The Wee Free Men
by Terry Pratchett
Rating: 5+ Stars
‘A nightmarish danger threatens from the other side of reality . . .
Armed with only a frying pan and her common sense, young witch-to-be Tiffany Aching must defend her home against the monsters of Fairyland. Luckily she has some very unusual help: the local Nac Mac Feegle – aka the Wee Free Men – a clan of fierce, sheep-stealing, sword-wielding, six-inch-high blue men.
Together they must face headless horsemen, ferocious grimhounds, terrifying dreams come true, and ultimately the sinister Queen of the Elves herself . . .’
This is the first book in my re-read of the Tiffany Aching sequence. I’m working my way up to The Shepherd’s Crown, so that I’ve got the rest of the series firmly in my head (I have to admit, I am also just putting off reading The Shepherd’s Crown).
It is a very long time since I first read The Wee Free Men (over a decade) and I had forgotten just how staggeringly good it is. The book opens with nine year old Tiffany reluctantly baby-sitting her – perpetually sticky – younger brother Wentworth. So far, so normal. But when her brother nearly becomes the prey of a mythical creature, it is Tiffany’s response to the situation that makes this arc of Discworld so wonderful; it is also what makes Tiffany an ideal candidate to be a witch.
Look creature up in a book. Get a frying pan. Whack creature in the face with it.
That’s just a small example of why Tiffany is a fantastic character. She’s not a plucky orphan or a girl out on a fun quest with her group of friends. She’s just a little girl, struggling to deal with the recent death of her grandmother and trying to find her way in the world without disappointing her family. She’s prone to self-pity, jealous of her siblings and -understandably – fallible. She makes mistakes and her involvement in the bigger events of her world is, in part, her own fault, but she tries so hard to make up for it. The final confrontation between her and the antagonist is wonderful and I’m not ashamed to say that I can’t read it without ending up with something in my eye. I love following her story. Pratchett somehow manages to strike the perfect balance between light humour and the darker subjects we don’t always want to admit children deal with.
The Aching books also add a great deal to Discworld mythology: travelling teachers, The Chalk, parasitic universes, Miss Tick the witch-finder, the Toad and of course….the Nac Mac Feegles. They’re definitely the best new creatures he introduced. Kilted, Scottish pictsies who operate like something of a hive, complete with their own queen or ‘Kelda’. But tending more towards sheep rustling, brawling and all-round chaos than pixie dust.
But I think my favourite addition to Discworld is Granny Aching. The Shepherd’s Shepherd. The witch who was clever enough not to bother with being a witch and definitely didn’t need the pointy hat. The truth is that this book is a love song to her and it’s wonderful.
Going back to re-read this book was like investigating Tiffany’s origins, the beginning of a legend. I’ve reread I Shall Wear Midnight more than I care to admit to and it’s not too long ago that I revisited Wintersmith, but the first two books in the series were unfamiliar territory to me after all this time. It’s been a pleasure.