Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men (HarperCollins, 2003)
Most of you have already made up your minds about Terry Pratchett. You may quibble that his very earliest books aren't much good, that his middle-latest ones (the period beginning with Jingo) are rambling and preachy, and that some of his very latest are engaging and moving, but lack the snap-crackle-pop wit of the earlier ones.
But you'll still agree that Pratchett is the best living writer of comic fantasy, that he really does make you laugh out loud, that his comedy is rooted in a sharp yet compassionate insight into human behavior, and that he understands the power of myth and story on a level comparable to Jane Yolen. And if you don't agree, I will come to your house and read you bits from Hogfather until you relent.
So a review of any given new Pratchett novel is going to be irrelevant to most readers. If the readers are already fans, they're going to read the book no matter what the review says. This is not true for the fans of more uneven writers, like Barbara Hambly or Diane Duane, who are too prolific for their own good and sometimes produce greatness and sometimes slapdash mediocrity. But anyone who reads Terry Pratchett knows that anything he writes now is going to be on a scale from minor but enjoyable to excellent. Either way, they're buying.
If the readers of this review have already sampled a couple of Pratchett's best and most immediately accessible books, such as Small Gods, Hogfather, or Lords and Ladies, and didn't like them, then they're in the small, sad group of People Who Just Don't Like Terry Pratchett, and they won't like any book he writes no matter how good it is.
So this review is mainly going to be of interest to two groups: those who have never read anything by him and are wondering if The Wee Free Men is a good starting point; and those doubtful fans who are wondering if the cutesy title and the fact that it's marketed as a young adult novel mean that it's dumbed down or less good than or different from his recent Discworld novels for adults.
In order: yes, it's a great introduction to Pratchett; no, it's not dumbed down; actually, it's more tightly written, funnier, and generally better than his most recent Discworld novels; and the only ways in which it's otherwise different from them are that it has chapters and the main character is nine.
Young Tiffany Aching is a farm girl who values logic and reading and common sense. When she encounters a hideous river monster, she bashes it over the head with a frying pan, then figures out what it is by measuring its eyes and comparing them to a note in a book of folklore. Her Granny Aching, the village witch, has just died, and it's clear that Tiffany is due to become the next witch.
Tiffany is a character who, in a book by almost any other writer, would be the sidekick of some emotional, seat-of-the-pants kid, and by the end she would learn to trust intuition over logic, and to cut loose and party and cry. But this is a book by Terry Pratchett. Turns out that Tiffany is fine just the way she is. I should write him a letter of gratitude and appreciation on behalf of all sensible girls everywhere.
But at the beginning of the book, Tiffany's still not sure if being herself is a good way to be, she misses her grandmother, and her sticky, candy-gobbling baby brother has been kidnapped by the Queen of Faerie. But she's got allies: the Nac Mac Feegle, aka the Wee Free Men.
The Nac Mac Feegle are a great invention. They're six-inch blue men who specialize in stealing, fighting, and drinking. They have names like Rob Anybody, war cries like "they can tak' oour lives but they canna tak' oour trousers!" and fear nothing but lawyers.
Tiffany and an exceedingly rowdy band of Nac Mac Feegle venture into a creepy, well-realized Faerie Land. And there, amid a great deal of comedy, flash moments of eeriness, human grief and affection, and even a tiny bit of poetic beauty.
The Wee Free Men is one of Pratchett's best yet. Go buy it. It will make you happy.
[Rachel Manija Brown]