Book Review

Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett

In an alternate universe, the planet Discworld is carried on the backs of four elephants, who are standing on the back of a giant turtle. In the Discworld books, Terry Pratchett satirizes aspects of our own world with a combination of affection, impatience, and asperity. Terry Pratchett’s writing tends to be free of two things: meanness (there are mean characters, but the author’s view seems to be stern but compassionate) and bullshit. The morals are not subtle but they are leavened by humor – so much humor! Every book is a stand alone, but there are certain recurring characters. In Hogfather, Discworld fans can rejoice in the presence of Death, who ALWAYS TALKS LIKE THIS, Death’s granddaughter Susan, the wizards of Unseen University, and a brief but memorable appearance from Col. Nobby of the Guard.

In Hogfather, Pratchett pokes some fun at, and makes some sharp points, regarding Christmas. Oh sorry, I mean Hogwatch. Totes not Christmas. My bad.

In Discworld, or rather, in the Ankh-Morpork region of Discworld, winter solstice is marked by the arrival of Hogswatchnight. If you’ve been good, and you hang up your stocking (or in one case, your pillowcase), the Hogfather will visit and leave gifts. He rides a sled pulled by hogs (it’s very agricultural). But this year the Hogfather goes missing and who arrives to fill in the gap? Death, who is thrilled to finally have a job in which people are happy to see him.

Any proper Discworld novel is crowded with characters and plot and problems and this is one of the best. We have, among other things:

  1. The exploits of a group of beggars who will NOT sing in front of your establishment if you give them money.
  2. A complicated assassination and theft attempt led by the batshit crazy Mr. Teatime (Teh-ah-tim-eh). Teatime is trained by the Guild of Assassins, and even they find him horrifying. “We took pity on him because he’d lost both parents at an early age. I think that, on reflection, we should have wondered a bit more about that.”
  3. The disappearance of The Tooth Fairy, and subsequent appearance at the Unseen University (where the wizards live) of a number of anthropomorphic personifications, including the Oh God of Hangovers.
  4. Death’s granddaughter, Susan, governess extraordinaire, who gets dragged into looking for the Hogfather despite wishing for nothing more than normality.
  5. Death enjoying being Hogfather a little too much.
  6. Lots of other stuff – what kids are really like as opposed to what grown-ups think they are like, the special meaning of “cuisine”, manners, and of course the true meaning of Hogswatch.

So, why do I read this every year? Well, first of all it’s familiar and its funny. I have a love/hate relationship with Christmas and it wears me the heck out, so it’s not like I have the energy for War and Peace. This book makes me laugh so hard, in so many ways, and every year I find a new favorite line. This year I was especially delighted by this rather petty exchange between wizards, when they discover the “Hair Loss Fairy”:

“No sense in being bashful about goin’ bald,” said Ridcully evenly. “Anyway, you know what they say about bald men, Dean.”

“Yes, they say, ‘Look at him, he’s got no hair,’” said the Lecturer in Recent Runes.

And then there’s this inspiring moment:

 Then the Dean repeated the mantra that has had such a marked effect on the progress of knowledge throughout the ages.

“Why don’t we just mix up everything and see what happens?” he said.

And Ridcully responded with the traditional response.

“It’s got to be worth a try,” he said.

For me, though, the real draw of the particular book is that it reminds me of things that I need to be reminded of. It reminds me that life is not fair but it bloody well should be. It reminds me that fantasy is vital to humanity. It reminds me that regardless of one’s religious beliefs, and mine seem to change approximately once every five to ten years, the rebirth of the sun at winter is a glorious thing. And it doesn’t hurt to try to be a decent human being, too, especially if you can keep it up all year. As Death’s assistant, Albert, says, when Death decides to teach people the real meaning of Hogswatch:

 “It’s all about the sun, master. White snow and red blood and the sun. Always has been.”

“VERY WELL THEN. THE HOGFATHER CAN TEACH PEOPLE THE UNREAL MEANING OF HOGSWATCH”

Albert spat over the side of the sleigh. “Hah! ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice If Everyone Was Nice,’  eh?”

“THERE ARE WORSE BATTLE CRIES”

Every northern hemisphere culture has some story or festival on or near the winter solstice, and they all involve light. We don’t have traditions of hanging lights and lighting candles and fighting with our families over dessert because it’s cute, and we don’t set our major religious observances during solstice out of coincidence. We have these traditions because winter is scary, and dark, and long. People need light, hope, and each other.

Pratchett focuses on the significance of solstice in general, and Christmas in particular. It’s easy to forget the true meaning of Christmas while shopping at the mall, but Pratchett’s characters are on hand to remind us that the secular rituals of Christmas have meaning beyond the superficial.

Above all, Pratchett reminds the reader that the ability to imagine and create plays a vital role in making the human spirit human. Death insists that if the Hogfather ceases to exist, the sun will not rise the next day. Susan insists that this is obviously untrue. You’ll have to read the whole book to find out why they are both right. Luckily, you’ll enjoy it!

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Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

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  1. 1
    Susan says:
    1+

    I am a complete fangirl for Pratchett and with his illness I clutch each new release worrying this could be the last from him. Hogfather is one of my favorites and I love the movie made from it, great job on that one. Very handy, there is a chart (available in 10 languages) showing how the books link or flow which lets you pick a storyline to follow: http://www.lspace.org/books/reading-order-guides/

  2. 2
    SaraLC says:
    1+

    This is one of my favorite Pratchett books too. I read it every Christmas.

