For a few books there -- The Truth, The Fifth Elephant, that neighborhood -- it looked like the Discworld series was getting stale, and Pratchett had passed his writerly peak. Well, in the light of Terry Pratchett's Wee Free Men , it now seems that appearances were badly misleading. This is one of the best Discworld books yet; and coming on the heels of the also-excellent Night Watch, it appears Pratchett's found a second wind.

Wee Free Men is actually supposed to be a YA book, the second Discworld book to be so labelled, after The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. Like that book, the only things that set it apart from the normal run of Discworld are chapter breaks and a young protagonist. This doesn't read like a children's book at all; which is just as well for other children's books, because if I were to start comparing them to Wee Free Men, it wouldn't go well for them. Any random sentence in the book shows more writerly skill than J.K. Rowling has yet displayed in five increasingly-weighty tomes; any character in the book is drawn with more nuance and depth than the normal collection of stereotypes and caricatures; and any detail of the setting is more original than the warmed-over cliches that populate Hogwarts Castle.

I don't mean to pick on Harry Potter in particular, here; but what with it just having come out in a blaze of attention, the comparison seems inevitable. But as I say, it's not a fair comparison: I don't think Wee Free Men is really a kids' book in the way that Harry Potter is, and while that judgment might just be a sign of latent prejudice on my part ("If it's good, it can't be a kids' book"), I don't think so. I think Pratchett missed his intended audience.

Which is, really, just as well; because whatever he was trying to do, he ended up writing a superb Discworld novel, one filled with interesting people, a well-crafted plot, glittering writing, genuine laugh-out-loud humor, and the sharp humanist observations that are Pratchett's particular strength. And as a nice plus, this would make an excellent starting point for Discworld newcomers.


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