Thursday, April 26, 2007

Book Review: "A Hat Full of Sky" by Terry Pratchett

Whenever a Terry Pratchett book comes into my possession it disrupts my reading habits. As a bibliophile I usually buy more books than I can read, so I have something of a reading queue that I try to stick to as firmly as possible. But then comes the occasional book by a highly favored writer and it jumps to the head of the line amidst the grumbling of the other less fortunate books. But this one was even more special. I practically chewed through the packaging, fished the hardcover out of the box (totally ignoring the other books that came with the shipment) and started digging into the book, not even reading the blurb in the back. After all, this is the sequel to "Wee Free Men"!

But enough waxing poetic. On with the review...

"A Hat Full of Sky" is the third Discworld book aimed at younger readers, the previous two being "The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents" and this book's prequel "Wee Free Men". It continues the adventures of young Tiffany Aching and her friends, the Nac Mac Feegle. Ah the Nac Mac Feegle! Sort of like Smurfs. If the Smurfs ever drank, spoke in Scottish brogue, stole livestock, and generally got into fist fights with anyone and everyone (including themselves).

In her last adventure Tiffany's qualities were noticed by Granny Weatherwax, Discoworld's mightiest witch. Now 11 year old Tiffany is an apprentice witch, learning that witching isn't all its cracked up to be. But an evil, invisible, un-killable thing called the Hiver is stalking her, and its up to Rob Anybody leader of the Nac Mac Feegle to rescue his "big wee hag". If only his wife would let him.

"Wee Free Men" is a tough act to follow. Not only did it shed light on the fan favorite Nac Mac Feegle (who first appeared in "Carpe Jugulum"), but it also introduced Tiffany Aching who is quickly becoming one of Pratchett's most loved female protagonists. A protege of Granny Weatherwax herself. And while "Hat Full" stumbles a bit, it manages to be a worthy successor.

The problem with "Hat Full" is that it takes a bit too long to get into the main plot. Most of the starting chapters are devoted to Tiffany's "coming of age" if you will, while the Hiver's evil plans are put on a back burner. We mostly just read about Tiffany's conflicting feelings over her new life and the gradual slip of her confidence in herself. Worthy subjects, but you can't help feeling that more time could've been devoted on her antagonist. I'm not saying it's bad at all, on the contrary the character development goes a long way into making the book more enjoyable and it becomes more essential as the plot unveils, but I guess I was spoiled by the break neck pace of "Wee Free Men".

Otherwise the book is topnotch classic Pratchett. His famous humor, satire and acid wit shine throughout the book. Ranging from the physical slapstick of the Nac Mac Feegle to the social satire of her job as a witch, helping people who need to be helped as opposed to those who just want it. Some people feared that Pratchett's YA books would be watered down, but once again he proves them wrong. Apart from the omission of some of the more violent themes and the too-obvious of the adult humor, the books remain highly readable. The theme is dark (though not as dark as "The Amazing Maurice") and Pratchett never shies away from the big philosophical questions or his disdain for "fairy tale" fiction. After all, these books have been called "anti-fairy tales" before. It is his intelligent writing that elevates Pratchett from the ranks of the humorists (like the late great Douglas Adams) into the ranks of the satirists.

The Discworld books have been in something of a slump recently (though Pratchett's worst is still a lot better than most writers' best). But "Hat Full" (and "Going Postal" in the adult line) prove that Pratchett still has the magic.

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