Hogfather

by Terry Pratchett

Cover image

Series: Discworld #20
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 1996
Printing: February 2014
ISBN: 0-06-227628-X
Format: Mass market
Pages: 402

Buy at Powell's Books

Hogfather is the 20th Discworld novel and not a very good place to start. I recommend at least reading Soul Music first for a proper introduction to Susan, and you may want to start with Mort.

When we last saw Susan, she was a student at the Quirm College for Young Ladies. Now she's a governess for two adorable youngsters, a job that includes telling them stories and dealing quite capably with monsters in the cellar. (She uses a poker.) It also includes answering questions like whether the Hogfather really exists or whether the presents just come from your parents.

"Look at it this way, then," she said, and took a deep mental breath. "Wherever people are obtuse and absurd... and wherever they have, by even the most generous standards, the attention span of a small chicken in a hurricane and the investigative ability of a one-legged cockroach... and wherever people are inanely credulous, pathetically attached to the certainties of the nursery and, in general, have as much grasp of the physical universe as an oyster has of mountaineering... yes, Twyla: there is a Hogfather.

Meanwhile, the Auditors, last seen meddling with Death in Reaper Man, approach the Assassin's Guild in Ankh-Morpork to hire the assassination of the Hogfather. This rather unusual assignment falls to Mister Teatime, an orphan who was taken in by the guild at an early age and trained to be an assassin. Teatime is a little unnerving, mostly because he enjoys being an assassin. Rather a lot.

Hogfather has two major things to recommend it: it's a Death novel, and it features Susan, who is one of my favorite Discworld characters. It also has two major strikes against it, at least for me.

The first is relatively minor but, for me, the most irritating. A bit of the way into the story, Pratchett introduces the Oh God of Hangovers — fair, that's a good pun — and then decides that's a good excuse for nausea and vomiting jokes. A lot of nausea and vomiting jokes.

Look. I know a lot of people don't mind this. But I beg authors (and, even more so, filmmakers and cartoonists) to consider whether a joke that some of your audience might like is worth making other parts of your audience feel physically ill while trying to enjoy your work. It's not at all a pleasant experience, and while I handle it better in written form, it still knocks me out of the story and makes me want to skip over scenes with the obnoxious character who won't shut up about it. Thankfully this does stop by the end of the book, but there are several segments in the middle that were rather unpleasant.

The second is that Pratchett tries to convince the reader of the mythical importance of the Santa Claus myth (for which Hogfather is an obvious stand-in, if with a Discworld twist), an effort for which I am a highly unsympathetic audience. I'm with Susan above, with an extra helping of deep dislike for telling children who trust you something that's literally untrue. Pratchett does try: he has Death makes a memorable and frequently-quoted point near the end of the book (transcribed below) that I don't entirely agree with but still respect. But still, the book is very invested in convincing Susan that people believing mythology is critically important to humanity, and I have so many problems with the literalness of "believing" and the use of trusting children for this purpose by adults who know better.

There are few topics that bring out my grumpiness more than Santa Claus.

Grumbling aside, though, I did enjoy this book anyway. Susan is always a delight, and I could read about her adventures as a governess for as long as Pratchett wanted to write them. Death is filling in for the Hogfather for most of the book, which is hilarious because he's far too good at it, in his painfully earnest and literal way, to be entirely safe. I was less fond of Albert's supporting role (who I am increasingly coming to dislike as a character), but the entire scene of Death as a mall Santa is brilliant. And Teatime is an effective, creepy villain, something that the Discworld series doesn't always deliver. The powers arrayed on Discworld are so strong that it can be hard to design a villain who effectively challenges them, but Teatime has a sociopathic Professor Moriarty energy with added creepiness that fills that role in this book satisfyingly.

As is typical for Pratchett (at least for me), the plot was serviceable but not the highlight. Pratchett plays in some interesting ways with a child's view of the world, the Unseen University bumbles around as a side plot, and it comes together at the end in a way that makes sense, but the journey is the fun of the story. The conclusion felt a bit gratuitous, there mostly to wrap up the story than something that followed naturally from the previous plot. But it does feature one of the most quoted bits in Discworld:

"All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable."

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—"

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

"So we can believe the big ones?"

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

"They're not the same at all!"

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET — Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME...SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point—"

MY POINT EXACTLY.

Here's the thing, though: Susan is right. They're not the same sort of thing at all, and Pratchett doesn't present an argument that they are. Death's response is great, but it's also a non sequitur: it is true and correct but has nothing to do with Susan's argument. Justice is not a lie in the sense that Santa Claus is a lie: justice is something that humans can create, just like humans can create gift-giving or a tradition of imaginative story-telling. But this is not at all the same thing as encouraging children to believe in the literal existence of a fat man in red who comes down chimneys to deliver gifts by magic.

And Death isn't even correct in Discworld! If one pays careful attention to the story, the consequences he's thinks would follow from the Auditors' attempt on the Hogfather not only don't happen, the exact opposite happens. This is the point of the Unseen University subplot, and it's also what happened in Reaper Man. The Auditors may be trying to kill mythology, but what the books show is that the real danger comes from the backlash. The force they're meddling with is far more powerful and persistent than they are.

Death appears to be, by the stated events of the story, completely incorrect in his analysis of Discworld's metaphysics. Maybe Pratchett knows this? He did write a story that contradicts Death's analysis if one reads it carefully. But if so, this is not obvious from the text, or from Susan's reaction to Death's speech, which makes the metaphysics weirdly unsatisfying.

So, overall, a mixed bag. Most of the book is very fun, but the metaphysics heavily rest on a pet peeve of mine, and I really could have done without the loving descriptions of the effects of hangovers. This is one of the more famous Discworld novels for the above quote, and on its own this is deserved (it's a great quote), but I think the logic is muddled and the story itself contradicts the implications. A rather odd reading experience.

Followed by Jingo in publication order, and Thief of Time thematically.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-09-10

Last spun 2022-10-03 from thread modified 2022-09-11