The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett
Harper Collins HCVR: ISBN 0060012366 PubDate: May 2003
Review by Pat Nash
236 pages List price 16.99
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The Wee Free Men is the second Terry Pratchett Discworld story written for young adult readers. Like its predecessor, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, it provides an introduction to the wonders and terrors of the Disc, an imagined universe that bends the laws of physics into fractals, and only has a one-in-a-thousand probability of existing. But one-in-a-thousand chances work nine times out of ten, and so does Magic, which is not surprising on a flat planet borne on the backs of four elephants standing on the shell of a giant space-swimming tortoise.
All this is background gleaned from years of reading the other Discworld books. Pratchett has reined in his gonzo cosmology to focus on nine-year old Tiffany Aching, descendant of a proud and ancient line of shepherds. Her lot in life is to tend her sticky, runny-nosed little brother Wentworth. Tedium changes to terror when monsters invade the Chalk country. A book of fairy tales passed on to her from her late grandmother turns out to be a field guide to creatures from nightmares. Armed only with ‘first sight’ and second thoughts, plus a frying pan, Tiffany’s grit and latent magical talent attract the attention and help of older, established witches (yes, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg have cameos). She also attracts the Nac Mac Feegle, the wee (six inches of trouble), blue ‘pictsies’ of the title, who are refugees from Fairy-land. They must also be fans of Music with Rocks In, because one of their battle cries is “We willna’ be fooled again!” Their Kelda, the clan matriarch, is dying, and they need Tiffany’s help as much as she needs theirs.
Fairy-land, as described previously in Pratchett’s adult novel, Lords and Ladies, is not a nice place. It’s a place where dreams come true --and most of those dreams are nightmares. Tiffany compares this alternate dimension to “a sheep tick…that bites sheep and sucks blood and doesn’t drop off until it’s full.” The bite that the Queen of the Elves takes from Tiffany’s world is her brother Wentworth, as she took the son of the local Baron, years before. The Baron’s men can’t find them, the other witches are powerless in Tiffany’s country, so it’s up to Tiffany to stop the fairy marauders and bring back her brother.
To aid Tiffany in her quest, the Mac Feegles lend their talents, which include sheep-stealing, bag-piping with extreme prejudice, drinking liquor that doubles as paint remover, and fighting anything that moves, including each other. They also provide clues that Tiffany’s beloved grandmother was far more than family matriarch. There are surprising depths and twists to all the characters, even a toad.
Tiffany manages to hold her own against everything that life and the Queen of the Elves throws at her, and even avoids being upstaged by the Mac Feegles, who get most of the best comic sequences in the book. The Mac Feegles’ tactics to break the farm cat’s habit of preying on baby birds (“Ye dinna learn, do ye? Cheep!”) are a delight.
One concession to the YA market is the book’s organization into chapters, unlike Pratchett’s usual headlong progression from one outrageous situation to the next. Secondly, it’s a lot shorter and the language is simpler. My 17-year old daughter, who has read many of the Discworld books, notes that the plots in his YA books have fewer twists and cross-connections. Another difference is the lack of the rich tapestry of literary parody and social satire that grace the other Discworld novels. This is not a defect for the target audience, who might not get his usual jokes, such as the Checkov references in The Fifth Elephant. Pratchett spells out his major themes, which is a bit didactic for us ‘bigjobs’, but this book is like Cliffs Notes for young teen readers. Pratchett is a safari guide, identifying the metaphors and symbols that run wild and free in his other works.
While the book features a juvenile witch and ‘pictsies’, it was not until I began writing this review that I even thought of making a Harry Potter connection. There is none. Tiffany is her own person, although a young reader who has been exposed to the movie Babe will immediately connect with the life of the shepherds. My daughter made a more direct thematic connection to the film Labyrinth, in which a reluctant babysitter must rescue her annoying little half- brother from the goblins and come to terms with herself. If there is a problem with the story, it is that Tiffany isn’t quite believable as a nine year old. The book is a little beyond my own nine-year old, who is a voracious reader. Twelve, or an undersized, late-blooming fourteen, is a more appropriate age range for Tiffany’s reactions and issues. On the other hand, Tiffany is a witch…
Is The Wee Free Men worth the cover price? Oh, yeah! It’s a good story in its own right and a great introduction to the author and the genre for middle school students. You and your children will wrestle each other for it. I suggest you buy at least two copies.