Saturday, 5 July 2014

Terry Pratchett's Discworld 20- Hogfather

Corgi Press
 Terry Pratchett

“Some things are fairly obvious when it's a seven-foot skeleton with a scythe telling you them”

After a break from the Discworld series following my first review of a new installment with Raising Steam, I return to my crawling series of reviews, half-way through the series- unless you count the many, many spin-offs, which I may or may not get around to reviewing some day- it's time to tackle a very strange, ambitious and  curious book that means a lot to this reader on a personal level. Terry Pratchett's twentieth Discworld novel was the very first novel set in that universe that I'd ever read, leading me down a path of hundreds of hours spent reading and re-reading the series. It wasn't the first Pratchett book I'd read, that distinction belongs to Truckers, the first of the classic children's series The Bromeliad Trilogy (to be reviewed on this blog in the year 2053). 

As I've ruminated before, in hindsight it was an awkward choice of Discworld book to begin with, but I did so since it was the newest Pratchett paperback (purchased from the long departed and sorely missed Paperback Exchange bookshop, where I bought the sixth Harry Potter book at midnight because I'm so cool). Hogfather is the fourth book starring Death, although 'starring' is a bit of a misnomer since all of the Death books have a co-star with equal or greater page time, presumably to prevent over-exposure of quite a unique character. The theme of the book, and thus main target of satire, is Christmas, the jolliest season of them all. On the Disc, Christmas is Hogwatch, and Santa is the Hogfather, a magic-fueled anthropomorphic personification who brings children presents on Hogswatchnight. Basing Hogswatch on the old European pagan origins of Christmas was a natural fit for the series, but Pratchett travels further in the exploration of the higher orders of the Discworld universe in the manner of his old writing partner Neil Gaiman.

The problems that drag Pratchett's grim reaper into the messy business of Hogswatch begin when a very off-beat psychopathic assassin named Teatime is hired by a mysterious cloaked bunch calling themselves the Auditors of Reality, specifically to kill a being many would assume unkillable. Putting his ingenious mind to the task, Teatime actually manages to make the Hogfather disappear (his method involves the tooth fairy), leaving a round-shaped hole, quickly sort-of filled by the very, very thin figure of one Mr. Death. It's from here that the story begins to unfold, with the involvement of the returning granddaughter of Death, Susan Sto Helit, who has to try and figure out why the magical rules governing reality on the Disc have gone haywire, and why her Grandad is suddenly wearing lots of red.

Pratchett's past Death books have each ventured into high concept fantasy to an extent none of his other characters do, with Mort, Reaper Man and Soul Music all exploring the notion of anthropomorphism powered by magic, while peeling back the curtain very slightly to hint at other even more potent characters than Death woven into the background of this unpredictable universe. In Hogfather, Pratchett brings back the aforementioned Auditors of Reality (who played an important but small role in Reaper Man) and straightforwardly makes them the villains of the piece. These Auditors seemingly have the power to do anything but have to play by unspecified rules, thus resulting in their plan to have Teatime kill the Hogfather. I really like the Auditor characters because they so brilliantly play into the fantasy and satire aspects of Pratchett's writing, with the former as these Gaiman-esque all-powerful all-secretive universal powers but the latter as a not so subtle jab at bureaucracy and bureaucrats in general, leading to some laugh out loud stuff.

There are quite a few characters involved in Hogfather, to the point where it looks like it might fall apart under the weight of so many character arcs, which in addition to those already mentioned include Teatime's gang, The Wizards of Unseen University and Billious the' Oh God' of Hangovers. In places it does become messy, until Pratchett clears the deck just before the end to focus on the meaning of the thing, which is essentially about the right to free will and the power of belief. I do think that the furious pace of new ideas Pratchett throws into the fantasy mix does take the focus away from the key appeal of Death's developing humanisation to fans of the series, and in hindsight I'm surprised but pleased that none of these factors originally put me off from continuing to pursue the Discworld. In regards to the 2006 adaptation broadcast on Sky One (vaguely written about here) I would've guessed that the prior mythology would also unconverted fans off, but the two non-readers I've seen it with both really enjoyed it, so what do I know?

While overall I don't think Hogfather should be considered amongst the author's very best pieces of writing, it is a remarkable achievement in that of an author juggling some very awkward (and in some ways insane) variables and fusing them into a cohesive and very imaginative story. Pratchett stretches the magical limits of his universe to the full, something I always enjoy, to create a thematic widescreen blockbuster that emphasises the darker, creepier aspects of Christmas and fuses them to his organically growing creation. Roughly 14(!) years ago it blew my mind, opening up to new possibilities in fiction I'd never imagined, and crucially helping to shape my own ideas of what good literature should be. It was the start of a personal adventure that hasn't ended yet, with an author who I will always feel grateful to for literally changing my life from then on, for showing me how satire, obviously but brilliantly, can just make everything seem really very funny.