The Wee Free Men is the start of a series of books following nine year-old Tiffany Aching, by hilarious author Terry Pratchett (of Discworld fame). Tiffany lives on a farm where she makes cheese and butter and looks after her constantly sticky baby brother. But when strange monsters begin appearing on Tiffany’s land and her brother is stolen, she sets out on a quest to challenge the Queen of the Fairies, in a riotous, cursing, side-splitting adventure.
While plot-wise this book may seem similar to the previously-reviewed Poison, it is about as different as you can get. Tiffany takes care of the invading beasties with a hefty frying pan and a good glare. Along the way she befriends the Nac Mac Feegle, a clan of tiny blue pictsies (ie. they speak with a thick Scottish brogue and wear kilts – pictsies not pixies), and their leader Rob Anybody. With help from the (drunk, thieving, head-butting) Feegle clan, plus a toad who was once a lawyer, a book of Diseases of the Sheep annotated by her grandmother (whose cures generally involve turpentine, cussin’, and a good kick), and a great deal of reasonability, Tiffany adventures into dreams and fairy stories to defend her land.
Tiffany is a new kind of hero, because even though it is established early on that she is a witch, all of her power is based on an ability to see clearly and think twice. As she remarks, “it’s still magic, even if you know how it’s done.” She doesn’t pull off any feats of supernatural ability or physical prowess – instead she thinks her way through the problems that face her. It’s nice to have a protagonist who actually thinks things through — a trait generally lacking in YA novels. Whether it’s finding a way around a marriage proposal from tiny Rob Anybody, or finding a disguised monster in her dreams, she can always depend on her rationality and quick wit to find a way out.
Interestingly, as a heroine, Tiffany isn’t even a particularly noble or impressive character – she goes off to save her brother not because she loves him, but because he’s her brother. She’s smart and doesn’t tend to get carried away with things – fear, boys, glory, whatever. It is her strong connection to the land that grounds her (no pun intended) and drives her in her adventures. While technically this is a Discworld novel, the Chalklands bear strong resemblance to Pratchett’s native Wiltshire, England and there are multiple references to Stonehenge and the Uffington White Horse (both in Wiltshire).
Pratchett is a fabulous writer (he was knighted in 2009 for “services to literature”) and a prolific one too. While some of the characters from other Discworld novels leak into Tiffany’s story, there are three more of her own novels: A Hat Full Of Sky, Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight, which was published earlier this month. There is also a fabulously illustrated edition of Wee Free Men by Stephen Player – not only are the full-color (and often fold-out) illustrations wonderful, the text itself is sprinkled with mischievous Nac Mac Feegle, who push the letters around, and sometimes steal them. It’s great fun to read!