Book Review: “The Shepherd’s Crown” by Terry Pratchett

shepherds crown

Yesterday I finished Terry Pratchett’s last book, “The Shepherd’s Crown.”

[Pause to wipe unexplained moisture from eyes.]

First, I’m glad it was a Discworld story. I have enjoyed everything Pratchett has written on his own or in collaboration with someone else. But­—as with most of his readers, I suspect­—I adore Discworld. I adore its cast of thousands, many of whom have become old friends. I adore Discworld’s manic buffoonery, it’s defiance of science in favor of its own wacked magic, the humor and humanity of its inhabitants (many of whom are not actually human).

Second, I’m glad it was a Tiffany Aching story. The first Aching novel I read was “A Hat Full of Sky.” I didn’t realize it took place in Discworld. It seemed to exist in the wide spaces of the High Chalk, covered by an expanse of endless blue sky and connected to nothing else. I fell in love with Tiffany. And I enjoyed the stories of the other witches enormously. I loved the idea of witching as a profession. I loved that witches served the needs of their community, not for gain, but because somebody had to do it. I loved that they didn’t often use magic in the performance of their duties, but usually applied common sense, deep insight into the foibles of humanity, and—not infrequently—threats. You don’t have to actually turn someone into a toad if they truly, deeply believe that you will if they get so much as a hair out of line. I loved the tension between the tough old witches like Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg and the New Age witches with their tinkly amulets and sparkly dresses.

By the way, I am embarrassed that after reading all those books, it wasn’t until last night that I realized why Nanny Ogg was named Nanny Ogg. {Blush}

As world-building goes, Discworld is a shining, if unachievable example to other fantasy writers. It is so detailed and internally consistent that during the time I was immersed in a Discworld story, I believed in a flat world resting on the back of a giant turtle floating in space. I believed that Death was a kindly, inexorable presence in a black robe who SPOKE IN CAPITALS and rode a white horse named Binky. I believed that there was a City Watch consisting of a werewolf, a female dwarf, a troll, something called Nobby Nobbs, and the uncrowned King of Ankh-Morepork, headed by Commander Samuel Vimes. I believed, and if that isn’t magic, what is?

I had to look up the shepherd’s crown of the title. Shepherd’s crowns are fossilized sea urchins commonly found in the chalk downs of England. They have five ridges that meet in the center of the fossil, looking somewhat like the star on some species of sand dollar (a closely related animal). Apparently, the ridges looked like a crown to someone, if not to me. Back in the day, these fossils were thought to be magical charms against evil. In this story, a shepherd’s crown is passed down through the Aching family to Granny Aching, and finally to Tiffany. Because Tiffany belongs to the Chalk, the little fossil becomes a powerful talisman in her last fight against an invasion of evil elves from Fairyland. (Those who have read “Lords and Ladies” will remember that in Pratchett’s universe, elves are beautiful, glamorous, powerful—and the cruelest, nastiest creatures imaginable.)

The story is about what happens when people band together to fight a just cause. Traditional adversaries become allies. Strong becomes stronger. And Tiffany truly comes into herself as a witch. Beyond that, I’m not giving out any spoilers.

Is “The Shepherd’s Crown” Pratchett’s best Discworld novel? No, not in my opinion. However, I am absolutely certain it is the finest novel in any language or genre written by a man dying of a vicious form of Alzheimer’s Disease. I am certain he had lots of help here, but it is Pratchett’s voice and spirit that shine throughout the tale. It is his last love letter to humanity, and his last admonition to us to behave like witches—practical, wise, kind when called for and tough when not, taking up the burden of service because it is the right thing to do. “The Shepherd’s Crown” sums up what Terry Pratchett has been trying to tell us all along: “Do the right thing.”

Time for a snack. I’m going to have a rat on a stick, how about you?