Terry Pratchett's young witch comes of age at last

Tiffany Aching, the teenage witch who stars in Terry Pratchett's latest novel I Shall Wear Midnight, is in many ways the anti-Harry Potter.

True, she's a precocious pubescent who gets to ride a broomstick and save the day, but the final installment of her four-novel series of adventures is no jolly tale of boarding school, wand-waving and chocolate frogs. In fact, it is highly likely that a book so savagely bleak as I Shall Wear Midnight has not been marketed to children since the days of Struwwelpeter.

For example, not thirty pages in, Tiffany is called to assist when a pregnant thirteen-year-old miscarries after being assaulted by her violent, alcoholic father. The young witch is able to use hedge-magic to take away the girl' s pain before burying the foetus; the father later hangs himself. Hogwarts, it ain't.

Scenes like this scenes are tempered by a grim, meleancholy maturity. When we first met her in The Wee Free Men, Tiffany was a gutsy nine-year old; now aged fifteen, she is a fully-fledged local witch and an important figure in the local community.

Her exhaustive responsibilities involve everything from nursing dying pensioners to delivering babies, most of which she does thanklessly, in the face of well-drawn rustic misogyny.

Pratchett seems to suggest, with his characteristic gentle humour, that this is what growing up is like: full of hard work, disappointment and death. When one understands that the author himself is in the grip of a debilitating degenerative illness that has already robbed him of his ability to type, and is a prominent campaigner for the right to euthanasia, the brooding, serious atmosphere of I Shall Wear Midnight begins to make sense.

This is not in any respect a silly book. Yes, fairies are involved, but the Nac Mac Feegle largely steal sheep and start bar fights, like some of the more frightening wee folk of ancient legend. Pratchett is an incisive folklorist, and the Tiffany Aching series comes doused in a cold shower of British country arcana, of the sort that tends towards vigorous knob gags and nature red - or at least suspiciously brown - in tooth and claw. There is no room on the Discworld for wilting maidens in high turrets or the gooey pan-Celtic romanticism that oozes through much modern pulp fantasy.

Indeed, a recurring theme of Terry Pratchett's young adult fantasy is the special disdain he reserves for blushing princesses and silky-haired young ladies in silly frocks. In Pratchett's oeuvre, beautiful airheads who mope around waiting for their prince to come are at best a waste of space, at worst dangerously inept: inevitably, they have to be rescued and re-educated by sensible brunettes a fetish for old books.

This perennial Pratchett double-act is played to great effect here, pitting Tiffany in a restrained battle for
the bumbling young hero against a simpering proto-princess named, fittingly, Letitia. As a mousy, bespectacled teenager, one of my favourite things about Pratchett's books was his instinctual understanding of the unfairness of fairytales that mandate, as the worldly protagonist of I Shall Wear Midnight observes, that "only blonde and blue- eyed girls can get the prince and wear the glittering crown." As an adolescent, I found Pratchett' s relentless disapprobation of pretty, popular girls rather satisfying, but as an adult, the trope is slightly more problematic; one learns that in many cases, young ladies with highlights and impractical shoes also have souls.

Nonetheless, Tiffany is the sort of heroine who I wish had been able to read about when I was fifteen. She's a gutsy, sensible farm girl with ambition and the instinctive, unselfish heroism of wise children. She' s a terrible broomstick-rider, and her sidekicks include a toad and an anthropomorphic cheese. She commandeers the help of powerful, wonderfully rounded older women characters to fight the forces of bigotry and misogyny -– for what else, in the language of fairytale and allegory, is witch-finding all about?

Tiffany Aching would not be happy at Hogwarts. For her, being the witch is about "not having to be stuck in the story." Faced with a world of brutal superstition, she sets out to change it, teeth gritted, broomstick in hand. At the close of this remorseless folk tale, though, is a moment of redemption: growing up may be difficult, even in a fairytale, but with Terry Pratchett, there's always at least the possibility of a happy ending.

Laurie Penny is a columnist for New Statesman magazine.