The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett, review: 'a magnificent sign-off'
One of the most endearing peculiarities of the Discworld, Terry Pratchett’s bestselling fantasy series satirising the beliefs and behaviours of Earth, is that witches know the precise hour of their death. Some hold their funerals in advance so as not to miss out on a good party; all tidy their homes beforehand, ready for the next occupant.
Pratchett may not have known the hour of his death – which in the event took place in March this year, when he was 66 – but having suffered what he called “the embuggerance” of Alzheimer’s since his diagnosis in 2007, he knew it was coming. But there will be no future mastermind of the Discworld. His daughter, the award-winning writer Rhianna Pratchett, once rumoured to be taking it on, has rightfully said that nothing further should be done. And yet in this, his 41st Discworld novel, now his last, Pratchett gets his house in order beautifully.
This isn’t just a great Discworld book, it’s extraordinary; a proper send-off for Pratchett and this mammoth series. It is shot through with an elegiac tone, you have a sense of it being his own “play’s last scene”. If this wasn’t intentional, it’s a bloody good coincidence.
Earlier themes and characters return for a last hurrah (impressively without once feeling like an episode of This is Your Life) anchored by one of Pratchett’s most popular recent characters, young witch Tiffany Aching. Now at the height of her powers, while still very much eligible for a Young Person’s Railcard, Tiffany is forced to confront her old enemy, the elves. Longstanding Discworld readers first encountered them 25 years ago in Lords and Ladies, a magnificently creepy reinterpretation of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream with much nastier fairies. They have not improved over time.
Their reappearance calls for a convocation of witches, which means a welcome return for one of Pratchett’s earliest creations, Magrat Garlick, now queen of the hilly kingdom of Lancre, and opera singing Agnes Nitt, sadly AWOL since 1998’s Carpe Jugulum. Pratchett’s trademark footnotes are filled with references to past stories, and new readers may struggle to keep up – but after all, this is a finale, not an introduction.
Never one to avoid tackling the elephant in the room, Pratchett confronts mortality early on with the death of one of his most cherished characters. Discworld regularly deals with death, but rarely with cornerstones of that universe. Lord Vetinari, Granny Weatherwax, Samuel Vimes: Pratchett’s creations, like the author, feel eternal. That any should die is unthinkable and I will freely confess to sitting dumbly over my book, crying.
Pratchett has never been a sentimental writer, but there is an expansiveness here that is new and reflective. He introduces a new kind of magic, “calm-weaving”, an extreme form of likeability seen in a boy called Geoffrey who wants to become a witch. Thus the idea of a girl becoming a wizard, first explored in 1987’s Equal Rites, is echoed here with the reverse idea, bolstering Pratchett’s principle that the most impressive magic of all is “headology”, or understanding the human psyche.
Having spent the last 30 years raising an amused eyebrow at the quirks of human nature, Pratchett uses his final novel to examine the power of humanity. Even Pratchett’s most ghastly creation, Letice Earwig (pronounced “ar-wij” ) proves to have something worthwhile underneath her pretensions. There is the potential for decency in all of us, he says.
Touching on 2001’s Thief of Time in which a seemingly inhuman creature develops a soul, an elf has a similar awakening here. Change is happening in Discworld: there is no place for elves and their mindless cruelty. Even trolls and goblins serve a useful purpose, to which I find myself grimly thinking, “if only Pratchett had been in charge of the internet”.
None of this is to say that Pratchett has gone soft. His trademark wisdom and seemingly bottomless knowledge remains sharp: “Alas for us, our dreams came true,” says one character – one wonders what a Discworld X Factor might have been like. As ever with this series, there is a delight to be had in knowing you will spot another intriguing reference when you read it again. I noticed Monty Python, Alice and Wonderland, Neil Armstrong and Thatcher for starters, but who knows what I missed?
It is entirely Pratchettian to give the reader an opportunity to mourn fiction and reality at the same time. His death came too early, that disease unfair. The book ends with a moving afterword from his long-time assistant Rob Wilkins, which generously includes ideas that Pratchett had for future books we will never read. This last is a magnificent sign-off.