One of the intractable problems of getting older is that you will inevitably watch your heroes die. For a reader, there comes the day when the pleasure of opening a new book by a beloved author is tempered by the knowledge that this is the last new one you will ever read.
With The Shepherd’s Crown, that time has come for the readers of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books—and the characters of the Discworld must also bid farewell to one of their most enduring citizens.
Minor spoilers ahead (for things that become clear well within the first 50 pages).
The changes wrought in Snuff and Raising Steam continue to shape the Discworld; the railway continues to expand out from Ankh-Morpork into the Chalk and even to Lancre, and the Disc’s goblins enjoy new status as they become adept in the workings of steel and iron. Even goblin names are changing; a goblin once known as Of the Dew the Sunlight is now Of the Lathe the Swarf—the significance of which is particularly striking when you know that “swarf” is the metal bits produced by machining metal on a lathe, and when you remember that the Disc’s elves really, really do not get on with iron.
Meanwhile, Tiffany Aching continues to grow into her role as the respected witch of the Chalk—or “the hag o’ the hills,” as the incorrigible Nac Mac Feegle call her—part healer, part wise woman, part handy-woman. The real work of Pratchett’s witches—most vividly evoked in the Tiffany Aching books—has always been in the rough and dirty parts of life, on the edges where the hard decisions have to be made, and magic is used only sparingly—to take away pain, for instance. And Tiffany has been working very hard: “fill[ing] gaps in the world, doing things that had to be done: carrying logs for an old lady or popping on a pot of stew for a dinner, fetching a basket of ‘spare’ eggs or secondhand clothes for a new baby in a house where money was scarce, and listening, oh yes, always listening to people’s troubles and worries.” And now, her work both mundane and magical is about to get much, much more difficult, because Tiffany’s friend and mentor Granny Weatherwax must take her final walk with Death.
The passing of Granny Weatherwax is the catalyst event of the The Shepherd’s Crown, and it also creates a particular challenge in discussing the book. That the death of such a powerful, beloved character should come in Pratchett’s final Discworld novel is at once fitting and almost unbearably painful. I know I wasn’t the only person who was crying at their desk in the middle of a workday when the news of Pratchett’s death broke in March, and Granny’s beautifully dignified exit from the Discworld—one that makes you envy the ability of the Disc’s wizards and witches to know when their time has come—brings those tears right back. It’s one of the most extraordinary things Pratchett ever wrote. There follows a series of brief, wrenching vignettes as the news of her passing spreads across the Disc—vignettes that are poignantly similar to certain tributes to Pratchett’s own passing, of which thebibliosphere’s “The Long Night” is one of the best.
What can come after that? Granny Weatherwax’s passing, as it turns out, provides an opportunity for the nasty creatures that are the elves of the Discworld; with Granny gone, they—in particular the exceedingly unpleasant and sadistic Lord Peaseblossom—see an opportunity to take another whack at invading the Disc. And so Tiffany Aching must contend with a supernatural invasion, whilst also trying to manage both her own steading on the Chalk and Granny Weatherwax’s former steading in Lancre.
For better or for worse, circumstances make one hesitant to be too critical of this book. In the afterword, Pratchett’s longtime assistant Rob Wilkins notes that “The Shepherd’s Crown has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and all the bits in between. Terry wrote all of those. But even so, it was, still, not quite as finished as he would have liked when he died.” And those final touches of refinement do seem to be lacking. The climactic battle against the elves rushes too quickly to its conclusion, satisfying though that conclusion is, and some story threads—such as the importance of a work shed of one’s own in the lives of men both mortal and divine alike—are not as smoothly integrated into the narrative as we’re accustomed to them being.
Nevertheless, The Shepherd’s Crown is still as clear-eyed and humane as anything Pratchett ever wrote. It is a story of change, and of finding and maintaining one’s integrity throughout that change—exemplified, perhaps, by the shepherd’s crown, the little fossil from the Chalk that Tiffany carries in her pocket as a talisman and reminder of the flint in her bones. Tiffany must not only assume Granny Weatherwax’s old duties, but cultivate the aid of her fellow witches as well. While Tiffany calls on the aid of the extremely male King of the Elves (last seen helping Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick banish the previous elven incursion in Lancre), an alternate idea of what it means to be a man comes by way of the gentle Geoffrey, a “calm-weaver” befriended and trained by Tiffany; his talents for what Granny Weatherwax would call “headology” and his rapport with his extremely intelligent goat make him as excellent a witch-in-training as any woman could be. In this new world, a Feegle girl might go to war alongside her many, many brothers. And though the spread of industry is turning the Disc into a world where elves “have no future here now other than in stories“, there must be those who remember the stories as well—and Tiffany Aching is one of those so tasked.
As the wizard Schmendrick says in the film of The Last Unicorn, “there are no happy endings, because nothing ends”. We leave Tiffany in a new shepherd’s hut that she built herself from the remains of her grandmother’s old hut, accompanied by Granny Weatherwax’s preternaturally keen cat, You. There is a sense of the world left in good hands. There may be no more Discworld novels—rightfully so, perhaps—but “the last Discworld novel” doesn’t actually feel all that final. The clacksmen of the Disc say that a man isn’t dead as long as his name is still spoken, and Tiffany knows in her soul that Granny Weatherwax is still there, everywhere. And the strength and heart of Pratchett’s work is such that you feel in your bones that somewhere, the Disc continues its gentle turn on the backs of four elephants, while Great A’Tuin continues its inscrutable journey through space, forever.
The Shepherd’s Crown is available September 1st from HarperCollins.