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review by Duncan Lawie
Pratchett's 20th Discworld novel has been re-issued in a tie-in cover. It feels very odd to have a Pratchett with a film still on the outside, but it is quite possible that the TV version of Hogfather will bring a whole new audience to the Discworld. So what will they find here?
The Hogfather of the title is the Discworld analogue of Father Christmas - a connection made more obvious on the original Josh Kirby cover - but the principal protagonist is, as depicted on the new cover, Susan Sto-Helit, nobility, governess and granddaughter of Death. The Hogfather has disappeared, and Death is attempting to sustain belief, delivering presents in a red robe and fake beard. At the same time, new anthropomorphisations are appearing, from the Verucca Gnome to the 'oh god' of hangovers. Susan is drawn into this, despite her avowed desire to be normal. (Being Death's granddaughter has some inheritance "in the bones", if not in the blood.)
The reader is given a key at the beginning of the book, when shapeless beings called the Auditors commission the Guild of Assassins to kill the Hogfather. The unhinged Mr Teatime takes this job and his increasingly disconcerted henchmen form a thread of the narrative. As they don't know the mission or understand the assassin's methods, this allows the author to write a lot about what happens to them without giving much of the story away to the reader. A further thread is built up as the staff of the Unseen University rush about their campus, without progress or change, but pulling the reader's understanding of events along in their wake nevertheless.
Pratchett is a fabulist of the human experience, and there is a good portion of subtle philosophising mixed in with the laugh out loud jokes. As with all of Pratchett's best books, there is a deeper point, carefully made. In Hogfather, the Auditors, who don't want Life messing up the universe, drive the discussion on the value of belief. However, they sit oddly within the novel. Pratchett doesn't seem to have quite got beneath their non-existent skin, but these must be the beings most antithetical to the Discworld to have ever appeared in the books. He also presents the moral of the story almost too clearly near the end of the book.
Nevertheless, it is his seriousness about the underpinnings of all the worlds that makes his jokes so funny. Pratchett uses the full roundness of Discworld to good effect, building in clues for new readers without ever seeming to be going over familiar ground unnecessarily. With the huge cast built up over many books, Pratchett can return to familiar characters and old jokes, which will always be new to someone. Even so, recognition is a key component of the Discworld, a place full of the folly and self sacrifice we know from our own world, brought to the forefront to allow story to shine through. Hogfather is a good introduction for those new to Terry Pratchett, and an excellent choice for readers who haven't visited for a while.
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