The Wee Free Men was published in Britain in May 2003, by Doubleday. It is Terry Pratchett's twenty-ninth Discworld novel, and the second specifically for young readers (the other being The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents). Like The Amazing Maurice, it is described as 'a story of Discworld'; the books in the adults' series are described as 'a Discworld novel'. It costs GBP12.99, hardback, in Britain.
The front cover illustration is by Paul Kidby, who also created The Discworld Portfolio and the cover of Night Watch. It shows a china shepherdess surrounded by a tribe of Nac Mac Feegle, one of whom is holding an egg, and another a pouch of Jolly Sailor tobacco. There is also a yellow toad, and various oddments one might find in pockets, such as coins and a bit of string. It all makes much more sense when you've read the book. The American cover shows six Nac Mac Feegle climbing onto a sheep, with a background of wold (information courtesy of http://www.amazon.com, which doesn't tell me who painted it). In my opinion, the British cover is better-painted and has more delightful details from the book, but then I've always been a fan of Mr. Kidby's work. Kidby also provides illustrations at the beginning of each chapter, and a rather charming frieze of Nac Mac Feegle along the bottom of every page.
The essential plot of the book (no spoilers as yet) is that nine-year-old Tiffany Aching must steal back her brother from the Queen of the Fairies (the same person as the Queen of the Elves?), with the help of the Nac Mac Feegle. Of course, a Pratchett book is much more than its bare plot, so here is a more in-depth review. Here be spoilers, for this book and others
We first realise Tiffany is not a normal girl when, in the style of Susan Sto Helit, she hits a monster in the face with a frying pan. Said frying pan becomes her trusty weapon, and Diseases of the Sheep her spellbook, when she needs to rescue her young brother, who has been stolen by the Queen. At her side are a tribe of Nac Mac Feegle - the Wee Free Men of the title, and a different tribe from the group in Carpe Jugulum - who see her as "the wee hag", and install her as temporary kelda. She is given some pointers - and a talking pet toad - by Miss Perspicacia Tick, a witch, who recognises Tiffany as a fellow-witch. The Queen is about to invade the Discworld, and Miss Tick goes to get help. Tiffany, in the meantime, enters fairyland (based, according to the authors' note, upon The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, by Richard Dadd) and has a series of rather disturbing encounters in dreams, leading to a showdown with the Queen herself. Along the way, she also rescues the son of the Baron - this part of the Discworld appears to operate under a feudal system - who went missing a year previously. She returns to her home a fully-fledged witch, with rescued brother, boy, toad and Nac Mac Feegle in tow, just in time to meet Miss Tick and the cavalry: Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax.
The character of Tiffany reminded me of a cross between Esk of Equal Rites and Susan, Death's granddaughter. She has Susan's ability to see and deal with monsters, referred to in this book as First Sight, while her situation of being a beginner/apprentice witch reminded me of Esk's, particularly as Granny Weatherwax finally acknowledges her as an equal. Tiffany 'grows up' during the course of the book, going from not knowing what to do but being determined to do it, through completing a dangerous task, to following in Granny Aching's footsteps.
Speaking of whom, Granny Aching is a wonderful character. She dies before the book begins, but hangs over Tiffany's thoughts and actions, coming to help her in the final showdown. The Nac Mac Feegle also have fond memories of her. She is similar to Granny Weatherwax in character, but in a different situation, and most of her magic involves the sheep. She is, of course, another witch. The bits of the book involving Tiffany's memories of her are very poignant, and her return towards the end is wonderful.
The Nac Mac Feegle haven't changed much. Some of their background is filled in, although this may just be the background of this particular clan; it's made clear that there a lot of clans, and this is almost certainly not the group from Carpe Jugulum. This lot are considerably easier to understand, presumably because they are more central to the plot, and because children would become exasperated if they couldn't understand the characters. They still have their distinctive Scottish dialect, and still like "stealin' an' drinkin' an' fightin'" best, although they have an understandable new fear of lawyers. They make me giggle, particularly in the scenes with Ratbag the cat.
As with all of Mr. Pratchett's books, there are hundreds of jokes and references that take a few readings to get. To point them all out would be impossible, as well as spoiling the fun, but I'd like to draw attention to my personal favourite: the clan gonnagle, who recites poetry so awful that the enemies' ears explode. This clan's current gonnagle is called William. Go and read William McGonagall if you don't understand...
Mr. Pratchett has said himself (on alt.fan.pratchett) that The Wee Free Men is a lot less dark than his most recent offerings, Night Watch and The Amazing Maurice. Still, it has its serious moments, such as Tiffany's memories of Granny Aching and the death of Mrs. Snapperly (suspected of being a witch). As it is almost entirely free of familiar characters - it is even the first Discworld book not to feature Death - new readers will not have the sense of having arrived late at a party. It is a wonderful fairy tale and, while Mr. Pratchett has never written a bad book, this one stands out as damn good, well-written and extremely funny. Forget the 'for young readers' tag; all Pratchett fans should read it. If you're not a Pratchett fan, read it anyway and become one.
"Nac Mac Feegle! The Wee Free Men! Nae king! Nae quin! Nae laird! Nae master! We willna' be fooled again!
All quotations are taken from T. Pratchett, The Wee Free Men, London: Doubleday, 2003. The Wee Free Men is copyright by Terry and Lyn Pratchett.