  3. 3
    Rkswan says:
    1+

    Susan is who Everywoman would wish to be. Monsters under the bed? No problem. Grab an implement.and Address The Situation with a Stern Voice and Poker Admonishment. There need to be more characters like Susan Sto-Helit in our shared stories

  4. 4
    Storyphile says:
    1+

    If I could fully explain how much I love this book and why then I would be a book reviewer too. As it is, all ican say is I like this book a lot because it’s a great story with great characters, and I completely agree with the A+ rating.

  5. 5
    Rosario says:
    1+

    I’ve been trying to get into Pratchett for a while. I tried to start at the beginning of the Discworld series, and that wasn’t very successful. Do you think this one would stand alone enough for me to go straight to it?

  6. 6
    2+

    @Rosario The first Discworld book I ever read was Equal Rites, then several more skipping around the first half of the series. (They were from the library, so I read what—and when—I could get my hands on.) They were all fine (as in, deliciously fun and funny and poignant and snarky and observant about human nature, not to mention hilarious). Unfortunately, one day I had the bright idea of reading the whole series in order. I read book 1. Eh. I read book 2. Uhh… Somehow, the idea of series reading got abandoned. Several years later I tried books 1 and 2 again… and again, abandoned the series-in-order reading. (Next time, if there ever is a next time, I’m starting with Equal Rites and continuing from there.)

    TL;DR: Pick a Discworld book that sounds good to you. If you like it and want more, pick another that interests you. I see no reason you can’t start with Hogfather. I can also recommend Guards! Guards! as a starting point.

  7. 7
    Lindsey says:
    1+

    I tried (unsuccessfully) to read some of the Discworld books. I’m fairly sure it was poor timing on my part, because I do love the sense of humour in the Discworld series. I played the PC game Discworld Noir when it wasn’t as old as it is now, I’ve got a copy of two of the three board games available (Ankh Morpork is the good one, by the way) – And every year I try to watch one of the ‘made for UK TV’ adaptations by Sky One. The Hogfather is available on DVD in America (I just checked Amazon.com), but the others are worth a look too; Going Postal and The Colour of Magic (the latter being my least favourite, but still entertaining, if you happen to be the sort of person that likes that sort of thing. Which you probably are, if you’re reading this far into the comment.)

  8. 8
    Cate says:
    1+

    I adore Pratchett, but if @Rosario you’re having problems getting into Disc World, get your hands on the audio recordings read by Tony Robinson(Baldrick of Blackadder fame).. & be prepared to laugh your socks off. I first tripped over Pratchett when Equal Rites was broadcast on Radio 4 (Lo, these many years ago), & so I have a huge soft spot for Granny Weatherwax. But, one of the finest & funniest recordings is Monstrous Regiment. But anything featuring Sam Vimes ie Night Watch is well worth a try, and they’re not necessarily books you need to read in order. Enjoy..

  9. 9
    Rosario says:
    2+

    Excellent, thank you all! I’ve just bought the Hogfather audiobook 🙂

  10. 10
    Cammy6 says:
    1+

    I have a long-term unreasonable love for Pratchett. I’d suggest starting off with this one, Guards!Guards! or Equal Rites. Guards!Guards! did it for me in the early 90’s. The first 2 or 3 novels in the series are a bit underwhelming and among the first he wrote. They were originally published in the mid to late 80’s. I was underwhelmed and it took me a couple of reads to really start appreciating his stuff. Now I’m a big ol’ fangirl.

  11. 11
    Asilin says:
    1+

    This is one of my favorite books in the Death line. I read it every year too. And watch it! The movie is just as hilarious, if you haven’t seen it.

  12. 12
  13. 13
    PointyEars42 says:
    1+

    I don’t always have time to read it, but watching the Hogfather movies is an annual event for me. I highly recommend it, although after watching whats-her-name as Susan, you’ll never watch Downton Abbey the same way again 🙂

  14. 14
    tee says:
    1+

    And this is why I love my geeky peeps at SB. I read this every year, too.

  15. 15
    KSwan says:
    1+

    Susan was role model for my daughters, who early in life were both given pokers Just In Case. And ooh, ooh, the Oh God of Hangovers . . . and Death and Death of Rats . . . Without doubt, Hogfather is the best Christmas story ever written. The movie is also well done Pratchett fun. I envy everyone who has not yet experienced this holiday treat.

  16. 16
    MOB says:
    1+

    Hogfather is one of the best — my favorite part is Death’s comment at the end that humans need to believe in the small lies (like the Hogfather), to be able to believe in the big lies, such as Justice, Mercy… This commentary on the human condition is classic Pratchett. Curse his illness for depriving us.

  17. 17
    Celia Marsh says:
    1+

    the annotated pratchett covers Hogfather, which is helpful for dealing with some of the british jokes. http://www.lspace.org/books/apf/hogfather.html

    I adore it. And the movie. Oh, the movie. It surprises me sometimes how beautifully Discworld books can be adapted to film.

  18. 18
    LovelloftheWolves says:
    1+

    Hogfather was my first discworld book, and possibly even my favorite! Susan Sto Helit is definitely one of the best characters to follow in the discworld series (that and the Witches – Granny Weatherwax and Crew). For the commenters who said they didn’t know where to start – start anywhere! The best part of Discword is (for the most part) they’re self contained stories that have reoccuring characters who guest star.

  19. 19
    Gina Drayer says:
    1+

    I love this book. My kids (10 and 12) are prime age for Pratchett. We’re going to listen to it while we drive across the Midwest this Christmas.

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