Nov 20, 2015

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry PratchettThe Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett

It will surprise exactly no one to hear that The Shepherd’s Crown, Terry Pratchett’s final Discworld novel, made me cry my eyes out in public. I can’t really review it in the traditional sense of the term — or, to be precise, I’m sure I could if I made the effort, but I don’t really want to. My subjective experience of reading it is important to me, and that’s what I hope to capture in this post.

I bought The Shepherd’s Crown on the same day as my friend — the same friend who cried with me on a hidden library staircase on the day Pratchett’s death was announced — and we started reading it during our lunch break at work. It didn’t take long until we were both in tears (in fact, the dedication was really all it took); so much so that carrying on reading became impossible after a while. Still, it mattered to me, the humanity of that moment. It mattered that I got to share it. This happened in late August, just before my month of travelling began; a few days later I cried some more as I read The Shepherd’s Crown on a flight to Edinburgh, and then I finished it early one morning at my hotel room in my favourite city. It was fitting that this all happened on a weekend full of reminders of what I value about being human. So much of that is present in Pratchett’s final book.

It’s difficult for me to speak openly about what reading this novel was like for me because I’m keenly aware of the risk of sounding sentimental and trite — and doing Pratchett’s emotional range a disservice in the process — if I simply carry on repeating that it made me cry in public. Yet for once I don’t want to allow that risk to silence me: The Shepherd’s Crown moved me beyond cynicism or embarrassment, and I find this worth remarking upon. Also, I appreciate how the real grief it contains coexists with humour and hope and a very human attempt to construct meaning in the face of mortality.

There will be spoilers from this point onwards: a momentous event takes place in The Shepherd’s Crown, and even though it’s not that hard to guess what’s coming and it happens very early in the novel, I understand that some readers might prefer not to know about it beforehand. However, because most of the novel deals with the aftermath of this event, it’s very difficult to say anything of substance while keeping it under wraps. If you’d rather not know, please skip the rest of this post.

In a recent post about The Shepherd’s Crown, Cory Doctorow notes that compassion is central to the Tiffany Aching novels, and to Pratchett’s work in general. He says,
… if there's one word that sums up the writer Terry Pratchett had latent in him in those early days, and the writer he came to be, and the literary legacy he left behind, it’s compassion.
Granny Weatherwax was always a character that perfectly embodied one of Discworld’s central tenets: don’t treat people like they don’t matter. As anyone who’s read the novels will know, her kindness and compassion didn’t mean she was always pleasant, or that she was ever nice: she was a no-nonsense woman who did what needed to be done, and who never lost sight of other people’s humanity. As we see over the course of the novels that focus on the Witches of Lancre, this is a stance Esme Weatherwax arrived at through both conviction and deliberation.

It’s no surprise, then, that her death leaves an enormous gap in her community, and in the Discworld as a whole. The Shepherd’s Crown explores what her absence means, both for Tiffany personally and for the world in general. For all her wisdom and her good sense — which serve her as well here as they did in previous novels — Tiffany Aching is still a young girl. It’s impossible, then, to read this and not come undone:
Nanny Ogg turned it over as Tiffany’s hand crept towards Granny Weatherwax’s wrist and — even now, even when every atom of her witch being told her that Granny was no longer there — the young girl part of her tried to feel for even the slightest beat of life.
Tiffany Aching knows she has some big shoes to fill, and through the novel we watch her find her way with the help of the mentorship of remarkable women — of a whole community of women. Yet, crucially, it’s her own way that she has to find, rather than a way to emulate the two people who shaped her the most: Granny Aching and Granny Weatherwax. There isn’t a single path to living a good life, and here we watch Tiffany move closer to figuring out what her particular path might be. The Shepherd’s Crown is very much a reflection on what it means to live fully, which eventually settles on “leaving the world a little better than you found it”. It moves me to think it was written by a man who knew he was dying — I hope he knew that he did leave the world better, in so many ways.

Terry Pratchett’s work means the world to me, and that means that I’m always going to read his novels more generously than I would anyone else’s. This isn’t something I would ever demand of others — it’s just what happens naturally for me, because he’s earned it by now. With this in mind, I wanted to finish by discussing the gender politics of witchcraft and sorcery, and how Pratchett returns to them in this novel.

I loved Geoffrey, the boy who wants to be a witch, just like Esk in Equal Rites wanted to be a wizard. And I loved Maggie, the Feegle who wants to be a warrior rather than a Kelda. I liked how The Shepherd’s Crown included various gentle reminders that gender roles are not an inevitability, and that a world where we break them apart is a world that will be better for everyone.

Having said that, sometimes I felt that the novel identified a real problem but came short when it came to offering a solution. Geoffrey, who gets to know the old men of Lancre quite well, identifies a sense of alienation among them: they’re men whose identity was closed tied to their work, and who came of age in a world where gender roles were narrowly defined, and so it has proven challenging for them to maintain a sense of themselves as valuable and dignified human beings as they aged. They are, for the most part, the recipients of care, and feel dismissed by wives who are reluctant to trust their competence in domestic matters. I’m sympathetic to this to an extent, but less so to the idea that the solution is for them to get a “men shed”, so they can have a space that’s “unfretted by female intervention”. There’s too much baggage to this idea; too many echoes of Robert Bly. Still, the novel does acknowledge that it’s defining our roles so narrowly that causes the problem, and there are inklings, in Geoffrey, of possibilities beyond hegemonic masculinity, and of a world where we negotiate our personhood more openly. I appreciated that, even if I felt that the idea of the “men shed” could really do with further deconstructing.

All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better parting from Discworld. It left my heart full to the brim.

They read it too: Capricious Reader, We Be Reading, you?


  1. I agree that the man shed solution was the only slightly sour note for me in this book. I was hoping for something a bit more thoughtful. Still, as was said in the end, the book was short for obvious reasons, so maybe if there had been more time, Terry would have come up with something different.
    The whole experience of reading this book was amazing and painful. I hope that I can pick it up again in a couple of years and re-experience the emotions that flowed through it this time.

    1. Yes, absolutely. This is something that might have changed, if only he'd had more time. And even just typing those words is making me teary-eyed.

  2. I didn't read your entire post because I didn't want the spoilers but I am glad the book is so good and I look forward to shedding tears to when I read it :)

    1. I so look forward to hearing what you think, Stefanie. It's a fitting goodbye.

  3. Right now I'm rereading the Tiffany Aching books so I can read this one with full awareness of what came before (when my hold comes through from the library). I'll be sure to have tissues on hand.

    1. You'll need them for sure. I should reread the older books one of these days. They're probably my favourite Discworld novels, and that's saying a lot.

    2. They are wonderful! I just finished I Shall Wear Midnight, and I'm so sad there is only one more. I agree The Wee Free Men is a good entry point to Pratchett.

  4. I've never really felt like trying out these books till I read this review. . . i'm GLAD you shared the entirety of your response to the book. That and the comment about compassion, have made me want to give this a try.

    thank you!

    1. Let me know what you think! The first one (The Wee Free Men) is a good entry point even if you haven't read any Pratchett before.

    2. I really, really loved the first book! Thank you so much for sharing this!

      P.S. My review is at, in case you're interested.

  5. Oh, Ana, when I got to the end of this book, all I wanted to do was talk to you about it. It was so hard with the battle, and the way the Queen died, and then the flippancy of the King and the way HE killed Peaseflower...

    And I agree with you. It's impossible to read this book objectively. I am actually now very happy I didn't read your review before I posted mine because it makes me feel so much better that your reaction was so similar to mine.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.