“I don’t know a single spell. I don’t even have a pointy hat. My talents are an instinct for making cheese and not running around panicking when things go wrong. Oh, and I’ve got a toad.”
-Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men
I first read this book because I’ve been a fan of Sir Terry Pratchett for decades. Until Wee Free Men, I’d just read his novels for adults, but the story of a young witch-to-be sounded fun, especially in his hands. The plot should be familiar to fans, particularly those who have read Lords & Ladies. Even so, it takes a fun and, often, serious ride through a different part of the Discworld.
The book is about nine year old Tiffany Aching and her introduction to the world of witchcraft. Her adventure begins as the Queen (elf) tries once again to sneak her way into the Disc through a point and moment where/when the worlds touch. Tiffany must find and recover her younger brother, lead and protect a clan of Nac Mac Feegle, and defeat the Queen to protect her family, land, and world.
Pratchett is phenomenal at mingling the serious with the comedic throughout his work. This is no exception. On the one hand, he does a masterful job of telling the story from his young protagonist’s perspective, taking into account that she is an exceptional individual (as a future witch). His characterization and world building are up to his usual detailed standard from descriptions of the Chalk to the Feegle (or pictsies) themselves.
“Nac Mac Feegle! The Wee Free Men! Nae king! Nae quin! Nae laird! Nae master! We willna be fooled again!”
One of the stand out features of the book is the pictsies, basically fairy Scotsmen in the finest Braveheart tradition. Although a means of helping Tiffany and fighting the Queen, they also provide considerable comic relief to balance Tiffany’s internal seriousness, doubts, and growth. As is typical with Pratchett, the humor conceals a depth of meaning and importance that the reader doesn’t necessarily recognize until it slips through the laughter and, like a Feegle, head butts him/her. The book also presents a change in form, since to date Pratchett’s true witches (as opposed to those merely playing the part) have generally been older women or teens (Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Magrat). Readers haven’t seen much of the makings of a witch before.
Wee Free Men is a wonderful introduction to Pratchett for younger readers, children to YA, but also easily readable and enjoyable for older audiences.