With the final Discworld book confirmed to be the fifth Tiffany Aching novel, the time seems right to go back to where her story started, in Terry Pratchett’s second Discworld book for young readers, The Wee Free Men. Taking place on the Chalk, a quiet part of the Disc populated by no-nonsense sheep farmers, it introduces nine-year-old Tiffany as a sort of proto-witch, already equipped with the tools she will need to protect her land, but not yet fully aware of what it will mean to be a witch. When her little brother is kidnapped by the Queen of the Fairies, it’s up to her to bring him back safely, armed with a frying pan and a little help from some unusual friends.
Pratchett’s take on witches – practical types whose magic is as much to do with common sense and brainpower as anything else – is long-established, but with Tiffany he has a character with youth and innocence as well all the usual witchy traits. Right from the outset it’s clear that she’s the type of character that younger readers and adults alike can relate to, and a source of both humour and emotional weight as she gradually wraps her head around the way her world is changing about her. She’s helped along by the Nac Mac Feegle (the Wee Free Men of the title), trouble-making ex-denizens of Fairyland with entertainingly thick Scottish accents whose endearing mixture of bravado and naivety is an endless source of delight, not to mention some wonderful catchphrases.
Along with some typically Pratchett-esque characters ranging from a confused and talkative toad to the quiet, safe memory of the almost-mythical Granny Aching, Tiffany and the Feegles set out to retrieve her brother and defeat the Queen, leaving behind the safe and comfortable environment of the Chalk for the danger of Fairyland and its tricksy, nasty inhabitants. The two settings are powerful opposites – the Chalk is wonderfully evocative as Tiffany’s comfort zone, the place where she feels most at home and in tune with how her world fits together, while Fairyland is an ever-shifting landscape of fear and confusion that forces her to think on her feet and draw upon her reserves of strength and nerve.
As with most of the best fiction for younger readers, Pratchett takes a simple story, a clever setting and some great characters, and creates magic – in this case a beautifully constructed tale at the heart of which is the importance of empathy, and always looking beneath the surface. From the Feegles to the Chalk itself, and from Granny Aching’s mysterious ways to the nature of what a witch really does, he uses the fantastical elements of a Discworld story to hold a mirror up to real life and invite the reader to look twice at what they’re seeing. It’s the sort of story that rewards multiple readings, and is equally suited as an introduction to the Discworld for new readers or as the start of another brilliant sub-series for established fans to enjoy.
This particular version is the illustrated edition, a beautiful large-format hardback filled with Stephen Player’s gorgeous artwork – every page seems to have an illustration, from simple pencil sketches to beautifully painted fold-out sections, while Feegles make regular appearances, guiltily trying to make off with letters and even whole words. It’s the perfect way to make a truly delightful book just that little bit better, bringing the story to life and fuelling the reader’s imagination even further. Wonderful stuff.