This was the tenth Pratchett novel of my fiftyfiftyme challenge, completing my “major”. It was also a great read, one that surprised and entertained me.
The surprise came from the book’s tone. I knew that this was Pratchett’s first book for children, and that it was also the first one for which he received any literary recognition. Expecting a children’s story, I found that not only was his trademark style very much in evidence, the tone of the book was very dark. It was Pratchett through and through, but as children’s stories go, this one was not just hard-edged, it was diamond-edged. Definitely not bedtime lullaby reading, unless nightmares are the intended objective.
This is emphatically not a criticism of the book, though. As I read it, often being stunned at just how dark and unfluffy it got, I kept thinking about the similarities and differences between this book and Roald Dahl’s infamous children’s stories. Dahl’s stories are also dark, but they seem to have an edge of malice to them, an unsettling hint that the teller of the tales enjoys disturbing the young minds hearing them. In this book, I got a completely different impression. Rather than any vaguely sadistic delight in darkness for its own sake, it came across as Pratchett saying “I respect you kids enough not to talk down to you by prettying it up”.
This lack of condescension was a major feature of the story. The basic concept, a retelling of the Pied Piper of Hameln as a con job run by a talking cat and some sentient rats, was very amusing. But it was also a setup to examine the way folk tales get gussied up, disneyfied, for presentation to children today. One of the central characters, Malicia Grim, is the niece of the famous “Sisters Grim”, Agoniza and Eviscera. Malicia lives in a fantasy world of her own construction, in which she is convinced that fairy tale tropes are actually immutable laws of reality, and acts accordingly. The story shows her no mercy in exposing the absurdity of that belief, but it does so with good humour. I laughed at her name and those of her aunts because they were so very fitting for the tales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm. The language nerd in me was a tiny bit disappointed that Pratchett couldn’t work in the fact that the Brothers Grimm were not that interested in folk tales for their own sake, more as data for linguistic research, but Malicia, Agoniza and Eviscera brilliantly capture how un-disney those folk tales really were. Pratchett manages to infuse this story with the same candour and reality, while keeping the fairytale’s sense of wonder and possibility.
Unlike Dahl’s books, or Hans Christian Andersen, who also seemed to enjoy miserable endings for their own sakes, this is a children’s story and does have a happy ending. Along the way, though, readers young and old are treated to an entertaining and at times moving example of a master storyteller probing and twisting the conventions of children’s fairy stories. This book definitely deserves the awards and praise it has received, its balance of wit, humour and darkness is pretty near perfect. An outstanding start to the series, it has me excited for the rest of Pratchett’s children’s and YA stories, and I highly recommend it.