Each time, I wonder: Is this the book that will show the impact of the disease? Will this be the one that shows the diminution of his skill? And: What kind of a ghoul am I to be thinking this? How can I worry about the quality of the books when this man — whom I’ve met and interviewed — is watching his brain slip away? A man of great writing skill and imagination recognizing that he is losing so much of what has made him him?
It is a high measure of Pratchett’s skill that, once I’ve gotten into one of his post-announcement books, those questions quickly fade away. Pretty much.
“I Shall Wear Midnight,” completed in May, 2010, is one of Pratchett’s darker novels. Which isn’t to say that it’s without its humorous asides, its droll footnotes and its odd and odder-than-odd characters. After all, the Nac Mac Feegles, tiny blue people also known as the Wee Free Men, are major figures here (if that’s not a contradiction in terms).
Nonetheless, in its opening pages, a 13-year-old pregnant girl is beaten so badly by her father than she loses the baby.
The Mound of the Nac Mac Feegles is threatened by the soldiers of the new Baron who have come with sharp shovels to dig it up. Suddenly, the little blue men aren’t so cute. They are ready to kill and make it very clear that they will. They are ready to war against human beings, something they’ve done in the past. And no amount of quaintly pronounced words can obscure their viciousness and ferociousness when their home is threatened.
And then there’s Tiffany Aching, the 16-year-old witch, who is being pursued by the Cunning Man, an eyeless, body-less evil presence who is the impetus to witch-burning (of all sorts) throughout history.
“Poison goes where poison’s welcome.” That’s the book’s mantra, the explanation about how the Cunning Man’s evil (and, for witches, literal stench) makes its way into the world — through people who are open to it, who welcome it.
It all comes down, in the end, to a battle between Tiffany and the Cunning Man with more than a few complications thrown in.
And so important is the battle that several other major witches — Eskarina Smith, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax — are there to watch.
Well, not just to watch. If Tiffany loses, the Cunning Man will take over her mind, body and soul.
In that case, the other witches are there to kill her.
“I Shall Wear Midnight” shows no diminution in Pratchett’s skill as a story-teller. It does show him grappling with the bleakness of life.
If that is a product of the bleak waltz he is now dancing with his illness, he is reminding us that he is not alone. Even though we haven’t gotten his diagnosis, all of us are taking part in a similar dance of our own, leading to Death.
With this novel, Pratchett faces the bleakness with humor and grit. We can learn from him.
Patrick T. Reardon