This week I’m recommending `A Hat Full of Sky’, a wise and sensitive novel by the king of Comic Fantasy, Terry Pratchett. If wise and sensitive aren’t words you associate with Terry  Pratchett, perhaps you haven’t read much (or any?) of his work. `A Hat Full of Sky’  (2004) is less well known than many of his Discworld novels because it was published as a children’s book. It is the second in a sequence of four novels about young witch, Tiffany Aching. The sequence began with `The Wee Free Men’ (2003) and the third and fourth books are `Wintersmith’ (2006) and `I Shall Wear Midnight’ (2010). They are all available in every possible format but the audio version of `A Hat Full of Sky’ read by Tony Robinson is particularly good. As a bonus there is now an album by folk-rock band Steeleye Span based on the Tiffany Aching novels. It’s called `Wintersmith’ (2013) and one of the tracks features Sir Terry talking about why witches shouldn’t cackle. (I’m so pleased that he got knighted for services to literature that I’m going to use his title throughout this review).

At the start of this novel, eleven-year old Tiffany leaves her beloved home in the Chalk hills to begin her training as a witch. There are several things about Tiffany that make her unusual even among young witches. She has already rescued two boys from the Queen of Fairyland and become the temporary Kelda (ruler) of the Chalk Clan of the Nac Mac Feegles, a host of boisterous blue pictsies. The Feegles continue to feel protective towards their `big wee Hag o’ the Hills’ and keep a constant watch over her. These feats have even impressed the formidable  Granny Weatherwax. Witches don’t have a leader and Granny Weatherwax is the leader they don’t have. Tiffany has some uncommon powers and one of these, the art of stepping outside of herself, attracts the attention of a hiver – an ancient group mind in search of a body. The chief Feegle, Rob Anybody, realizes that Tiffany is being followed by something dangerous but his wife, the new Kelda Jeannie, forbids him to go after her.

Tiffany has been assigned as an apprentice to a witch called Miss Level, who happens to have two identical bodies. In spite of this, Tiffany finds life with Miss Level rather dull. Most of her time is spent on ordinary household chores and on doing good to the local villagers. Tiffany was hoping for `serious witch stuff’ such as `guarding the world against evil forces in a noble yet modest way’ rather than clipping old men’s toenails and dealing with children with runny noses. Worse still, when she is invited to join a Circle of young witches, their bossy leader Annagramma dismisses Tiffany as an ignorant nobody. After Jeannie has a change of heart, Rob and the Feegles are sent to protect Tiffany but by the time they get there it’s too late. Tiffany has been taken over by the hiver, which makes her do some very uncharacteristic things. Miss Level, the Feegles, and Granny Weatherwax all help the young witch to fight the hiver, but in the end only Tiffany can deal with the monster in her head.

`A Hat Full of Sky’ is set in a very British part of  Discworld. Sir Terry has captured the bleak beauty and  magical strangeness of  the real English chalklands, with their extraordinary hill-carvings such as the famous White Horse of Uffington which `is not what a horse looks like, but what a horse be.’ Although this is Comic Fantasy the story is realistic about the harshness of agricultural life and Tiffany is a very convincing farmer’s daughter able to milk goats, make cheese and help deliver lambs. Younger readers will identify with Tiffany’s embarassments and crises in confidence as she tries to cope with her new life as an apprentice witch. Older readers shouldn’t be put off by the fact that the heroine is only eleven during this novel. Smart and ambitious Tiffany, with her three levels of thought and her mystical  link to the Chalk and its people, is an interesting character at any age. When she makes mistakes, the consequences are always going to be dramatic.

Writing for children, Sir Terry is equally inventive but rather more disciplined than in his adult novels. He sticks to telling a strong story about the central character and doesn’t just toss in anything that appeals to his rumbustious sense of humour. In `A Hat Full of Sky’ the  broad humour is mainly confined to the antics of the Feegles. These little blue men who love fighting, thieving and drinking, and are terrified of having to explain themselves to dominant females, are basically comedy Scotsmen. When I first  began reading this series I was determined not to laugh at the`Wee Free Men’. I failed. Perhaps it’s my Celtic blood, but I couldn’t help being charmed and amused  by these daft creatures and touched by their loyalty to Tiffany. Even this strand of the novel is given depth by the plight  of the Kelda Jeannie, who has had to leave her own family for ever to become the lone female voice of common sense among the wildly irresponsible Feegles.

One of my main reasons for choosing this particular novel is that it provides such a good introduction to Discworld’s witches. Sir Terry is famous for writing novels about wizards (starting with `The Colour of Magic’) but in my view his witches are more remarkable and appealing. If you are looking for an older woman as a role-model you could hardly do better than cunning Granny Weatherwax, a witch so tough that `when some vampires bit her they all started to crave tea and sweet biscuits’. The witches in `A Hat Full of Sky’ may be eccentric and gossipy and much more competitive than they pretend, but most of them are a force for good. Not Good with a capital  G as in some grandiose war between Good and Evil but good as in making a practical difference in ordinary people’s lives. Sir Terry has drawn on the traditional role of  the village `Wise Woman’, with her skills as a midwife and herbalist, and he is shrewd about why, even in our world, people still want to believe in magic.

There are some witches in the story, like awful Annagramma, who try to practise Magick with K and think it’s all about fancy spells, glittery amulets and dancing in circles but Granny Weatherwax shows Tiffany that `A witch deals with things’ and that `the soul and centre of witchcraft’ is healing the sick, comforting the dying and caring about people, including the stupid, mean and ungrateful ones. Tiffany must learn to help the apparently undeserving and to accept rewards that she doesn’t think that she deserves. A Discworld witch must take  responsibilty and show compassion. Oh, and wear a very tall pointy hat. I wish there were more witches like them in our world.  If I had a teenage daughter, I would strictly forbid her to read `A Hat Full of Sky’ – in the hope that she would immediately do so. Until next week…