a damn sight better than pretty much anything else you can buy without a prescription or a licence. Tom Holt in SFX
Someone, or something, has put out a contract on Santa – Sorry, the Hogfather. The dangerously deranged Mister Teatime, professional assassin, has taken on the job. Meanwhile, Susan, Death’s granddaughter, finds her efforts to be human by taking a job as a governess thwarted when her grandfather decides, with his eccentric understanding of the seasonal spirit, to drive the Hogfather’s pig-drawn sleigh and deliver the children’s presents himself. It is business as usual – or, more accurately, as unusual – on Terry Pratchett’s magical Discworld.
And a very good business it is, too. Hogfather went straight to No.1 in the first week of publication, as have other Discworld novels. The fans do not hang around for the reviews – they already know what (not) to expect. And even by the exacting standards of the previous books, Hogfather is a cracker…. every page skitters and twists with the mind-bending comic dexterity that is Pratchett’s hallmark.
Twenty books into the Discworld series, Pratchett must be the most credible pretender to the long-vacant throne of P.G.Wodehouse. Like Wodehouse, he has created an intricate and inimitable world of his own, through which he steers the destinies of a well-loved* cast of characters. His output is prodigious – a new novel every six months. He takes a Wodehousian delight in the comic possibilities of language. And, most importantly, like Wodehouse, he is unfailingly a joy.
Of course, this is a Wodehouse for the 1990s, for a generation more knowing, more sardonic, more cynical, as befits our millennial times, but you also know that, as with the old master, readers who catch the bug in adolescence will be rereading the books in old age with fond wonder at what will by then seem their more innocent selves.
* Well-loved, that is, from the comfort of a reader’s armchair. The other characters usually have good – often razor-toothed – reasons to be rather more cautious with their affections. Peter Ingham in The Times
It is a story about belief – the Hogfather is removed by sympathetic magic worked with a huge heap of teeth collected by the Tooth Fairy. Crackling loose belief in the world causes strange creatures to leap into existence with a Tinkerbell-like glingleglingle of bells: a verruca gnome, a sock-eating monster, a lesser divinity who is the oh God of hangovers. It could be fey, or simply jokey, or knowing, but it is not, because of the quality of Pratchett’s belief in his world. Like all great creators of imaginary worlds, he writes like an enthralled and driven reader, he creates a brilliant excess of delectable detail, he respects his own creation and his readers….
There are pure comic delights in this book – the range of tones, the knock-about comedy and the sharp edge of thought are both very English in their solidity and peculiarly Pratchett. The Unseen University’s Ponder Stibbons has created Hex, a Machine for Thinking, which works with an ant-heap, a beehive, a big wheel covered with sheepskulls, a lever and an ear trumpet. Ankh-Morpork’s dangerous great Inventor, Bloody Stupid Johnson, has left a shower-room, full of valves and knobs, which turns out to be connected to the organ. There are also strangely arresting and sinister imaginings – the Tooth Fairy’s castle, under a child’s blue sky, only blue at the top. Children and their imagined fears and hopes are dangerously simple and not nice. Teatime is a dangerous playground child, genuinely very nasty as well as funny. It is a world full of surprises, knots, byways, tangles, shocks, belly-laughs, wry self-reflective wit and illuminations. A.S.Byatt in The Sunday Times
About 15 years ago, the comedy began. Terry Pratchett wrote The Colour of Magic which came out in 1983. It was the first volume of what is now the longest series of comedies of any merit since P.G.Wodehouse’s death in 1975 closed the gates on Blandings Castle. This year’s second instalment, Hogfather, is number 20. It will not be the last.
At first glance, comic fantasy seems easy to write. If you can create fantasy worlds at will – Pratchett’s Discworld is a flat planet-sized dish set upon the back of four vast elephants who themselves ride a 10,000-mile-long turtle through interstellar space – then it should be child’s play to place there whatever comic antics might be desired.
