Weird Kitties Reviews (The Shepherd's Crown, Annie's Arms, The Dusty Hat)

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The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett
Reviewed by Daibhid Ceannaideach

Eligable for Best Novel and available for purchase here.

The Shepherd's Crown is the fifth and last Tiffany Aching book, the forty-first and last Discworld novel, and the fifty-seventh  and last novel by Terry Pratchett.  It also opens with a major event which many reviews have been criticised for spoiling. But you can't really discuss the book without spoiling it; it's like reviewing Raising Steam without mentioning it involves a train.

So here goes: Granny Weatherwax, most respected of the leaders witches don't have and part time force of nature, is no more. This happens in the second chapter, and the rest of the book is about a world with a Granny Weatherwax shaped hole in it.

In a way, this is almost too appropriate for the last Discworld book, coming a mere six months after fans found themselves in a world with a Terry Pratchett shaped hole in it. Some people who heard the spoiler were grateful that they now knew they weren't ready to read the book. Granny Weatherwax was the character Sir Terry used as an example when discussing how popular characters are immortal, she'd been around since the third book, of course Discworld ends as she does.

No other character would work here; Rincewind has been around for longer, but was always a much broader comic character;  a novel centred around his death would be like seriously considering the funeral of Daffy Duck. There could certainly have been a novel about the Watch dealing with the death of Vimes, but Vimes's death would probably be messier, and dealing with it would involve bringing those responsible to justice. Granny dies peacefully in her sleep, just like Terry did.

And, of course, we're reading too much into it already. The last five books have all "obviously" been Terry's final novel where he says farewell to his characters. It's pretty clear he never thought that way, and the afterword by Rob Willkins reveals there were at least four ideas he was working on that we will now never see. There was never going to be a "final Discworld novel", there was just going to be a point where they stopped.

But this is nonetheless a book that works as a final Discworld novel. It also works as the last Tiffany Aching novel, which probably was intentional; Tiffany comes into her own as the new major witch, as we always knew she could, and has to face the elves, just as she did aged nine in The Wee Free Men. The way she does this involves a decision it is hard to imagine Granny Weatherwax making, but is very Tiffany Aching, showing that, while she learned from the best, what she learned was how to be herself.

But the echoes of past witches novels stretch further than that. Pretty much all the witches appear in it and most of them get a moment to shine (even Mrs Earwig). Geoffrey, the young man who wants to be a witch, is paralleled to Eskarina Smith, the young woman who wants to be a wizard in Equal Rites, thereby highlighting that there are two edges to why fixed gender roles are wrong, and that while one is more obviously discriminatory, the other is no better for being insidious. And there's plenty references to the day-to-day work of witches, which was always an important part of the Tiffany books. (For those who don't know, a Discworld witch is basically a district nurse who moonlights as an occult troubleshooter.)

(Is the gender politics in this book perfect? Well, no. I was disappointed that Geoffrey doesn't get to actually be a witch, and instead they make up a title for him. And the Discworld running gag about sheds has always struck me as a touch gender-essentialist, and it turns out explaining it from first principles does nothing to change my mind on this. But that's just a couple of bum notes.)

An interesting balancing act in the book is its attitude to Progress. The book is mostly set on the Chalk, where things move slowly and the world is resistant to change, but change is happening. Old men aren't sure of their place in the world. There are things like Tiffany's dad wondering if he's the last generation to call a fox "Reynard". Since the Chalk is closely based on the place Terry chose to live, he certainly has sympathy for this viewpoint.

But this isn't just reactionary "the past was always better" Tolkienism. For one thing, Progress is represented by the steam engine, and Terry clearly loved the fact Discworld had trains now. From the description of the broomstick shop in a railway arch to the fact that the rails and engines are as effective a ward against Discworld's monstrous elves as any other iron, the Ankh-Morpork and Sto Plains Hygienic Railway is clearly presented as A Good Thing. You can miss the past, but the future is coming.

Because, in the end, that's what a book about coping with death means. The world will change, and you might not like the changes, but they'll happen anyway. And you can either deal with them, as Tiffany does, or deny them, like Lord Peaseblossom refusing to admit elves can no longer raid the human world safely.

