Hogfather by Terry Pratchett is the 20th novel in the author’s comic fantasy Discworld series, and the fourth in the Death sub-series. Susan Sto Helit, the granddaughter of Death himself, has settled into a life of education, living with a wealthy family as their astute and capable governess. Sure, she occasionally has to bash in the heads of monsters the kids imagine live under their beds or in the basement, but such things are old hat for someone like Susan. She knows all too well how powerful imagination and superstition can be on the Discworld. Aside from such hiccups, everything is perfectly normal, just the way she wants them to be.
But things take a turn for the stranger on Hogswatch Eve, a time when a jolly fat man is meant to be about delivering presents to all the good little girls and boys. He’s nowhere to be found, and in his place is Death, trying to fill the big man’s over-sized coat. With Death unwilling to inform Susan of what is going on, it’s up to her to learn the reason for her grandfather’s odd behaviour and uncover what has happened to the Hogfather. It’s a race against the clock as Hogswatch morning approaches. If she fails, the sun may never rise again.
I’d been anticipating reading this novel since before I started my read-through of Discworld, over five years ago now. If you have even a passing interest in the series or the author, you have no doubt come across quotes lifted from this book at least once or twice. No other novel in the series has been referenced nearly as often, as far as I’ve seen. It’s easy to see why, it’s a very quotable book. I even went out of my way to watch scenes from the TV movie adaptation years ago too. This put me in a weird state of mind when starting this book, though, as there was so much unknown to me that I was excited to finally dig into, yet it was also a little too familiar.
It started off strong with an audacious setup. The Auditors of the Universe, beings who try to enforce strict order over all things (last seen in Reaper Man), have hired the Assassins Guild to kill the Hogfather, and a certain Mr. Teatime is the man deemed crazy enough to try. Teatime was an immediately compelling villain, a brilliant young assassin on the outs with the Guild for being a kill-happy maniac, albeit a very calculated one. He’s several shades more sinister than a typical villain in the series, which was very refreshing. Seldom do I find anything in this series scary, but he exuded creepiness in spades. Watching him put a crew together to try to take down this world’s Santa Claus, his plan initially unclear, immediately had me hooked.
Story structure then took a bit of a jarring turn after their plan was underway, which hurt the pacing a little. Suddenly, Death was acting as the Hogfather, when only a scene or so before we’d seen him reacting to a bystander’s death from the beginning of Teatime’s plan. I sincerely thought I might have skipped over a few pages by accident. When Susan encounters Death delivering gifts and he refuses to explain what is going on, she is impelled to figure out why her grandfather is so morbidly taking the jolly gift-giver’s place. We then go through the motions of Susan discovering that the Hogfather has in fact died, crossing paths with the Wizards of the Unseen University, who are dealing with their own investigation of phenomena that are also a result of the Hogfather’s passing.
The problem is, the entire setup of the story is the Hogfather’s assassination. It is very easy for the reader to infer that Teatime has been successful in his task, the real mystery being how he was able to pull it off and what he is doing in the aftermath. Nevertheless, a great portion of Susan and the Wizards’ story focuses on figuring out what has happened, something the reader is already very aware of. I just can’t help but imagine the story rearranged in a way that we’re more in line with what Susan knows, equally bewildered by Death’s wild change in vocation. Even though it makes sense that Susan does not know what the reader does, the way it unfolded stunted the pacing of the story.
While I did find this all bothersome, I can’t deny that the reading experience during these sections was still enjoyable. I love how vexed Susan is by otherworldly forces that she cannot help but notice, driven to do something even when she is not obliged to, despite her desire for separation from it all. The antics of Archchancellor Ridcully and the other head wizards was entertaining as always too, the manifestation of the “oh god” of Hangovers being especially amusing. It played well with the world’s conception of gods, firmly established back in the novel Small Gods. These parts may not have driven the plot very much, but they did add a richness of character to the story, as well as tied in closely with the story’s motifs about belief and imagination.
The parts of the book I absolutely adored were those about Death trying his best to perform the Hogfather’s duties. In his novels, Death is typically given a less plot-driven role, focusing more on his character but giving him less to actively do. This book gave us the best of both worlds, as doing this job is important for the outcome of the overall narrative, but much more emphasis is put on character. The scenes where he is giving gifts to children at a grotto in a toy store had me in stitches . He’s so painfully matter-of-fact, yet the subdued glee he feels as he performs a job that has him giving to the world instead of his usual reaping was genuinely heartwarming. His literal-minded approach to the job was also great for evoking some genuine holiday spirit, whilst also highlighting the unfairness that plagues the world at all times.
Despite its fantasy setting, this has easily become one of my favourite Christmas stories. It’s the type of tale that makes you want to believe in Santa Claus, and I mean that most sincerely. Though charity and the spirit of giving are a factor, I’m much more enamoured with its themes that belief and imagination are crucial to what makes us human, with quasi-Christmas traditions as the focal point. In the Discworld it is taken to a most literal extreme, but the meaning behind it all is nonetheless transferable to real human experience.
This book also drove home a certain bittersweet quality to Susan’s relationship with Death that hadn’t been fully fleshed out to me in Soul Music. When I was first aware of her as a character, I assumed their relationship would be a little more twee; a unorthodox and quirky, yet loving. What this book hammered home for me is how much at arms-length the two really are from each other. There is a clear affection they have for one another, but her being human and him being an anthropomorphic personification actually drives a subtle wedge between them as family. An important factor of the story, in fact, is whether she regards him as akin to a monster or not. For his part, he simply cannot truly relate to human experience, so while his feelings do appear to be real, expressions of care are transparently performative; a mimicry of human behaviour. While straightforward wholesomeness has its place, the complexity of their relationship makes me love it all the more.
For a novel set in a fantasy world, it’s surprising how great of a Christmas novel Pratchett has been able to tell in Hogfather. In a true show of form, by poking fun at the subject matter he has made something more profound than works that are more straightforward. My frustrations with some of the story’s structure still stand, but the mystery around how Teatime and his cronies were able to commit their assassination, and the wider consequences such an act had on the world were really compelling. I had a great ah-ha moment when the pieces were coming together, in fact, a testament to the strength of what Susan’s story develops into, despite the stunted pacing at the start. Perhaps a little inaccessible if you’re starting here, this is nevertheless a must-read in the Discworld series.
My Rating: 4 out of 5