At second glance, however, the task begins to look a bit more daunting. Some of the most unfunny books ever written, many of them abject imitators of Pratchett, have been published as comic romps set in the realms of fantasyland. The lesson these imitators have not learned from their master – perhaps because it takes hard work to apply – is that comedy is not free. Not even when it is fantasy.
For Pratchett to write successful comedy in the fantasy mode, he had, in the first place, to find a recognisable mode to write within – fantasy did not become standardised until the template provided by J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) achieved universal popularity in the late Seventies. And he had to make his fun from material his readers already recognised, because great comedy is a form whose subject matter has always been the given world and those who inhabit that world.
Discworld is a cauldron of a narrative. Characters recognisable from every kind of fantasy – witches, wizards, gnomes, Conan-like heroes with unwieldy swords, high priests, Dark Lords, minions, maidens, heroes on quests – meet and clash, quarrel and marry, across its immediately recognisable fantasyland fields and mountains and moors.
Everyone seems to meet finally in the capital city, Ankh-Morpork. Their stories intersect, and – in the deepest tradition of fantasy, which is a mode whose precursors included legend and fairytale – the spirit of Story itself often intervenes, forcing folk to act according to their given roles. Discworld is huge, and it persists. We remember it in our bones. And when we open a late volume such as Hogfather, where Pratchett tests more closely than usual the assumption of his comic craft, it is at first like opening the door to home.
The night before Hogswatch – Discworld’s equivalent of Christmas Eve, through neatly it’s also the shortest day of the year and the last – has come, and all seems well.
But Hogfather has disappeared. Like J.M.Barrie’s Tinkerbell, he has been unbelieved in by millions of children, though here this refusal of faith has come very suddenly, and under coercion.
Hogfather’s apparent demise – gods never fully die in Discworld – is sad in its own right. But more important is what will happen if he has truly disappeared for good. What will happen is that the sun will not rise. The new year will not begin.
Hogfather, even though he wears red and says ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’, is, in other words, a very early and very potent god. He is a metamorphic figure who often takes the shape of a vast, blood-soaked boar; and his continued being is essential to the meaning of Discworld.
Readers familiar with recent English fantasy may recognise in him an echo and a homage to the ever-changing creatures of myth that Robert Holdstock, Pratchett’s exact contemporary, created in Mythago Wood (1984), where primordial entities like Hogfather muscle into our dreams. But Hogfather isn’t simply a parody of its possible models; it is a creation all its own.
To the rescue of Discworld comes its most famous single character, Death himself. Physically a stereotypical skeleton with a scythe, spiritually he is a Don Quixote figure, constantly bemused at the strangeness and inhumanity of all humans. He realises that the world must be saved.
Fortunately, like Hogfather, he can walk between the intervals of time: ‘In the endless spaces between the clumsy seconds Death moved like a witch dancing through raindrops, never getting wet.’ Donning a false beard and red cloak, he manifests himself as Hogfather to give children presents; and he makes the sun rise.
In the end, defeat comes to the alien, life-hating creatures of entropy who have attempted to kill the seasons dead; and Hogfather reclaims his beard.
There are some hilarious jokes – the raven which loves eyeballs but has no taste is a hugely effective comic turn – but the fun has been earned. Discworld and its teeming millions may have been saved by a clever story; but in the end, our laughter is half joy, half relief that the sequence will continue. John Clute in Mail on Sunday Gazette
For years, I deliberately resisted Pratchett, on the perverse and snobbish grounds that anyone that popular must be useless. It took about three sentences to prove me wrong and his fans right: Pratchett is a comic genius. This crazy tale of magic, Death and Father Christmas is fantastic. Damn! David Thomas in The Express Sunday
Pratchett has done it again, and brilliantly. This is his first book that has been themed around the time it is published (there is shiny silver gilding around the title and the front cover is a snow-covered landscape) and, although I did not read it in December, it evokes the Yuletide spirit very well in its own twisted, completely bizarre, uproariously funny way. There is probably a moral, and there is an idea of goodwill throughout, although I can’t read very much into it.