Oh, and it's funny. Maybe not his funniest, but then the Tiffany ones never were; they were too real for that. (And as GURPS Discworld says, one of the things that makes Discworld work is that it's a world that contains jokes, but not a joke world.) But it definitely has some great lines amid the plot. (My favourite is when faerie glamour draining away is described as "the elvish leaving the building". Although all the scenes involving the Nac Mac Feegle come close.)

Annie's Arms by Xanna Chown
Reviewed by James Wylder

Eligible for Best Short Story and available in Liberating Earth, for purchase here.

The beauty of Annie's Arms lies in its total subversion of what its supposed to be. An absolutely horrific love story, Annie's Arms is a story that is a mashup of genres that would usually be looked down upon by the literary elite: a young-adult romance sci-fi horror tale. In some ways its the perfect storm of ill respected genres, and that's what makes it shine. The story rejects fitting into any one category, tearing apart the expectations of each of its respective parents. Its horror is cosmic, but casually domestic. Strange shadow creatures from beyond reality have become just another part of everyday life, complete with low-wage service jobs related to them. Even as the world falls to tatters, its banality is infinite.

But along with the banal cosmic sci-fi horror is a star-crossed romance, and the brilliance here comes with this being the plotline that contains the story's real horror. Its not the existence of shadow beings that burn through our world that inspires fear, its that they might want to reduce our ambitions down to a consummation. For Annie, the chance to be the enabler of this romance should be the point where the world widens for her, but its what kills her. Not through malicious action, nor through intentional violence, but through falling into a story she doesn't understand but thinks she does.

The source of presumed comfort is the abuser, the source of horror was all that was stable in the world. Whether its a warning or a critique, its something that feels timely in a world where abuse is so often still romanticized. Sometimes the scariest thing is a romance.



The Dusty Hat, by China Miéville
Reviewed by Jack Graham

Eligible for Best Novelette, and available here

China Miéville, the multi-award-winning SF/Fantasy author, is one of the team behind the new Marxist journal Salvage. Miéville’s short story, ‘The Dusty Hat’, taken from his recently published collection Three Moments of an Explosion, was posted on the Salvage website as a free enticement when the journal was gearing up to launch. You can still read it for free here. The story is an apposite choice for that context, given that it is set in the aftermath of a split in a British far-Left party, such as the splits that gave rise to the existence of Salvage itself. The narrator is one of several who have just left an older, larger party, and is attending a series of meetings held by the newly formed breakaway group. The narrator tells of encountering a strange man at some of these meetings, a man wearing a dusty hat, who delivers himself of statements that stand out from the normal stuff you get at such meetings (and believe me, when somebody at a meeting like that says something even half unpredictable, you notice). Intrigued, the narrator follows the man through the corridors of the educational establishment where the event is being held… and then things get seriously weird.

The first thing to say is that the political backdrop to the story is recognisably based on the split in the Socialist Workers Party - Britain’s largest revolutionary socialist party - which took place in 2013. Chunks of the membership, including Miéville, left following the party’s scandalous and shameful conduct in the wake of rape and sexual abuse allegations made by female members against the National Secretary Martin Smith. The allegations revealed a culture of sexism, rape-apologism, manipulation, cronyism and cover-up inside the party. Miéville and his group departed, making a very proper public noise about it. (The breakaways formed a new organisation - the International Socialist Network - which subsequently split after a row about racism and kink-shaming. Hence, Miéville’s involvement in Salvage.) The story doesn’t actually track these developments exactly, but near enough. More broadly, anyone who has ever been involved in British far-Left politics, or even just been to a public meeting organised by a British socialist sect or groupuscle, will get a giggle from bits of the story. Beyond in-jokes and arcane references, the story has serious fish to fry when it comes to politics. Aside from the obvious critique of the SWP - or, more broadly, the enshrined problems with the far-Left that it represents - there is also the critique of vacuous optimism and rote conformity, even from the narrator’s political friends.

