Pratchett's I Shall Wear Midnight, sentimental and fun book about a witch among enemies

Terry Pratchett's newly released I Shall Wear Midnight is the fourth volume in the Tiffany Aching books, about a young girl born to be the witch of a chalky, sheep-farming area called, simply, The Chalk (the other three volumes being Wee Free Men, Hatful of Sky and Wintersmith). Tiffany's old gran was the "Wise Woman" of the hills, and her gifts came down to Tiffany, who, at the age of 7 or 8, began to need them -- first to rescue the Baron's son when he was kidnapped by the Queen of Faerie (Tiffany hit her with an iron frying pan) and then to learn proper magic while apprenticed to a real witch, and finally to kiss the Wintersmith during a morris dance, and then have to set the seasons to right.

In Midnight, Tiffany returns. Now she's 16, and she has assumed all the burdens of being The Chalk's witch -- and they are burdensome -- delivering the babies, salving the wounds, clipping the neglected old ladies' toenails, changing the bandages, and using magic to take away the pain of the Baron, who is dying.

As if being thrust into an early maturity wasn't enough, witchery has fallen into disrepute on The Chalk -- and seemingly everywhere. There are old ladies being crushed and drowned by mobs, there are the whispers and the forked fingers to fight the evil eye when Tiffany passes, and then, when the Baron dies while Tiffany eases him into the next world, there is the wildfire rumor that Tiffany killed him.

What Tiffany learns is that a shade of an old witchburner, called the Cunning Man, has been summoned to the world. Where the Cunning Man walks, poison follows -- poison against witches, against the odd, against foreigners, against the out-of-place. The Cunning Man is shambling evil, a corruption that goes into all the places that welcome poison, all the dark and ugly corners of our minds.

Luckily, Tiffany has help -- her guardians and charges, the Nac Mac Feegle or Wee Free Men, a race of tiny blue faerie folk (technically, they are Pictsies) that wear kilts, carry claymores, live under the chalk, and fight and steal and steal and fight as though there was nothing better in the world. They are fast as lightning, nigh indestructible, silly as a bag of jello, good-hearted, and very difficult to be with. Some allies!

Midnight is certainly the darkest of the Tiffany Aching books, which, though touched with Pratchett's gift for sweet and even sentimental characterization and madcap plotting, have been somewhat sleight. These are young adult books and they are uplifting in their way, and lots of fun, but until now, without the barbs that lurk under Pratchett's humor and light treatment, making him such a beloved writer.

But Midnight is dark. As the Chalk's witch, Tiffany is called upon to tend to the horrors that everyone else would turn a blind eye to, including a man who beat his pregnant, 13 year old daughter so fiercely that she lost the baby. And the Cunning Man is a scary haint, described with merciless horror by Pratchett, who can do terrifying so well because you hardly expect it. Give this book to 15 or 16 year old who started reading about Tiffany when they were 8 or 9, and I think you'll hit them right where they live. What adolescent doesn't struggle with the bad things that everyone says they're too young to experience, but are there nevertheless? And what teenager doesn't know about the infectious hatred that sweeps through a mob when there is someone different and vulnerable, when one wicked or insecure person throws the first insult or whispers the first innuendo?

Of course, there's lots here for adult Pratchett fans to love -- Tiffany's travails take her to Ankh-Morpork, where she meets the Watch and has adventures on Tenth Egg Street (lately famed in Making Money and the other Moist von Lipwigg novels), and runs into one of the earliest and most delightful of Pratchett's heroines; she seeks counsel from the Lancre witches (and even Magrat comes along), and so on. This book really feels like a tying together of many loose ends in the Discworld, and I'll happily admit that it had me sniffling back tears in the last chapter. It's a Pratchett novel -- there's really not much else to say.

I Shall Wear Midnight