I think this is my favourite Pratchett so far. Though it is not the most exciting or the most intricately plotted, the plot is very well-rounded and the author makes some of the best jokes ever.
This hardback would be perfect for a Christmas holiday read or, in fact, a read for almost every other day of the year till the next masterpiece comes out. Ned Beauman (aged 11), in Broadway (Ham & High)
Do you know, there are still people out there who are not up to speed on Terry Pratchett. Yes, I know, it’s incredible. There he is with the most Sustained Burst of Creativity Since Balzac (Comedy Division), and some people still ignore him.
Hogfather is the twentieth Discworld novel and it panders to our expectations so comfortingly that you have to suspect Pratchett of wanting to make us happy. He routinely makes a point of including a laugh out loud gag on page 1 – and I duly laughed out loud on page one.
Death is by far and away the most popular Discworld character, so in Hogfather he again takes centre stage. This time it is because, like fairies, Hogfather (Santa Claus to you and me) is sustained by belief in him. And as Hogswatchnight approaches, Hogfather is missing. Death, who, as the series progresses, is developing a dangerous fascination with humanity, takes yet another leave of absence from his conventional duties, and fills in for him on a freelance basis.
Meanwhile the Guild of Assassins have been hired for a very special commission. Now, the Assassins are professionals and do not go in for common or garden murder. They know the value of human life – to the penny, in many cases. (Laugh out loud #2 on page 6). For a special commission, they deploy a very special assassin. Mr Teatime (pronounced ‘Teh-ah-tim-eh’, one of the very few jokes in the book that doesn’t come off). Mr Teatime is a stock character in Pratchett’s universe – an individual who is so wholly at one with himself as to be practically supernatural.
Pratchett’s types are always cropping up, as are his themes. But his recurring characters get richer and richer. The Unseen University figures in the new book, and Ridcully, Stibbons and the rest are their usual delightful selves. Death’s black house and the rooms with the hiss of sand running through a million lifetimers is as familiar as your granny’s attic, and his horse, Binky, is an old friend.
All that said, there’s nothing cosy about the Discworld – remember the elves in Lords and Ladies? – but true innocence is better than armour in the face of real evil. One of the constants in Pratchett’s universe is that there is a way that Things are supposed to be, and the machinations of man, or dwarf, or talking dog (where has Gaspode got to anyway?) fly in the face of nature. After twenty books in a dozen years Pratchett’s bound to be repeating himself a bit by now, but only a churl would object. Two million words in, Discworld is still funny and fresh. Should Pratchett try and repeat the originality of The Colour of Magic with a new direction? Or should he do on mining the astonishingly rich seam which he uncovered to our delight and his own? We are reminded of Joseph Heller’s response when somebody suggest to him that in twenty years he hadn’t written anything as good as Catch 22. Who has? he asked. Bookshop’s Internet Web-Site
Pratchett has a rare ability to observe life in a way that we more mundane mortals can truly appreciate. He identifies and resolves the dilemmas which plague us (like where socks go after they’ve been carefully paired up and placed in the washing machine, or where biros disappear to) and manages to keep his marvellous ensemble of characters interesting for book after book. Starburst 23
…definitely vintage Pratchett. Whilst Death does some moonlighting, and Susan Sto Helit steadfastly, no, desperately tries to remain as normal as she possibly can, the Wizards, the Assassins and Foul Old Ron muddle through the resultant confusion as best they can. All the best Pratchett clichés are there, the only thing missing is the Luggage (still one of my personal favourites), and the story unfolds with the usual unstoppable momentum that keeps you turning page after page long after you’ve promised yourself you’ll stop at the end of this paragraph, turn out the light and get some sleep.
Ariel in The Alien Has Landed, Waterstones
Background illustration © and by courtesy of Marc Simonetti