The Shepherd’s Crown is the last Discworld novel ever. This is a sad thought, but it would have been much sadder if Raising Steam had been Terry Pratchett’s last. In his last years, as he struggled with post-cortical atrophy, he needed more help to get his books out. I read the beginning of Raising Steam and found that it just wasn’t his voice. It was as if a copy editor had too heavy a hand in it. Whatever went wrong there, though, is largely fixed in The Shepherd’s Crown. It sounds like authentic Pratchett and presents a good story.
This novel returns to the sequence about the young witch Tiffany Aching; with more responsibilities than ever, she has to lead the defense against an elf invasion. Pratchett’s elves are thoroughly nasty, with the power to make others feel helpless and inferior. (As Kari Maaren’s song about elves says, “Everybody can see that we’re better than you. You are all you can be, but you’ll never be anything like us.”) Yet they aren’t totally irredeemable, as we find here. Over the years, Pratchett found new levels of complexity in all his characters and species, and the process continues here.
The afterword by Rob Wilkins notes that the book was “not quite as finished as [Pratchett] would have liked when he died.” My complaints are minor; the book is on the short side, the final conflict feels rushed, and the subplots aren’t as well-developed as in his best novels. The amount of wink-wink humor is a little annoying. Discworld fans will be glad to have it, though. Neil Gaiman tells us that Pratchett intended a startling twist in the book but ran out of time. (You may want to wait till after you’ve read the book to read about it. And then you may want to reread certain chapters with that twist in mind.)
A major character in the series dies. I read about this character’s death in the Amherst, NH, village park, and as I was reading about the funeral, a church bell tolled nearby. Paraphrasing a comment made about the character: “Where is Terry Pratchett? He is here—and everywhere (that his books are).”