The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It could have been a lot worse.
As Rob Wilkins explains in the afterword, Terry Pratchett hadn’t actually finished writing this when he died. Pratchett’s working methods, as described by Wilkins, involved writing scenes and piecing them together, finding the story, and then rewriting and adding scenes. Here we have something that isn’t quite the end process of that. We have something that can be read, coherently, from beginning to end as a narrative, but is not quite formed.
There is, as Wilkins says, a beginning, middle, and end. But some of it has clearly been worked on rather more than other bits. There’s some absolutely atrocious writing in the first few chapters — Terrance Dicks-on-autopilot level simple sentences and “as you know, your father, the king” dialogue, with no hint of characterisation (not helped by some shoddy copyediting). This worried me at first, as given that Pratchett died of Alzheimer’s, I was beginning to think that his faculties had declined so much in his last months that the writer who I loved so much had gone before writing this.
But somewhere around page sixty or seventy, the writing style starts to improve dramatically, and it’s apparent that Pratchett *wasn’t* failing as a writer — the writing in the first few chapters is obviously a sketch of what would have been there, a skeleton onto which he would have added characterisation and prose style if he’d been able to do any further drafts.
And there are other signs that the book was unfinished, too. There’s a subplot — involving Geoffrey and the old men — that has a couple of scenes, but which clearly would have been filled out much more if Pratchett could have finished the book in the way he wanted to. The climax is rushed, and rather unsatisfying.
But the middle two hundred and fifty pages or so of the book is up to the standards of the other Tiffany Aching books, and that’s saying something. It’s clearly a “last Witches book” — everyone returns for one last time, including some unexpected cameos, and it’s a book about death. Pratchett hadn’t included Death, who had appeared in every Discworld novel up until his diagnosis, in the last couple of books, understandably, but here he returns, and entirely appropriately.
The Geoffrey subplot, sketched in though it is, clearly provides a reflection of the very first witches book, Equal Rites, closing the story where it began, but there are echoes here of many other books. The character growth of one villainous character is very like that of one in Thief of Time. Lords and Ladies and (to a lesser extent) Raising Steam are also present in between the words.
It’s a book about death, but also about new life. Tiffany Aching has always been a character in the shadow of her dead grandmother, but one who has been growing into her own power, and that’s continued here. We say goodbye here to favourite characters, and to an entire world, but it will live on without us.
It’s also a sombre book — there are very few laugh-out-loud jokes in here, but a lot that’s thought-provoking, and moving.
It’s very, very hard to judge this objectively. I’ve been a fan of Pratchett for a quarter of a century, since as an eleven-year-old I read Sourcery and assumed that “Terry Pratchett” must be a pseudonym for Douglas Adams, because who else could write like that?
Now, of course, I know the difference. Adams was a cynic — a very funny writer, but a shallow one, able to see the world only through a filter of anger and despair. He was a great comedy writer, but limited.
Pratchett, on the other hand, was wise, and kinder-spirited. Pratchett, like Adams, could get enraged at the world’s follies, but he could see that there were other things in the world. Temperamentally, I’m closer to Adams, but I like to think something of Pratchett has rubbed off.
And this is the thing. This is the last work of someone who has influenced my thought, and my life, in ways I can’t begin to sum up sensibly. Without Pratchett, I wouldn’t have the friends I have, wouldn’t think the things I do, wouldn’t be the person I am.
So yes, this is a first draft, a sketch of the proper book it should have been. But the book it’s a sketch of might have been his best, and even in this state it’s a far more fitting capstone to the Discworld and to Pterry’s career than Raising Steam, which may have been his worst.
Goodbye, Pterry, and thank you.
My impression is that Adams was less a simple cynic than a Capital A Absurdist, with all the implications. Pratchett was the more optimistic kind of existentialist who thinks that people can add meaning to the universe.
Possibly early on, but certainly by the early 80s I think he’d gone full cynic. It’s a real shame he never finished any fiction after Mostly Harmless, because I think the experience of Last Chance To See changed his perspective somewhat…
As a young teen I absolutely adored Mostly Harmless, it was my favourite Hitchhiker’s book of the lot. I haven’t read it since then, however, and I do wonder, now I’ve seen something of the world, if I could handle its bleak outlook
Reading this on a kindle so can’t quite comment on the phase change to better writing, but at about 10% I was nearly in tears on the bus.
Chapter two, right? Where the thing that the broadsheet reviews spoiled happens? Yeah. Me too.