Short version: I was really really disappointed with this book.
The first three Tiffany Aching books have followed a set pattern: Tiffany’s growth is matched with a generally formidable, but age-appropriate, foe. A lot of their power comes from genuine horribleness, too. Too many children’s stories have a gaping hole in which the problem would have been much easier had an adult been involved. But in Wee Free Men, for example, the Queen is a genuinely formidable antagonist, it’s just that she’s also one peculiarly suited to a nine year old girl.
Consider the development of Tiffany as reified in her opponents. (In Pratchett’s metaphysics, this isn’t even entirely authorial. The Story shapes the story.) The Queen is pampered childhood: lollies and beautiful things and scary stories. The Hiver is the temptation of her newfound power: the tween who knows she is different and in some way powerful, and wants to change that into being acknowledged as superior. The Wintersmith is an aspect of sexuality and its power: wanting to be defined and adored by men. And each of them threaten not only Tiffany’s morals, but her life and those of other people; in Wintersmith building up to threatening a portion of the world.
Contrast the Cunning Man. One disappointment is that he really does resemble the Hiver fairly closely, so much so that the book needs to point it out. The main difference is that he is purely malevolent. (Even Vorbis has a Death sequence, the Cunning Man and his host are evidently too evil even for that.) And the manner of his defeat does not require Tiffany to give up some part of herself, to look at herself critically and reject something and grow a little. I try not to get too “here’s another story that would have been better” with reviews, but I can’t help but think that what was left of Tiffany’s arc was to be a leader. That is, she shouldn’t have faced The Cunning Man (or alternative villain) with the help of Letitia the nascent witch/aristocrat, Roland and Preston, she should have led the other witches. And she could have given up the desire to do everything herself, and learned that, to give one example, it’s important to know when you can’t be powerful enough on your own.
The refusal of the other witches to involve themselves is very unconvincing: it’s their power and lives at stake after all. Granny does like to manipulate people into Learning Moments (essentially, that’s what headology is) but in the adult Witches arc, she and Nanny happily tread all over each other’s turf, and there’s a substantial limit to how much they allow Magrat and Agnes to flounder about. They certainly don’t put witchcraft or the world at risk for the Moment. There would have had to be some plot reason for Tiffany to be the leader of the quest to destroy the villain — she hasn’t turned seventy yet after all — but given some kind of rationale, it would have been a fitting end to her arc. Instead it’s exactly the same setup as Wintersmith: you’re a big girl, prove it and fix this yourself, without Tiffany even making a new mistake that sets the whole thing in motion this time.
I thought Pratchett had dug himself in a bit deep with regards to the nascent relationship with Roland in previous books, and it seems he agrees: Tiffany is practical and earthy and definitely not destined to be the lady of anyone’s manor, and the relationship was clearly heading that way so it’s knocked on the head. But I was really disappointed in the handling: Pratchett seems to have forgotten entirely about Roland’s role at the end of Wintersmith, which was significant enough to make it something of a coming-of-age story for him too. He was The Hero: a reified structural role. I don’t find the distance and awkwardness after a couple of years necessarily impossible, but being Tiffany’s young love interest had taken on magical significance, and should therefore have been dropped as fits A Story, not brushed away as “they were never that suited anyway.”
I think there’s actually a real continuity error with this too: Tiffany asks Roland if he remembers the Nac Mac Feegle, and there’s no hint that she means anything other than the events of Wee Free Men, which he can’t be expected to remember due to the kelda’s soothings and the Queen’s influence. But the sequence in Wintersmith was entirely different: the Nac Mac Feegle (reluctantly) treated him as a more-or-less equal. He, under instruction, rescued Summer to go with Tiffany’s destruction of Winter. There’s no reason why he and Tiffany don’t remember that well enough to even think of it. It’s as if that section of the book was never written.
For that matter, Preston as a drop-in replacement was pretty unsatisfactory to me. He’s a generic clever and kind boy, not really that far from Oats, for example. This needed more work, probably starting in at least the preceding book. If Tiffany and Roland weren’t to be, it makes sense for her to be happily alone. There’s been too much emphasis on her awkward romantic feelings for Random Guy to show up and fit them like a key in a lock.
The Baron seems to be something of a continuity error too. This mischievous and sympathetic old man who regrets Granny Aching is the same high-handed one who had Thunder and Lightning sent to him as a warning that his power was conditional? Again, it’s not impossible for them to be the same man, but Pratchett needed to show his work here. As with the castle changing from that place where the shepherding folks don’t go much to somewhere they all played as children.
Finally, I think the Amber Petty plotline is Women In Refrigerators territory. From what I remember of YA books, which I don’t read much as an adult, a thirteen year old girl being beaten into a miscarriage is prime YA material but… a thirteen year old girl was beaten into a miscarriage. For what? A little bit of show-and-tell to remind us of the dead old woman, and how that happened, I gather. First they come for the lonely elders, then they come for their teenage daughters, next they come for the witches. It’s not quite as out of proportion as JK Rowlings using the Holocaust as a little bit of shadow to show that Dumbledore had a mildly troubled youth, but really. This was totally unnecessary when Tiffany doesn’t experience a moment of physical or sexual danger in this book. Tiffany has an adult job, and the violence and tragedy in this series have been adult-level, but I didn’t like this at all.