There’s a way in which the weird, oblique, and poetic statements of the hat-wearing man mirror Miéville’s own style in the story, certainly as it progresses. The prose manages to be wistfully conversational, densely allusive, complex, playful, and sometimes wilfully obscure - to the point where sentences need to be re-read several times in order to fully take in all their implications. Miéville has stated his distrust of the idea that language is a clear pane of glass through which we see meaning, believing it instead to be more akin to a stained glass window (c.f. particularly his novel Embassytown). And he refuses to shy away from the implications of this. Reading him is, sometimes, a complex and demanding pleasure. His fiction prose is clearly influenced by postmodern writers of both fiction and non-fiction… and also, I would argue, by Marx. The young Marx, who started writing philosophy in the context of the Young Hegelian movement, can often be found working in a similar style - allusive, playful, punning, wilfully complicated and obscure - in his early writings. And the older Marx held on to the best aspects of this style, which involved a tendency to pack large numbers of ideas into short bursts, creating complex sentences which need careful parsing. To me, this isn’t a disadvantage in either Marx’s work or in Miéville’s fiction. Indeed, I find it a heady pleasure. The fact that the work needs careful re-reading in order to fully make sense of it - or rather, to fully assimilate what you need to in order to start pondering the sense of it - doesn’t detract from the punch you get from the first read. I’m making the story sound terribly serious. But actually, it works along the lines of a cheeky - if vast - conceptual joke.

Essentially, the story is about the narrator being contacted and ‘recruited’ by a faction of sentient dust, which wants to show solidarity with, and come to the aid of, his faction in their fight with other far-Left groups. To go into much detail about the mechanics of how this works would be to ruin the story for anyone who hasn’t yet read it. Honestly, the term ‘spoiler alert’ really doesn’t cover the kind of damage I could do to your experience of reading this story if I were to list for you, in advance, the permutations Miéville puts on the concept. Suffice it to say, the story doesn’t work like the kind of standard genre piece that the phrase ‘sentient dust’ might imply. Miéville sets the story against a vast implied backdrop of a universe which works according to a previously unimagined ontology of both consciousness and politics. Sentience runs through the entire natural world, as does politics. The struggle is omnipresent and universal… but not in a Nietzschean or a Hobbesian way. Rather, the story imagines a universe something like that described in Engels’ Dialectics of Nature, but in which all the forces of the universe, and all the matter in the universe, is conscious, possessed of ideas and principles, divided into factions, and engaged in political struggles. Crucially, solidarity is as ontologically key to this massive conceptual/literal joke of a cosmos as is struggle. The split in one of the walls in the narrator’s crumbling house has been watching him, and is an enemy. But the dust comes to his aid, as a comrade.

Much as the story might make its satirical swipes, and invoke the metaphysical claims of dialectical materialism (ironically but also ‘on the square’), I’m sure there’s no ultimate ‘message’. Indeed, as if often the case with Miéville, the polysemy and instability of valence are part of what’s wonderful about it. Almost certainly, there is no solution to the riddle the story poses. No punchline that will make the joke make sense. But it’s a wonderfully rich riddle, and a very funny joke all the same. From such a simple pun - the split in a wall mirroring the split in a party - comes nothing less than an entirely new joke cosmology. This is pure politico-poetic alchemy. As above, so below. I’m a confirmed Miéville fan, so it’s unsurprising that I admire this - but I really think it’s one of the most dazzling stories I’ve read in ages.

Comments

Andrew Plotkin 1 year, 4 months ago

"No other character would work here..."

On the contrary, there's one that would have and *should* have: Lord Vetinari.

The three absolutely unkillable characters of Discworld -- as introduced -- are Granny Weatherwax, Lord Vetinari, and Death. They are indispensable. Lancre would fall apart without Esme Weatherwax, Ankh-Morpork would fall apart without the Patrician, and our understanding of life, the universe, and everything would collapse without Death.

(Vimes was never indispensable. The Watch was always more important than he was.)

Well, you can't kill off Death. The end of Death is not a Discworld story. (Maybe a Sandman story, certainly a Culture story, but not a Discworld story.) Granny's death did not have to be told but it could be told and Pratchett did it.

Vetinari's death *should* have been told and I am forever now going to blame Pratchett that it wasn't. Vetinari's whole plan as tyrant and evil overlord of Ankh-Morpork was to create an Ankh-Morpork that did not require a tyrant or overlord to keep it running. We caught wind of that in _Guards Guards_; it ran through the Moist books and the books that mentioned the Undertaking. Vetinari could always see, somewhere ahead, the point where he could die and the city would run on without him. At this point in the series, we can see it as well.

