Review: Hogfather

by Tom Ingram

We’re still somewhere in the middle of the twelve days of Christmas, so how about a seasonable book review?

A few weeks ago, in one of his Left Behind posts, Fred Clark of Slacktivist had this to say about authors and their relationship to their creations:

To create is to love, but apparently not always. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins do not love Hattie Durham. They despise their creation. Their contempt for her and disgust with her is tangible in every scene she appears in.

I think the authors expect their readers to share in this contempt, but that’s not how this works. When an artist creates a character that the artist does not love, readers or audience members don’t come to dislike that character, they come to dislike the artist. It is the writer–or actor, or painter–who reveals himself as unlovely. The character just becomes an expression of that unloveliness.

One of the things that has struck me while reading Terry Pratchett’s phenomenal Discworld series is that he hardly ever seems to really hate a character, even a villain. There are only two instances I can think of off the top of my head: the throwaway sweat-shop owner in Feet of Clay and Captain Swing from Night Watch–and they were both nasty cases. He has no illusions about his characters’ flaws, and bad guys usually get what’s coming to them, but overall the the books show the good and bad of humanity from all angles with amused affection.

This is never more evident than in Hogfather, the Discworld take on the Christmas mythology.

The story revolves around an almost successful plot to assassinate the Hogfather by preventing children from believing in him. In order to restore belief in the Hogfather, Death himself is forced to take his place. It sounds silly, but Pratchett treats it with the utmost gravity. That’s why none of the TV movie adaptations have been very good. The actors read the whimsical-sounding names and the jokes and assume that they should play their characters like children’s game show hosts.

The straight-faced, methodical treatment of what would normally be one-off gags is precisely the reason the Discworld books stand out. As you read, you’ll encounter a one-eyed assassin named Teatime, a supercomputer who writes letters to the Hogfather, and Bilious, the oh god of hangovers. There are laugh-out-loud moments, but Pratchett spins these ingredients into a tight story that works.

Hogfather is a funny but gripping read that comments on humanity, wealth, and belief. There are some bad people in this book, but there’s no character hatred to be found. Just good Hogswatch cheer.

You can find Hogfather online at McNally Robinson.