Sunday, March 30, 2008

Terry Pratchett, Part 1

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Age: 12+

This Carnegie-Award-winning children's book is another stand-alone tale based in the fertile soil of Pratchett's legendary Discworld, though not a part of the Discworld Series as such. Based loosely on the classic tale of the Pied Piper, it takes off in a completely new direction.

To start with, the piper is a stupid-looking boy named Keith who travels around with a cat named Maurice and a clan of rats that have somehow been given the ability to think and talk like people. Together they visit town after town, creating a bogus "plague of rats," then waltzing out of town in procession behind the pipe-playing boy and, later, splitting up the money the townspeople paid him to do his thing.

They don't ask for much. As Maurice points out, they're giving value for money - and charging a fraction of what the real rat piper does - and no one gets hurt. The cat wants the money to save up for his retirement. The rats - guided by strong leaders like Hamnpork and Darktan, deep thinkers like Peaches and Dangerous Beans, and a tap-dancing ne'er-do-well named Sardines - are saving to buy a boat and sail away to a desert island, where they can build a new society of sentient rats.

But their newfound conscience is troubling them, so they decide the next town will be their last. Too bad they pick Bad Blintz, a town in the wild and woolly Überwald region that has its own problems. While the people live on the edge of starvation because of what they believe to be a plague of rats, the cellars under the town are full of poison and traps and empty of living rats. Something very, very wrong is going on down there.

Something evil, in fact.

It has something to do with a couple of atrociously corrupt rat-catchers. But even more importantly, it has to do with a menace that lives in the dark. A blind thing that sees through many eyes. A being that can control the minds of rats, cats, and even humans. Something created by human cruelty, and bent on inflicting the ultimate cruelty on mankind.

It's not for the faint at heart. What begins as a charming, "cracked fairy tale," turns into a thrilling, scary, dangerous adventure. Prepare to nibble your nails while Keith, together with a girl named Malicia with a headful of stories, risk death for the stupid-looking boy's rat friends. Prepare to be moved, terrified, surprised, and amused by the way Maurice lives up to his cat nature... and rises above it. Prepare to laugh, gasp, cheer, and possibly even cry as the rats prove to be the bravest, smartest, and noblest characters of all. And learn once again why Terry Pratchett has won so many awards and enthralled so many readers of all ages.

The Bromeliad Trilogy
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Age: 10+

This fine trilogy of short, young-readers' novels consists of the three "Books of the Nomes," entitled Truckers, Diggers, and Wings. They recount the adventures of a group of four-inch-high people who have lived under the floorboards of human buildings, or in holes in the ground, for thousands of years... and how, little by little, they discover a wider world, outside the narrow confines of what they always thought of as the whole world.

Masklin and his dwindling little tribe have lived under a motorway embankment for generations, but now he is the only able-bodied hunter left. Aided by strong-headed female Grimma, he leads the old folks on a perilous journey that ends - or, to be more accurate, stops - in a department store called Arnold Bros (est. 1905).

Talk about culture shock! Masklin and his people have never been indoors before. But to the thousands of nomes living under the salesroom floor of Arnold Bros (est. 1905), the very idea of anything existing Outside the Store is unthinkable. And when they find out that the store is about to be closed down and demolished, it's very hard to make the Store Nomes believe.

With cleverness and charisma, and the help of friends new and old - though, as nomes will, they bicker all the time - Masklin hatches a daring plan to move all the Store Nomes back Outside. The tough part is, how do four-inch-tall people drive a big truck? So far, Truckers.

Diggers finds the nomes struggling to adapt to life in an abandoned quarry. But just as they're starting to get the hang of it, the humans decide to un-abandon the quarry. While Masklin and two companions are away, searching for the key to the nomes' forgotten past, Grimma and the chief tinker Dorcas try to hold things together at the quarry. But soon events escalate to a serious matter of "fight or flight."

And finally, Wings follows Masklin, vehicle-crazy Angalo, and devout Gurder on their transoceanic quest to retrieve the dormant spaceship that brought the nomes to Earth thousands of years ago. In one risky venture after another, they make their way to Cape Canaveral for a climactic test of what little folks can do without the help of big people.

The story is full of danger, humor, and a perceptive look at philosophy, science, and religion. The characters have interesting relationships, believable problems, and lots of soul searching to do. And their perspective on the world we live in gives us a chance to look anew at all the things we take for granted. Maybe the world will be bigger for you, too, when you are done reading this trilogy.

