Working as a witch for the people of the Chalk can be fairly humdrum for Tiffany Aching, appearing here in her fourth Discworld adventure, more health visitor than magician. Every now and then, however – and this is such a time – more is called for. Folk are becoming disenchanted, hostile even, towards witches in general; they are being corrupted by the evil machinations of The Cunning Man. This novel records Tiffany’s struggle and final confrontation with her dark enemy.
For Discworld fans, much of the fun of a new Pratchett must lie in the reappearance of old acquaintances; one of the most influential figures here has not been around for more than 30 titles. But the Nac Mac Feegles, the kilted and boozy mini-warriors led by Rob Anybody, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Tiffany’s sometime sort-of romantic interest Roland are all there. Discworld is sacred ground, of course, but at the risk of heresy, I thought the humour which permeates every page sometimes laboured, not to say coy. For example, there is much nudging and giggling when the young women of the village set about cleaning up the local hillside chalk giant with his, ‘enormous, as it were, lack of something – e.g. trousers – and what was there instead’; and Sir Terry indulges in footnotes adding more than a few jokey words, often coming back for second or third bites at the same cherry. The basic gag about Rob and the lads being a load of good-hearted Scottish vandals works for a while – but it becomes predictable.
These quibbles aside, there is much to enjoy. The tale is told with confident vitality, there is Tiffany’s resilience, her almost unconscious attraction towards Preston, a late-developer private in the castle guard, a bevy of sharply caricatured minor players and the repulsive Cunning Man. He does not have the complexity of, say, the Shadow who pursues Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, but he is one reason why this comic novel never descends to the frivolous. One effect of his malignity, for example, is to provoke a father to violence which kills the unborn child of his daughter. Those who are already devotees of Discworld surely do not bother with reviews; and newcomers might do best to begin, as far as Tiffany Aching is concerned, with the first of the quartet, The Wee Free Men, and see if addiction sets in.