Douglas Adams wrote a review of P.G. Wodehouse’s final novel, Sunset and Blandings. Like The Shepherd’s Crown, Sunsent and Blandings was published posthumously. It was also unfinished; one of the published versions included Wodehouse’s notes on what the ending was supposed to be. Adams wrote:
This is P.G. Wodehouse’s last — and unfinished — book. It is unfinished not just in the sense that it suddenly, heartbreakingly for those of us who love this man and his work, stops in mid-flow, but in the more important sense that the text up to that point is also unfinished. A first draft for Wodehouse was a question of getting the essential ingredients of a story organised — its plot structure, its characters and their comings and goings, the mountains they climb and the cliffs they fall off. It is the next stage of writing — the relentless revising, refining, and polishing — that turned his works into the marvels of language we know and love. […] Will you, anyway, find much evidence of the great genius of Wodehouse here? Well, to be honest, no. Not just because it is an unfinished work in progress, but also because at the time of writing he was what can only be described as ninety-three. At that age I think you are entitled to have your best work behind you. In a way, Wodehouse was condemned by his extreme longevity[. …] But you will want to read Sunset for completeness, and for that sense you get, from its very unfinishedness, of being suddenly and unexpectedly close to a Master actually at work — a bit like seeing paint pots and scaffolding being carried in and out of the Sistine Chapel.
A lot of this is true about Pratchett. He was pushing seventy and had been writing Discworld since before I was born. Just as I expressed different character traits as I grew up, so too did the Discworld series. It began as parody in The Colour of Magic, went through a period of quite insightful social commentary, and then carved out its twilight years sanctimoniously preaching about the merits of modernity.
At its best, Discworld worked as a vehicle for joyful, well-sculpted, stand alone stories. At its worst, it became a safe space for a privileged old man to pontificate, particularly about feminism, equality, and liberalism. His female characters in particular became increasingly insufferable and almost unrecognisable from earlier versions.
The Shepherd’s Crown is all of Pratchett’s worst qualities. Tiffany Aching is trying to find her place in the world, performing emotional labour for a rural village full of older, male idiots. A major, beloved character dies, and Tiffany has to try to work out how she will respond. This means finding herself — again — and resolving other people’s problems — again — and coming to a new understanding of her long deceased grandmother — again.
Tiffany is assisted by a boy who wants to be a witch. How absurd! The boy wants to be a witch! But being a witch is a woman’s job! And men can’t do women‘s work because it involves being sensitive, practical, and communicative, which are all female traits. But — and here’s the twist! — he’s better at emotional labour than all the witches!
The novel is clearly unpolished and the bits don’t quite match up nicely. The plot is erratic and would probably have been smoothed out in subsequent drafts. The core questions of the plot remain unresolved, and the climax of the novel is a complete fizzer.
Worse, a plot begins to develop in response to the major death with all the characters who aren’t Tiffany Aching. That story, the story of how people respond to the death of significant people, is far more interesting. The fact that the death could have cosmic consequences within the Discworld would have been a literary way of exploring the issue. Instead, Tiffany is a damp blanket over that story.
But when so many of the Discworld series — 41 novels, most of which were best sellers — have been so wonderfully good, do we care that The Shepherd’s Crown is unfinished and not very good? No. This was clearly unfinished and might, had Pratchett not died of Alzheimer’s, been quite a good read. As Adams said about Wodehouse, you read this novel to see a Master at work. You see how much of the early drafts were bits and bobs of plot and idea before being spun into a coherent story. But you can’t help wondering if the Discworld was running on borrowed time, its egg timer filled with something… else.
But it’s possible that you haven’t read any of the Discworld series and you’re wondering: ‘Mark, which should I read?’
Here you go:
- Equal Rites.
- Small Gods.
- The Thief of Time.
- Going Postal.