19/10/2003

The Wee Free Men (by Terry Pratchett)

I do like Terry Pratchett's writing! It's not at all my usual preferred genre.. yet he is so clever in his characters, literary allusions, and irony that I find myself buying his books even when they're only out in hardback.

'The Wee Free Men' is set, like most of Terry Pratchett's books, on the Discworld. However it's a little different, in that it's intended for younger readers than his usual audience - children of about eight or nine and upwards. Not that it's particularly an easy-read, but the main character is a nine-year-old witch called Tiffany Aching.

The wee free men are the Nac Mac Feegle: six-inch high men with some similarities to humans, and some distinct differences. For one thing, they're blue. For another, they're extremely strong, with heads better used as weapons than for thinking. They talk with distinct Scottish accents, and their main interests in life are fighting, drinking and stealing.

Shortly after the story begins, strange things start happening. A threatening monster appears, in the river. Many nine-year-olds would be terrified at this, but Tiffany finds herself angry instead. She delves into the small collection of books that her family owns, and works out how to get rid of the monster, at least temporarily.

This is only the beginning of a bigger plot, formed by a not-very-intelligent queen of another, parasitic world, who is planning to take over the Discworld. As Tiffany is blessed with 'first sight' - the ability to see things as they really are, rather than how one might expect them to be - and 'second thoughts' - the ability to think about what she's thinking - she is the only person who can do anything constructive. She is just beginning to realise this, when her brother Wentworth is stolen and she realises she needs to take action quickly. And so start an exciting series of adventures.

While the majority of the characters are, inevitably, amusing caricatures, Tiffany is a delightful young girl. She is practical, logical, and forthright. She thinks straight when others around her are confused, and she's clearly aware of her motivations. She's by no means a typical heroine - no long blonde curls or beauty: her main skills are churning butter and making cheese. She also enjoys learning, and using long words. And she's very likeable, in her honesty and determination. I think she could easily be an inspiration to other young - and not so young! - people who don't fit the popular, attractive mould.

I read this aloud to my sons, who are 17 and 15 and still enjoy having books read to them from time to time. None of us felt it was too young - we could see how it might appeal to younger children, but some of the humour was quite subtle, and probably wouldn't be appreciated by the average nine-year-old.

All in all, we enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who likes the Discworld books - or anyone who would like a basic introduction to Discworld thinking.

(My considerably longer review of 'The Wee Free Men' can be found on the Dooyoo site)

Sequels are: A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith

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