The Shepherd’s Crown is the last of the Discworld novels, a series by the late Terry Pratchett that spans dozens of volumes all set on a disc-shaped world riding through space on the back of four elephants standing atop a giant turtle. The Discworld stories take place in the back alleys of the filthy city of Ankh-Morpork, in the hallowed halls of Unseen University and in the country hills of the Chalk. They tell of witches, wizards, goblins, dwarfs, sergeants, vampires, Death, postal workers and other strange folk. The Discworld series is so vast that it contains several mini-series within the larger series. The Tiffany Aching series to which the Shepherd’s Crown belongs is the best of these, so in a way The Shepherd’s Crown ends not one but two series.
Tiffany Aching is first introduced in the Discworld book The Wee Free Men. At the outset, she is a country girl whose main duties include cheesemaking and looking after her little brother. She is intelligent, tough and highly common-sensical. These qualities make her perfect material for becoming a witch. The early Tiffany Aching novels follow her education in magic, learning from the toughest and most common-sensical of all witches, Granny Weatherwax. With Granny Weatherwax’s guidance Tiffany’s talents bloom and she comes under the protection of a magical folk called the Nac Mac Feegle (or Wee Free Men) who are a sort of anti-Smurf, blue-skinned, red-haired and completely devoted to drinking, fighting, stealing and doing the Tiffany’s bidding (more or less in that order). Together Tiffany and the Nac Mac Feegle protect the Chalk from numerous supernatural threats.
When, in the early pages of The Shepherd’s Crown, Granny Weatherwax dies, Tiffany is tapped to take over as head witch. This is no easy task. Witches are stubborn and individualistic by nature. They all deny having or needing a leader and so getting them to function together is a daunting task, especially for someone as young as Tiffany. At the same time, Granny Weatherwax death weakens the gate between the human world and Fairyland. Fairies start to encroach the Disc World wreaking havoc on folks lives, spoiling food, playing dirty tricks, and stealing babies. And worse, the Fairies are planning an invasion. As if all that weren’t enough, Tiffany has to deal with a boy who shows up at her doorstep with a mysteriously intelligent goat and declares that he wants to be a witch. To her credit, she enlists him immediately. She needs all the help she can get. To protect her world, Tiffany must somehow raise an army of witches, Nac Mac Feegle and retired old men.
Terry Pratchett died of Alzheimer’s disease in March of 2015. Despite the disease that slowly robbed him of his mind, he continued writing to the very end of his life. The Shepherd’s Crown is, then, also an ode to a nearly unstoppable literary spirit. An afterward explains that Pratchett had hoped to spend more time completing The Shepherd’s Crown and had plans for other Discworld novels. While the book does seem in a just a few places to be more hurried than Pratchett’s other work, on the whole The Shepherd’s Crown serves as a beautiful and fitting, if unplanned, end to one of the great creations in contemporary literature, hitting home some of the Discworld’s most important themes: that one can blaze a trail without abandoning traditions, that magic resides in the simplest and purest of acts, that death is both an ending and another beginning, and that there’s hope out there for every soul.