The older witches warn Tiffany Aching not to join in the dark Morris dance, but the soon-to-be-thirteen-year-old, who is usually so sensible, suddenly finds that she cannot resist her feet’s urging. Swept away in the heat of the moment, the young witch joins the magical dance before anyone can stop her.
She afterwards learns that she has danced with the Wintersmith. Winter himself becomes fascinated with Tiffany, whom he mistakes for the summer goddess. When the snow begins to fall, Tiffany discovers that every snowflake looks like her and that the Wintersmith is trying to become a man so that they can be together in a permanent winter. She soon learns that her feet have become fertile, and they now cause plants to grow wherever she walks.
Put less metaphorically, Tiffany has begun to notice boys, she has begun to act rashly, and she is learning to accept responsibility. Since she is a witch in a fantasy novel, it also means that she will have to grow up before the Wintersmith’s snows smother her home, the Chalk.
Fortunately, Tiffany is a promising witch with a good head on her shoulders. She is the only witch of her generation that has managed to study under Miss Treason, an elderly witch whose cottage is said to have a demon in the cellar. Miss Treason is blind and deaf, so she relies on the eyes and ears of the creatures around her, including mice, owls, and, sometimes, Tiffany. Although eccentric, rest assured that Miss Treason is not “cackling” — she just witches in a difficult area where a little “Boffo” mythmaking and good collection of skulls helps to earn and maintain the respect of the villagers. But when Miss Treason realizes that she is about to die, Tiffany is forced to confront her mentor’s mortality as she tries to figure out her feelings about the Wintersmith.
Given its focus on fertility and death, Wintersmith may seem a rather daunting young adult novel. However, Terry Pratchett handles Tiffany’s steps along the path from innocence to experience with his trademark style and humor. Few authors manage to balance humor and pathos as deftly as Pratchett does when he’s on top of his game. There were sequences in Wintersmith that I found genuinely moving and other moments — such as the discovery that the mustard on a ham sandwich does not accompany us to the afterlife — that made me laugh out loud.
I also found the Nac Mac Feegles hilarious, even by the Discworld’s already high standard. The Feegles are fiercely loyal to Tiffany, whom they refer to as the “Big Wee Hag.” Though only six inches tall, the Feegles are always ready for a fight and/or a drink. Their leader, Rob Anybody, fears nothing, except, perhaps, spelling.
Wintersmith is the 35th DISCWORLD novel, and the third to follow Tiffany Aching and the Nac Mac Feegles. I opened it without having read the previous two Tiffany Aching novels and with a sense of skepticism. So many authors try their hand at young adult literature that the move sometimes seems more the result of a marketing study than a moment of inspiration, though it’s worth noting that Pratchett’s audience is already massive and his career widely celebrated. Whatever Pratchett’s motivation or inspiration may have been, I enjoyed Wintersmith and consider it among his best work. Although it is marketed to a young adult audience, I would not hesitate to recommend Wintersmith to older readers or even to readers unfamiliar with DISCWORLD. Though Tiffany confronts winter, I found this a warm and charming adventure.
I listened to HarperChildren’s Audio’s production of Wintersmith, which was performed by Stephen Briggs. Briggs, who is always excellent, is especially strong here. My favorite part of this performance may have been his reading of Daft Wullie.