The Shepherd’s Crown
by Terry Pratchett.
HarperCollins, 2015.
Hardcover, 288 pages, $19.

An agnostic friend once divided the science fiction novels of Ursula LeGuin into “Good Ursula” and “Bad Ursula”—by which he meant whether or not her didacticism hijacked her story. The late Terry Pratchett had similar temptations, to which he increasingly succumbed in his later novels, including the last, The Shepherd’s Crown. It is a testimony to the previous forty tales in the Discworld fantasy universe that the flaws of this story do not completely overshadow its wistful pleasures, at least for the long-time Pratchett reader.

It is his fifth novel featuring Tiffany Aching, and the character struggles as always to reconcile her vocation with her relationships. The Tiffany novels are targeted at the young adult market, and despite the fantasy tropes of elves and witches, I suspect that the greatest strain on suspension of disbelief for the average reader in Britain and America is Tiffany’s bone-deep connection with her land and heritage. But the railroad has come to the Discworld; cold iron is transforming or bypassing the ancient traditions. She must somehow choose what to preserve.

Gender roles do not make the cut. Pratchett has been accused—inaccurately—of writing escapist fiction, but it seems no escape is permitted to those disturbed by the dissolution of gender roles and gender identity—the latest effects of the elites’ dismemberment of Western culture. Among other examples in the novel, Tiffany takes on a new apprentice, Geoffrey, a boy who eschews traditional roles and wants to be a witch. He is presented as calm and quiet, good with the elderly and with babies, a vegetarian, a natural peacemaker driven by the winds of destiny. He demonstrates no romantic interests. Pratchett’s remaining skills do, if barely, keep Geoffrey from becoming a stock allegorical figure of the New Tolerance.

And yet. It seems tradition will out. Even when everything is permitted, our choices still affect and hurt others. Neil Gaiman recently wrote that Pratchett’s humor was driven by anger, and the anger is palpable here, directed certainly at those who do not live up to the inchoate responsibilities of their gender roles. A young family and some elderly and uncaring women are portrayed poorly, but as one might expect, failed father figures—in this case the elf king and Geoffrey’s verbally abusive father—come in for the harshest treatment.

To ward off an invasion of elves (presented as oddly unredeemable, given the other fantasy races who have joined polite Discworld society over the series), Tiffany seeks out the missing elf king. The king has abandoned his throne, his responsibilities, and his wife. He has retreated to a timeless male-only bubble between worlds. We encounter him surrounded by naked elf wrestlers, living an essentially if not explicitly masturbatory existence. And of course he offers no help. It is a telling scene in a novel where the witches are the benevolent protectors of the otherwise helpless peasants, where Tiffany herself wears the Shepherd’s Crown.

The father of our boy-witch is portrayed as more hidebound even than the vicious elves. In an exercise in naked wish-fulfillment, the ignorant man gets a very twenty-first century comeuppance as the full power of the state is dispatched to rub his nose in his prejudice. (It is telling that apart from the royalty and nobility of Lancre, the only of Pratchett’s political characters to get a cameo is the self-described tyrant, Lord Vetinari; I missed the responsible Commander Vimes.) Geoffrey’s father is also publicly shamed by a swift and flatulent kick to the rear, but alas, the smell that lingers is of that vapid and intolerant smugness so prevalent among our elites.

Still, the novel has several deeply moving moments, not least the death of Granny Weatherwax. Pratchett also paints a compassionate portrait of the plight of the elderly male; these scenes and others are reminders of the spirit that drove a great writer. They made me want to return to some of his less angry and more steady books, like Night Watch.

As Tiffany looks to the future, we are offered a vague glimpse of feel-good therapeutic panentheism—“Granny Weatherwax is everywhere”—which sounds nice but bears up under scrutiny about as well in the story as it does in life. Overall the reader will leave Pratchett’s last novel feeling wistful. Its narrative thinness can perhaps be attributed to the effects of Alzheimer’s, but its overall incoherence is due less to the disease than the effects of the author’s inability, in the end, to offer a viable means to escape, let alone address or transcend, our cultural dissolution.

May God have mercy on his soul.  

Peter L. Edman is associate editor of the University Bookman. He lives in Philadelphia.