_Raising Steam_ would have suited that storyline perfectly. I wanted it to. Maybe Pratchett had a better idea lined up. I don't know. I needed those two mirror-facing elements of closure, Esme and Havelock, and I got only one of them because, in the end, Discworld comes with no more of a guarantee of satisfaction than Roundworld does. I grieve Pratchett and this is part of that.

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Aylwin 1 year, 4 months ago

I'm not sure I agree about Lancre. Ankh-Morpork, yes - it's an inherently venal and violent place, whose previous and "natural" state is the tyranny punctuated by bloody upheaval which is alluded to in various books, and which we see in Night Watch. Its current condition is the product of Vetinari's efforts to make it into something better, which are frequently threatened from within the ecology of the city itself, generally by reactionary elements which would take it back to the bad old days. For that not to be the outcome when Vetinari does die, something has to change.

But Lancre's nature is basically to go on being pretty much as it is - it was much as it is long before Granny Weatherwax was around, and there was never any particular reason to expect it to stop being so once she wasn't. It gets threatened, but the threats tend to be external, and can be said to appear only so that there can be more stories about Granny seeing off the monsters - so, in a sense, it's only ever in danger because she's there to protect it. In that way, the witch books are fundamentally more conservative than the Watch ones.

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phuzz 1 year, 4 months ago

The plot of Reaper Man was basically "the end of Death", but it didn't stick obviously.

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Daibhid C 1 year, 4 months ago

Good point about Vetinari's death; I hadn't thought of that.

I can see why it didn't happen in Raising Steam though; he was already writing Shepherd's Crown, and the "everyone reacts to Granny's death" chapter really needed Vetinari in it; Drumknott giving the news to "the new Patrician" wouldn't have had the same effect.

(And yes, the Captcha is evil and hates us.)

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Andrew Plotkin 1 year, 4 months ago

(Geez, it only took me seven tries to get through that captcha. Anybody else having trouble commenting?)

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John Peacock 1 year, 4 months ago

I'm not sure that The Shepherd's Crown is an award-winner, at least not as it stands. It's not the book's fault that that's the case (and not the author's either, as he had other things to contend with). It does give a fascinating insight into Pratchett's methodology: the whole book is there linearly, but needs to be filled out laterally. Particularly the confrontation with the Elves is quite cursory (and if I had limited resources I'd concentrate them on the bits that are important or interesting or fun, too).

The problem with Geoffrey is that he's a little too perfect, a little too clean. Were I to demand such a story from an author who wasn't actually dying, I might suggest that the first boy to become a witch should be messy and complicated and difficult and not always right and not immediately loved by everybody, someone who challenges Tiffany's preconceptions and prejudices from a less than exalted position. And, yes, should actually become a witch. I'd expect that given the chance and with time Pratchett would have come to the same conclusion. But neither opportunity nor time were available.

At least he got to pay off the gag with the "I aten't dead" card.

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Daibhid C 1 year, 4 months ago

Yeah, those are valid points. As Rob says, the book has a beginning, middle and end, but it doesn't quite have as much of an "inside" as we're used to.

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Dave 1 year, 4 months ago

Read "The Dusty Hat" the other day when I heard Jack was reviewing it. What a damn story! I admit I was probably going to like it as soon as Mieville started dropping Marx puns, which is the political version of a fannish impulse, but I'm not sure if I'm as ashamed of that as would usually be. The political saturation of the story, jargon and all, is part of the reason it feels so fresh, a few decades into the hegemony (in writers' workshops and the like) of the liberal idea that compelling writing disavows analysis and stays at the level of experience and object. Of course, Dusty Hat is a deeply visceral story, but the conceit allows Mieville to phrase embodied Weird narrative in terms of lefty discourse, which is hilarious in itself.

Also to phrase politics physically, which I agree is one of the most interesting bits. "Capital’s like a glass spike up through things, he said, an accumulative rhythm to which we might find antiphase, create interference." Reminds me a bit of some of Robert Biel's recent thermodynamics-themed work--new kinds language to use against the systems we want to negate.

The psychological ambiguity/polysemy that comes with this form (structurally it's classic Weird, owes a lot to Borges and the like) also makes what might be the bleakest joke of all--what might it be like if someone had a mental breakdown while immersed in the Swappy schism(s)? We radical types are awfully fond of projecting our quirks and pathologies on the universe at large, after all.

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