If we readers could have one wish, it might be that their favorite writers would always outlive them. We would love to enter our twilight years still eagerly expecting the next book in a really cool series we discovered fifty years ago. But of course that can’t happen. We’re bound to see authors we love pass on, and the stories of characters we love come to a permanent close. Now that Terry Pratchett has left us, and his final book, The Shepherd’s Crown, has appeared in bookstores, there will never be another novel of the Discworld. The regrettably mediocre Snuff is the last we’ll see of Sam Vimes, my favorite policeman in all literature. The last time I can recall being quite as sad about the departure of a pop culture icon was back in 1990, when pneumonia claimed the life of beloved Muppeteer Jim Henson.
Since Pratchett’s death, countless fantasy fans and fellow authors have paid tribute to the man and his work. Now I pay my own respects. Five things I love about Terry Pratchett:
His heroes are as interesting as his villains.
How many of us are tired as heck of the oft-repeated contrast between dishwater-dull heroes and charismatic, funny villains? (Raises hand) I suspect the difficulty a lot of fantasy writers have with bringing their good characters to vivid, complex life is partially responsible for the rise of Grimdark, a fantasy subgenre in which basically decent, admirable characters are left out of the story altogether. But you won’t find this irksome contrast in Pratchett’s best work. He doesn’t go for the anti-hero, like Mark Lawrence or Joe Abercrombie. Rather, he goes for the unexpected hero, the shlub we don’t see coming. Alcoholic misanthrope Sam Vimes will stand up for the mistreated and do the right thing even when he suspects it’s pointless. DEATH (if you don’t know why I’ve written it like that, please read Reaper Man and follow it up with Hogfather), in his efforts to comprehend humanity, becomes their champion as well. Those two make wonderful heroes precisely because they’re stuck in “dirty” jobs, and their efforts to do those jobs with integrity are a source of admiration as well as humor. Then we have the faultlessly pure-of-heart Captain Carrot, a staunch believer in the good in everyone. Plenty of comic writers would go for the easy laugh by holding him up to relentless ridicule and shattering his idealism again and again. Not Pratchett. He likes this character, and we like him too.
He writes splendid female characters.
I’ve only read two Pratchett novels — Moving Pictures and Pyramids — in which I didn’t love the heroine. Most of the time, his women are as quirky and complicated as his men. They’re funny in ways women don’t often get to be. His “Coven of Witches” series, beginning with Wyrd Sisters, features the formidable Granny Weatherwax, who would rather be a bad witch but turns out to be a good witch in spite of herself. (She’s as close as we get to a female Sam Vimes.) In the “Night’s Watch” series, starting with Men at Arms, we get Constable, later Sergeant, Angua, a werewolf who shows us that the monstrous feminine can also be the heroic feminine. In Guards! Guards!, really the first of the Night’s Watch novels, we meet Sybil Ramkin, a towering, big-boned woman who becomes Sam Vimes’s wife. (How awesome is it to see a big woman as a romantic heroine?) Sybil occupies a more “traditional” space than either Granny or Angua, yet she still surprises us with moments of awesomeness, proving as much a champion of the underdog, in her own big-hearted aristocratic way, as her husband; her simple but world-shaking actions at the end of Snuff actually make that distinctly-lesser-Discworld novel worth a read. These are just my three favorites. There’s also Eskarina Smith (Equal Rites), Renata Flitworth (Reaper Man), Susan Sto Helit (Soul Music, Hogfather, Thief of Time), Adora Belle Dearheart (Going Postal, Making Money), and most of the cast of Monstrous Regiment. Feet of Clay, the follow-up to Men at Arms, also features a wonderful female character that I can’t talk about because… Spoilers.
His Young Adult work is as funny and insightful as his work for adults.
In fact, it’s not all that easy to tell a clear difference between the YA novels that feature young witch-in-training Tiffany Aching (The Wee Free Men, etc.) and the novels that center on Granny Weatherwax and her coven. Perhaps there’s less sexual innuendo, but that’s about it. In both his YA and his for-adults work, Pratchett respects his audience. The capable, hard-working Tiffany is ten times the heroine that any we’ll find in the pages of Twilight and its imitators could ever be. Also worthy of attention from readers of every age is The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, a weird ribbing of the Pied Piper legend. It has a rat heroine! Of course I love that.
He played well with others.
By “others” I mean specifically Neil Gaiman, with whom he wrote Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. (Pratchett is one of the best at writing witches.) I put off reading this one because it isn’t set in the Discworld; it’s a contemporary fantasy, and I generally don’t care for those. A friend had to talk me into reading it, and for this he has my eternal gratitude. To give you an idea, Good Omens concerns an angel and a devil (who are besties), a witch, a witch-hunter, and a quartet of mischievous youths led by the Antichrist himself, who must find a way to stop the end of the world because humans are fun to have around. A funnier take on the Apocalypse has never been written and isn’t likely to be. It also features a car stereo that transforms any song into a hit by Queen. It makes sense when you read the book.
He blends satire with humanism.
Pratchett’s wit is razor sharp and his eye for the ridiculous nigh unmatched, but a nihilist he is not. You won’t find sentimentality in his work, but sentiment crops up in surprising places, and Pratchett understands the difference between those terms. His protagonists are characters, not one-joke caricatures, and their interactions with others are funny because they’re believable and believable because they’re funny. Human beings may be capable of great cruelty and even greater stupidity, but we also see their capacity for loyalty and love. Here’s a quote from Guards! Guards! in which Sam Vimes regards Lady Sybil Ramkin:
“She smiled at him. And then it arose and struck Vimes that, in her own special category, she was quite beautiful: this was the category of all the women, in his entire life, who had ever thought he was worth smiling at. She couldn’t do worse, but then, he couldn’t do better… She had opened her heart, and if you let her she could engulf you; the woman was a city.” (407)
That tells you much of what you need to know.
My favorite Pratchett novels:
Guards! Guards!, where we meet Vimes, Sybil, and Carrot.
Feet of Clay, in which the humanity of golems becomes an issue, and dwarf alchemist Cheery Littlebottom joins the Night’s Watch.
The Fifth Elephant, in which Sam and Sybil Vimes travel to the wilds of Uberwald, and werewolf cop Angua confronts her wild side.
Reaper Man, in which DEATH takes a holiday as hired hand for farmer Renata Flitworth, and we meet the zombie Reg Shoe, a Dead Rights activist who sports a “Glad to be Gray” badge.
Hogfather, in which DEATH plays Santa Claus, and his eminently practical and badass granddaughter Susan pursues an assassin.
Wyrd Sisters, in which Granny Weatherwax, Gytha Ogg, and Magrat Garlick take on Macbeth.
Good Omens, already discussed in some detail.
If you haven’t read these yet, what are you waiting for?
I don’t know if you caught it or not, but in Angua’s brief appearance in Snuff we found out she was made captain.
Great post! I’d agree with everything you said here.