The Wee Free Men
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Age: 12+

It's set in the Discworld of so many of Terry Pratchett's books, but somehow it doesn't seem to be part of the Discworld Series. Some characters from the series even appear in it, but it mainly stands on its own. It's the exciting, scary, outrageously funny fairy tale of a nine-year-old witch named Tiffany Aching, who plunges into a Fairyland where dreams come true (horribly true) in order to save her obnoxious baby brother Wenworth, who has been stolen by the fairy Queen.

Armed with first sight, second thoughts, and a frying pan, and accompanied by a clan of little blue, kilted warriors called the Nac Mac Feegle - also known as the Wee Free Men - also known as the pictsies (not pixies) - Tiffany shoulders the burden of a grown witch. Which is really something, since she lives in the Chalk country (while witches prefer hard rock under them) and has had no lessons in witchery other than the example of her silent, deceased Granny Aching and a single lesson by from the enigmatic Miss Tick.

And now she must face not only her painful memories, but her worst nightmares as well. Besieged by razor-toothed grimhounds, headless horsemen, and Jenny Green Teeth, haunted by parasitic creatures that steal your dreams, and finally confronted by a powerful lady of the Fair Folk who never thinks about anyone but herself, she must navigate the frightening Fairyland to bring back Wentworth, as well as a spoiled rich kid who was stolen by the fairies a year ago. And then she has to keep the Queen from following her back into the Chalk Country, to take over the real world as her own.

Pratchett does a great job depicting Tiffany's inner and outer journey, and her growth into a great fighter of magical nasties. He also writes some very knowing jokes that had me gasping for air many a time. I love the Nac Mac Feegle! I hope you will meet them soon.

A Hat Full of Sky
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Age: 12+

This sequel to The Wee Free Men continues the adventures of Tiffany Aching, the young witch of Discworld’s chalk downs, and her determined escort of tiny, red-headed, blue men who love fighting, stealing, and the drink: the Nac Mac Feegle, also known as Pictsies.

A couple of years have passed. Tiffany continues to make good cheese, visit the home of her deceased Granny (who was the witch of the downs before her), and squirm under the awkward attentions of the baron’s son. The time finally comes for the 13-year-old witch to go away, to serve as an apprentice to an older witch. She does not find her first taste of the craft very glamorous. Although Miss Level is that rare person who can say, “I left my long-distance spectacles on my other nose,” and although her house is haunted by an obsessive-compulsive ondageist (the opposite of a poltergeist), most of her witchcraft takes the form of milking goats, tending the herb garden, keeping bees, and administering medicine and midwifery to the local population.

If Tiffany hungers for a taste of real magic, however, she is about to get one; for an entity that has no body or even mind of its own, that cannot be killed, and that floats around possessing one unfortunate person after another, is after Tiffany. This is a creature that takes over people’s minds and turns them into power-grabbing monsters. How will Tiffany defend herself against a being that wants to make her part of itself? Can even the Nac Mac Feegle, or the Discworld’s witch of witches, Granny Weatherwax, save her?

Aha! That would be telling! You’ll just have to read this book for yourself. It is quite good, full of humor and friendship and magic and danger and a few moments of gruesome surprise. Be a good sport, Potter fans, and don’t let Terry Pratchett’s recent ill-tempered effusion of anger against J. K. Rowling prejudice you against reading this very entertaining book, now available in paperback!

by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Age: Age: 12+

The third adventure of Tiffany Aching, teen witch from Discworld, brings back many old, dear friends: the fiercely funny Nac Mac Feegle led by the dauntless, clueless Rob Anybody; the witches of the mountain region, led by Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax; Tiffany's beau and hero-in-waiting Roland; and all the young witches of Tiffany's coven, who are divided over the philosophy of witchcraft between the no-nonsense approach of Granny Weatherwax and the mumbo-jumbo of Mrs. Earwig.

As this tale opens, Tiffany continues to serve one apprenticeship after another - none, it seems, for very long. Most recently she has come to serve an ancient crone named Miss Treason, who keeps the local peasants in awe of her through the use of "Boffo." Some things can't be faked, however. When Miss Treason's powers of divination inform her that she is about to die, she admits frankly that it comes at an inconvenient time. For Tiffany's feet have gotten her into the middle of an ancient story about the turning of the seasons, and if she doesn't see the story through to its ending, winter may never come to an end.

Keeping up her end of the story will take more than the powers Tiffany has within herself. It will take all the mischief of the "wee free men," the romantic heroism of a longsuffering swain, and tons of hints from Granny Weatherwax. But the Story of how the spirit of winter tries to become a man does more than take; it gives... laughter, excitement, creepy-crawlies, and all around reading pleasure.

EDIT: Pratchett is also the author of the "Johnny Maxwell Trilogy," whose titles include Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny and the Dead, and Johnny and the Bomb; these are on my "getting around to it list."

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