Review: The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett
eagle at eyrie.org
Sat Jun 24 20:15:29 PDT 2023
The Wee Free Men
by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #30
Format: Mass market
The Wee Free Men is the 30th Discworld novel but the first Tiffany
Aching book and doesn't rely on prior knowledge of Discworld, although
the witches from previous books do appear. You could start here,
although I think the tail end of the book has more impact if you
already know who Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are.
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents was the first Discworld
novel written to be young adult, and although I could see that if I
squinted, it didn't feel that obviously YA to me. The Wee Free Men is
clearly young adult (or perhaps middle grade), right down to the
quintessential protagonist: a nine-year-old girl who is practical and
determined and a bit of a misfit and does a lot of growing up over the
course of the story.
Tiffany Aching is the youngest daughter in a large Aching family that
comes from a long history of Aching families living in the Chalk. She
has a pile of older relatives and one younger brother named Wentworth
who is an annoying toddler obsessed with sweets. Her family work a farm
that is theoretically the property of the local baron but has been in
their family for years. There is always lots to do and Tiffany is an
excellent dairymaid, so people mostly leave her alone with her thoughts
and her tiny collection of books from her grandmother.
Her now-deceased Grandma Aching was a witch. Tiffany, as it turns out,
is also a witch, not that she knows that. As the book opens, certain...
things are trying to get into her world from elsewhere. The first is a
green monster that pops up out of the river and attempts to snatch
Wentworth, much to Tiffany's annoyance. She identifies it as Jenny
Green-Teeth via a book of fairy tales and dispatches it with a frying
pan, somewhat to her surprise, but worse are coming.
Even more surprised by her frying pan offensive are the Nac Mac Feegle,
last seen in Carpe Jugulum, who know something about where this
intrusion is coming from. In short order, the Aching farm has a Nac Mac
This is, unfortunately, another book about Discworld's version of fairy
(or elves, as they were called in Lords and Ladies). I find stories
about the fae somewhat hit and miss, and Pratchett's version is one of
my least favorites. The Discworld Queen of Fairy is mostly a
one-dimensional evil monster and not a very interesting one. A big
chunk of the plot is an extended sequence of dreams that annoyed me and
went on for about twice as long as it needed to.
That's the downside of this book. The upside is that Tiffany Aching is
exactly the type of protagonist I loved reading about as a kid, and
still love reading about as an adult. She's thoughtful, curious,
observant, determined, and uninterested in taking any nonsense from
anyone. She has a lot to learn, both about the world and about herself,
but she doesn't have to be taught lessons twice and she has a powerful
innate sense of justice. She also has a delightfully sarcastic sense of
"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."
One of the best things that Pratchett does with this book is let
Tiffany dislike her little brother. Wentworth eventually ends up in
trouble and Tiffany has to go rescue him, which of course she does
because he's her baby brother. But she doesn't like him; he's annoying
and sticky and constantly going on about sweets and never says anything
interesting. Tiffany is aware that she's supposed to love him because
he's her little brother, but of course this is not how love actually
works, and she doesn't. But she goes and rescues him anyway, because
that's the right thing to do, and because he's hers.
There are a lot of adult novels that show the nuanced and sometimes
uncomfortable emotions we have about family members, but this sort of
thing is a bit rarer in novels pitched at pre-teens, and I loved it.
One valid way to read it is that Tiffany is neurodivergent, but I think
she simply has a reasonable reaction to a brother who is endlessly
annoying and too young to have many redeeming qualities in her eyes,
and no one forces her to have a more socially expected one. It doesn't
matter what you feel about things; it matters what you do, and as long
as you do the right thing, you can have whatever feelings about it you
want. This is a great lesson for this type of book.
The other part of this book that I adored was the stories of Grandma
Aching. Tiffany is fairly matter-of-fact about her dead grandmother at
the start of the book, but it becomes clear over the course of the
story that she's grieving in her own way. Grandma Aching was a taciturn
shepherd who rarely put more than two words together and was much
better with sheep than people, but she was the local witch in the way
that Granny Weatherwax was a witch, and Tiffany was paying close
attention. They never managed to communicate as much as either of them
wanted, but the love shines through Tiffany's memories. Grandma Aching
was teaching her how to be a witch: not the magical parts, but the far
more important parts about justice and fairness and respect for other
This was a great introduction of a new character and a solid
middle-grade or young YA novel. I was not a fan of the villain and I
can take or leave the Nac Mac Feegle (who are basically Scottish Smurfs
crossed with ants and are a little too obviously the comic relief, for
all that they're also effective warriors). But Tiffany is great and the
stories of Grandma Aching are even better. This was not as good as
Night Watch (very few things are), but it was well worth reading.
Followed in publication order by Monstrous Regiment. The next Tiffany
Aching novel is A Hat Full of Sky.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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