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Dances with bees **
on July 29, 2004
At a mere eleven years old, Tiffany Aching has won a war and lost a gran. She's killed the "Quin" of the Faeries - with a skillet! Her grandmother, a woman of Power, was a subtle force among the Chalk Downs shepherd community. With such a background, it's inevitable that she is destined for an interesting life. She's already been a kelda to the Nac Mac Feegles - the pictsies who scutter among the barns and bushes of the local farms. Now, she's been selected by the doyenne of the Ramtops' witches, Mistress Weatherwax, to be trained in The Craft.
Tiffany's clearly inherited some of her gran's Power, but is too young to understand or cope with it. Something else wants that Power. The hiver is a formless thing constantly seeking minds to inhabit. While not truly evil, its effect is deadly. It's inhabited Tyrannosaurs, sabre-toothed tigers and wizards. Yet it's still not sated. Tiffany's young, untested and vulnerable mind seems an ideal roost for the hiver. Thus, the story, told as only Pratchett can relate it, becomes a contest of wills - Tiffany's, the hiver, her mentor, Nac Mac Feegle and all.
So, is this just another simple fantasy about witchcraft and the eternal struggle between "good" and "evil" - a dark versus light dichotomy? Not in Pratchett's knowledgeable hands. The Feegle, Tiffany's staunch allies, are thieves and boozers, in strife with anything that moves. Miss Level, Tiffany's assigned trainer, leads a double life - and more than one of those. The Chalk Downs aren't just white rocky paddocks - they bear a history of life reaching millions of years in the past. Part of the Power is understanding that heritage, and perhaps putting it to use. And just why was the Uffington White Horse carved on a hillside so that no one could see it clearly? And why is the carving in parts instead of a complete rendition? Um . . . and is it really a cat? Pratchett's ability to challenge the reader instead of merely being entertaining is unexcelled. This book is a prime example of that talent.
Tiffany's confrontation with the hiver reveals its hidden origins. They are as remote as Time itself. While the hiver enters but one mind at a time, it represents an aspect of all living things. Pratchett's resolution of the hiver's invasion of the young witch's mind is superbly crafted. But the story doesn't end with that denouement. Tiffany must attend on Granny Weatherwax, who initiated this situation. In this finale, Pratchett draws one of the most glorious passages of his career. Esme Weatherwax can Borrow - entering the minds of creatures more subtly than the hiver's occupation. Is it her in the swarm of bees Tiffany encounters? Or have they collectively responded to the presence of so powerful a witch? Whatever the cause, Tiffany and the swarm perform a dance - of victory? of acceptance? or just for the pleasure of it?
With his superbly executed style - a recipe of mirth, pathos, philosophy and irony, Pratchett has again shared his genius with us. All of us. As many have noted, putting a "readers' age" restriction on this book is a flawed limitaton. Pratchett, in whatever he writes, is unaged and ageless. Adults and children alike will find entertainment and value here. The best approach, in this reviewer's opinion, is for adults to buy this book and read it aloud - to anybody.
[stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
** with humble apologies and thanks to Michael Blake