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The Wee Free Men

by Terry Pratchett

(Doubleday, £12.99, 324 pages, hardback; May 2003.)

It's quite possibly a deliberate irony, but a friend cover scanof mine, Dai Morgan, upon seeing me reading this book, told me about his encounter with the real Wee Free Men of Scotland, who are in fact an extremely strict Presbyterian group. When he was in Scotland he cycled out to see a nearby loch one Sunday, and as he passed through a village there was a special bus, to save the villagers from the labour of driving or walking to church themselves. The villagers shuffled onto it in an orderly fashion, not uttering a word. All of them stared zombie-like directly in front of them as the bus drove off. As Dai cycled along, who should drive past but the minister, almost going off the road as he gave him looks blacker than the darkest night for daring to break the Sabbath. Which is about as far removed from the Nac Mac Feegle, the Wee Free Men of Terry Pratchett's latest offering, as is possibly imaginable.

So... what do I think about it? Well, sadly I wasn't all that impressed--it certainly wasn't Pratchett at his best. But his best is absolutely wonderful, so this book certainly isn't bad, but it was rarely as much fun as it could have been. The titular Wee Free Men are certainly the funniest thing about it, but are actually somewhat superfluous to the main plot, which centres around Tiffany Aching. Perhaps I don't find her as funny as I'd like to because she cuts a bit too close to the bone--I can't admit to actually having read the dictionary cover to cover as she has, but I have looked through it for, if not pleasure, then at least interest, and have often mispronounced words since I've only seen them in print!

As far as plot goes, it's fairly mundane fairy-tale fodder--someone goes off to rescue someone else who has been stolen by the fairies, but with Pratchett's deft psychological insight. (I've got an anecdote about First Sight, but since I've already used one pointless anecdote this review, I'll save it for another time!) There's also the usual Discworld convention of the main character making some important Realization about the world that helps sort things out. Here, it's about the importance of living in a real life, rather than just dreams and fictions. The book shares a considerable amount in common with Lords and Ladies and the other Witches books from the Discworld series--that indomitable pair, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax even put in an appearance towards the end.

Probably one of the funniest running gags in the book for me was the Nac Mac Feegle's attempts to stop the cat from eating the birds--my only gripe is that it didn't run longer. That their swords glow blue in the presence of lawyers is pretty funny too, but the way in which they are saved from them at the end seems rather contrived.

So in conclusion, despite coming from an author who I like very much, I was left surprisingly cold by this book. Somehow it just didn't gel for me, despite there being some very funny moments and some interesting ideas. Worth reading, but certainly not vintage Pratchett.

Review by Caleb Woodbridge.

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