I Shall Wear Midnight

by Terry Pratchett

Cover image

Series: Discworld #38
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 2010
Printing: 2011
ISBN: 0-06-143306-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 355

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I Shall Wear Midnight is the 38th Discworld novel and the 4th Tiffany Aching novel. This is not a good place to start reading.

Tiffany has finished her training and has returned to her home on the Chalk, taking up her duties as the local witch. There are a lot of those, because there's a lot that needs doing. In some cases, such as taking away the pain of the old Duke, they involve things that require magic and that only Tiffany can do. In many other cases, other people could pick up some of the work, but they lack Tiffany's sense of duty and willingness to pay attention.

The people of the Chalk have always been a bit suspicious of witches, in part because the job was done for so long by Tiffany's grandmother and no one thought she was a witch. (She was a witch.) Of late, however, that suspicion seems to be getting worse. It comes to a head when Tiffany is accused of theft and worse by the old Duke's maid, a woman with very fixed ideas about the evils of witches. Tiffany has to sort out what's going on and clear herself, all while navigating her now-awkward relationship with the Duke's son Roland, his unimpressive fiancee, and his spectacularly annoying aunt.

Ah, this is the stuff. This is exactly the Tiffany Aching novel that I have been hoping Pratchett would write. It's pure, snarky competence porn from start to finish.

"I'm a witch. It's what we do. When it's nobody else's business, it's my business."

One of the things that I adore about this series is how well Pratchett shows the different ways in which one can be a witch. Granny Weatherwax out-thinks everyone and nudges (or shoves) people in the right direction, but her natural tendency is to be icy and a bit frightening. Nanny Ogg is that person you can't help but talk to, who may seem happy-go-lucky and hedonistic but who can effortlessly change the mood of a room. And Tiffany is stubborn duty and blunt practicality, which fits the daughter of shepherds. In previous books, we've watched Tiffany as a student, learning the practicalities of being a witch. This is the book where she realizes how much she knows and how much easier the world is to navigate when she's in her own territory.

There is a wonderful scene, late in this book, where Pratchett shows Nanny Ogg at her best, doing the kinds of things that only Nanny Ogg can do. Both Tiffany and the reader are in awe.

I should have learned this, she thought. I wanted to learn fire, and pain, but I should have learned people.

And it's true that Nanny Ogg can do things that Tiffany can't. But what makes this book so great is that it shows how Tiffany's personality and her training come together with her knowledge of the Chalk. She may not know people, in general, but she knows her neighbors and how they think. She doesn't manage them the way that Nanny Ogg would; she's better at solving different kinds of problems, in different ways. But they're the right ways, and the right problems, for her home.

This is another Discworld novel with a forgettable villain that's more of a malevolent force of nature than a character in its own right. It's also another Discworld novel where Pratchett externalizes a human tendency into a malevolent force that can possess people. I have mixed feelings about this narrative approach. That externalization of evil into (in essence) demons has been repeatedly used to squirm out of responsibility and excuse atrocities, and it neatly avoids having to wrestle with the hard questions of prejudice and injustice and why apparently good people do awful things.

I think some of those weaknesses persist even in Pratchett's hands, but I think what he was attempting with that approach in this book is to show how almost no one is immune to nastier ideas that spread through society. Rather than using the externalization of evil as an excuse, he's using it as a warning. With enough exposure to those ideas, they start sounding tempting and partly credible even to people who would never have embraced them earlier. Pratchett also does a good job capturing the way prejudice can start from thoughtless actions that have more to do with the specific circumstances of someone's life than any coherent strategy.

Still, the one major complaint I have about this book is that the externalization of evil is an inaccurate portrayal of the world, and this catches up with Pratchett at the ending. Postulating an external malevolent force reduces evil to something that can be puzzled out and decisively defeated, thus resolving the problem. Sadly, this is not how humans actually work.

I'll forgive that structural flaw, though, because the rest of this book is so good. It's rare that a plot twist in a Discworld novel surprises me — twisty plots are not Pratchett's strength — but this one did. I will not spoil the surprise, but one of the characters is not quite who they seem to be, and Tiffany's reactions once she figures that out are one of my favorite parts of this book. Pratchett is making a point about assumptions, observation, and the importance of being willing to change one's mind about someone when you know more, and I thought it was very well done.

But, most of all, I enjoyed reading about Tiffany being calm, competent, determined, and capable. There's also a bit of an unexpected romance plot that's one of my favorite types: the person who notices that you're doing a lot of work and quietly steps in and starts helping while paying attention to what's needed and not taking over. And it's full of the sort of pithy moral wisdom that makes Discworld such a delight to read.

"There have been times, lately, when I dearly wished that I could change the past. Well, I can't, but I can change the present, so that when it becomes the past it will turn out to be a past worth having."

This was just what I wanted. Highly recommended.

Followed by Snuff in publication order. The next (and last, sadly) Tiffany Aching book is The Shepherd's Crown.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2024-05-31

Last modified and spun 2024-06-01