Just a week after deciding she wanted to be a witch, nine-year-old Tiffany Aching had her first chance to test her powers when she spotted a group of six-inch-tall men being chased up the river by a green-haired creature with sharp teeth. Using her younger brother Wentworth as bait, she lured the creature into her path and knocked it out with a frying pan. Tiffany would have no such ridiculousness on her farm. And when her brother is later kidnapped by a fairy queen, Tiffany is determined to get him back, not because she likes the sticky little annoyance, but because he is hers and the queen has no right to take him.
Tiffany’s practical, no-nonsense attitude is one of the things that makes these books great fun. She’s willing to roll along with events, no matter how outrageous they seem, but when she decides something needs correcting, she won’t stop. Her adaptability enables her to get along with the Nac Mac Feegle, the thieving fairies who claim “Nae king! Nae quin! Nae laird! Nae master!” She doesn’t necessarily approve of their thieving, but she recognizes their sense of honor and sees that they know things that can be useful to her. She also teams up with a toad who may once have been human and Miss Perspicacia Tick, a witch who discovered Tiffany’s talents when looking for a witch on the inauspicious chalk lands where Tiffany lives.
The story in The Wee Free Men, Tiffany’s first adventure, is extremely loopy. What logic there is in the plot is hard to find and follow. This is largely because so much of it takes place in the land of dreams, but I admit that reading this on a family vacation, when I was prone to nap and easily distracted by family chatter and activity, probably didn’t help. Still, I enjoyed the book for its characters and for Pratchett’s comic voice. Tiffany won me over early on in this dialogue with a traveling teacher she consults for information about the green-haired creature in the river:
“Hello, little girl,” he said, which was only his first big mistake. “I’m sure you want to know all about hedgehogs, eh?”
“I did this one last summer,” said Tiffany.
The man looked closer, and his grin faded. “Oh, yes,” he said. “I remember. You asked all those … little questions.”
“I would like a question answered today,” said Tiffany.
“Provided it’s not the one about how you get baby hedgehogs,” said the man.
“No,” said Tiffany patiently. “It’s about zoology.”
“Zoology, eh? That’s a big word, isn’t it?”
“No, actually, it isn’t,” said Tiffany. “Patronizing is a big word. Zoology is really quite short.”
So I liked that Tiffany is something of a smart ass, and even if I found the plot of The Wee Free Men nonsensical, I liked her enough to read the second book, A Hat Full of Sky. In this book, Tiffany goes away for witch training with Miss Level, a witch who uses her power to bring aid and comfort to her neighbors, usually through such mundane activities as visiting and bringing by some extra food. It hardly seems like witchcraft at all, but in the world of these novels, witchcraft is really about seeing what is really there and responding. Some witches focus on spells and mysticism, but the great Mistress Weatherwax assures Tiffany that such activities aren’t the point:
“Mrs. Earwig tells her girls it’s about cosmic balances and stars and circles and colors and wands and … and toys, nothing but toys!” She sniffed. “Oh, I daresay they’re all very well as decoration, somethin’ nice to look at while you’re workin’, somethin’ for show, but the start and finish, the start and finish, is helpin’ people when life is on the edge. Even people you don’t like. Stars is easy, people is hard.”
Even though the witchcraft in these books is focused on practical help, there’s no lack of magic. Tiffany herself has learned, all on her own, a spell that uses her gift of seeing to allow her to see herself. But that spell carries a danger that Tiffany is entirely unaware of. In this case, the magic takes advantage of Tiffany’s own insecurities, turning her worst self against her best self. Her friends the Nac Mac Feegles see the danger coming, and they act to help Tiffany.
The storyline of A Hat Full of Sky is more coherent than in the previous book. It helps that the main conflict involves a typical human problem, with the magical elements being a metaphor for our own moral dilemmas brought to vivid life. There are some baggy bits, particularly those involving an unlikely relationship that developed in between the two books. This relationship takes on greater significance than seems likely, given the characters’ actions and attitudes in the first book. And Tiffany’s memories of her Granny Aching seem muddled to me. I think that’s a mystery meant to continue throughout the series, however, so the confusion is intentional.
Tiffany herself, along with the Nac Mac Feegles and other characters, is what makes these books worth reading. Even if the plot doesn’t always make sense to me (and this may be my own fault), the characters are such fun that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself while reading these books. I’ve been interested in reading Terry Pratchett for years but hesitant because the Discworld universe is so vast, but this series, while part of the Discworld series, stands well enough on its own.