HarperCollins - copyright 2003
cover art by Chris Gall
Book reviewed in June 2003
Rating: 8/10 (Highly Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
From this, one might suppose that Pratchett's talents are best suited to fiction for adults. The Wee Free Men belies any such conclusion. The Wee Free Men is delightful reading from start to finish for adults and younger readers alike.
The novel is marketed as a Discworld book for young adults but, except for a cameo appearance by Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, it is not greatly dependent on the trappings of the Discworld universe. The story is set in a seldom-visited corner of Discworld called the Chalk, a rather rocky, desolate place whose inhabitants seem to like it all the same. Our heroine Tiffany Aching is the nine-year-old daughter of simple shepherds.
As the book begins, Tiffany unexpectedly encounters the bizarre and supernatural. First she confronts and defeats a snarling creature that pops out of a river. She is then befriended by a talking toad. The toad's origins are never fully explained, but we come to suspect he was once a trial lawyer who brought a frivolous lawsuit against a witch with no sense of humor about it. Finally, and most importantly, Tiffany meets up with the Wee Free Men, otherwise known as the Nac Mac Feegle, an outrageous clan of blue-skinned, hard-drinking, ham-fisted six-inch tall ornery Scotsmen.
The Nac Mac Feegle are former denizens of Fairyland who have escaped from its ruler, the fearsome Queen of the Elves. No fairy godmother is she, but a cold-hearted tyrant with the power to shape others' dreams to bend them to her will. Tiffany suspects that the Queen of the Elves has abducted her little brother, and she persuades the Nac Mac Feegle to help her in her mission to find the portal to Fairyland and rescue him. (They actually already know where the portal is, but they are too polite to interrupt her search to tell her so.)
It's not entirely clear why all these magical creatures single out Tiffany and her brother for their attentions, but it seems to have something to do with Tiffany's late grandmother. Tiffany believes that her grandmother was the local witch, and aspires to follow in her footsteps. In her quest to save her brother, she will learn that a witch's job is not quite what she expects.
Tiffany is a wonderfully spunky young protagonist. If she cannot think her way out of a problem, she'll hit it on the head with a frying pan:
The other Feegles had formed a circle around Tiffany, and this time they'd drawn their swords.
"Whut's the plan, Rob?" said one of them.
"Okay, lads, this is what we'll do. As soon as we see somethin', we'll attack it. Right?"
This caused a cheer.
"Ach, 'tis a good plan," said Daft Wullie.
Snow formed on the ground. It didn't fall, it … did the opposite of melting, rising up fast until the Nac Mac Feegle were waist deep, and then buried up to their necks. Some of the smaller ones began to disappear, and there was muffled cursing from under the snow.
And then the dogs appeared, lumbering toward Tiffany with a nasty purpose. They were big, black, and heavily built, with orange eyebrows, and she could hear the growling from where she stood.
She plunged her hand into her apron pocket and pulled out the toad. It blinked in the sharp light. "Wazzup?"
Tiffany turned him around to face the things. "What are THESE?" she said.
"Oh, doak! Grimhounds! Bad! Eyes of fire and teeth of razor blades!"
"What should I do about them?"
"Not be here?"
"Thank you! You've been very helpful!" Tiffany dropped him back into her pocket and pulled her frying pan out of her sack.
Pratchett's dreamlike vision of Fairyland is strikingly conceived, although heavy enough on the nightmares that I would not recommend this book for very young readers. (My seven-year-old son took everything in the Harry Potter books in stride, but I won't be reading this one to him for some time.) As one of the Wee Free Men puts it, this book's tour of Fairyland includes "the bit the tourists dinna see."The Wee Free Men includes plenty of laugh-out-loud humor, especially from the utterly delightful Nac Mac Feegle. There is also a great deal of real wisdom woven into the story, with many small lessons about human nature and a few large ones about a person's responsibilities in life and even in death. I only wish Pratchett had written this in time for me to read as a boy. I might have gotten through adolescence with a much greater understanding of what was going on around me.
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