The Leaky Establishment, by David Langford

The Leaky Establishment was originally published back in 1984, but was reissued a few years ago with a new foreword by Terry Pratchett, which says “This was the book I meant to write,” and, more worryingly, “The book is practically a documentary.” (Pratchett, author of the Discworld books, was once a press officer for the British atomic power industry.) Anyway, Pratchett praises it: you have fair warning, then, that this is a book both humorous and intelligent. The setting is a British nuclear research facility in the Thatcher era, the hero, Roy Tappen, a young scientist drowning in a sea of bureaucracy. The plot involves Tappen’s ever-more complicated efforts to return a warhead core of which he inadvertently finds himself possessed after smuggling home an unused filing cabinet. Unfortunately, although nobody seems to notice it’s missing, smuggling the core back becomes rather more difficult as security measures are increased prior to a royal visit. Anyone who has ever worked in a university science lab, anyone suffering the toils of bureaucracy in any form, will find something familiar in the labs and office-huts of the Nuclear-Utilization Technology Centre. No one does satire like the British and this portrayal of the lunatic impersonality of a government facility is a prime example.

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Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching Quartet

Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series for adults has been read by many teens, but he has written some Discworld books for older children or teens too, including the Carnegie Medal-winning The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. (He’s also done a Discworld picture book called Where’s My Cow?, a companion-piece to his adult novel Thud.) This past autumn, Pratchett finished off a series of four Discworld books for YA readers about the young witch Tiffany Aching. Our library has all four of these. Pratchett’s children’s or teen books are really for adults as well. In fact, Ook has noticed that it’s mostly adults signing out the Tiffany Aching series.

The Wee Free Men
This story introduced nine-year-old Tiffany Aching, a farmer’s daughter on the Chalk, an area of the Discworld that’s a bit like the Sussex Downs in England. Tiffany, whose main talent is making good cheese, is the sort of girl who looks at things and wonders why, and notices what’s really there. When her sticky little brother is carried off by the fairy queen to a land of deadly illusion, she sets out, armed with an iron frying pan (elves can’t stand iron). She also has the help of the Feegles, the Wee Free Men or Pictsies, tiny blue-tattooed men who live for fightin’ and thievin’ and speak with heavy Scots accents. (Their Big Man is named Rob Anybody.) Along the way, she rescues the baron’s son, Roland, who was also kidnapped by the fairy queen, and discovers that she is a witch. As there are no witches on the Chalk, and a harmless, slightly dotty old lady was not too long before turned out to die in the cold after a mob burned her house, believing her to be a witch, this is a bit of a problem.

A Hat Full of Sky
In this one, a slightly older Tiffany (accompanied by the Feegles) goes up into the mountains, where witches are an accepted and important part of the culture, to be a witch’s apprentice. This seems to involve a lot of travelling around, cutting old people’s toenails and generally providing nursing and counselling services, and not much magic. She has trouble fitting in with the other apprentice witches, who think there should be more mystic symbols and wand-waving involved. With an ancient, dangerous, soul-devouring entity, the hiver, stuck in her head, Tiffany has some serious witching to do, to save herself.

Wintersmith
In the third book, a teenage Tiffany rashly jumps into a Morris Dance done at the turn of winter and attracts the romantic attention of the Wintersmith himself. Winter, in love with a human girl, sets out to impress her, and an endless winter descends on the Discworld. Tiffany faces up to one of the stern tenants of witchcraft: her mess, she’d better clean it up. All the Tiffany books are excellent, but this one is outstanding among them, a very powerful book. All four of the Tiffany books feature at least brief appearances by some of Ook’s favourite Discworld characters, the witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. (His very favourite character, of course, is the Librarian, who is a sort of cousin of his, being an orangutan.)

I Shall Wear Midnight

The final instalment of Tiffany’s story finds her back home as the witch of the Chalk, aged sixteen. The intended readership of the Tiffany books matures along with the character. In this, Tiffany has to deal with some serious non-magical community problems: a pregnant girl of thirteen beaten by her father, the father’s attempted suicide. While making hard decisions about how and whom to help, Tiffany also finds the temper of the times turning against witches, with the return to the world of the ghost of a vicious, mad Omnian witch-hunter from the bad old days of the fundamentalist Omnian religion (which was reformed in the book Small Gods and now merely annoys people with pamphlets, rather than burning them at the stake). On top of that, Roland, who was her friend and then boyfriend, is now engaged to be married to a blonde, beautiful aristocrat, and having realized that she and Roland weren’t really in love anyway doesn’t make Tiffany feel any better about this.