyone in a ten mile radius would have a story about. Isn’t that how we’d all like to be remembered?
The Grim Reaper himself is one of Pratchett’s most famous characters. Death himself has been the protagonist of some of the Discworld books, and enjoys a cameo role in most of them. Death is not an evil force, he’s simply present to ferry the departed to wherever they’re going next. In fact he’s an affable character, always ready to stand up for humanity, even if their habits are bewildering to him.
This character’s existence made the tributes to Pratchett after his death that much more touching. Fans wrote about their imagined encounters between Death and the man who had created him. A petition online asking Death to “reinstate” Sir Terry has reached over 30,000 signatures. I think this speaks to the author’s ability to inspire wonder and good-humour in others.
It was definitely a bittersweet experience finishing the last new Discworld novel that I’ll ever read. But it’s an experience that I’m glad that I had. It really was a great note to finish on. Though ultimately, this book is unlikely to be remembered as one of Pratchett’s best. Although the story was finished before he passed away, he wasn’t yet done tinkering with it, so it’s lacking a few of the wonderful turns of phrase from his other works. The second half didn’t feel quite as powerful as the emotionally-charged first half, and the villain wasn’t one of his most memorable.
That being said, ranking Pratchett’s works is like grading on a curve in a class full of geniuses. Even one of his lesser novels is worthy of a read, and I’m not even saying this is one of those. Fans of Pratchett are unlikely to be disappointed by his final novel – it’s touching, it’s insightful and it’s remarkable that after writing 40 books set in this universe, he still had something important to say.
I don’t think there’s ever been an author quite like Pratchett. He could make you laugh, make you think, or pull at your heartstrings with equal success. He was brilliant at using fantasy to lovingly poke fun at humanity and our many strange quirks. And he had this wonderful way of blending the mundane and the magical. He could make the bond between a shepherd and her flock seem miraculous, and make a psychic talking to the dead seem like a long distance phone call with bad reception.
I would finish by saying that I’m going to miss the hell out of reading his books. But to be honest, I might just start on Small Gods again tomorrow.
Steve Hanley is an editor and co-founder of NovaCritic.com.