In the first chapter of The Shepherd’s Crown, a change is coming to the Chalk. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of abuse (specifically child abuse)
This might actually be my favorite opening in a Discworld book, and I love how quickly Pratchett not only builds on the past established in the books about the Witches and Tiffany, but introduces an entirely new character that I have IMMEDIATELY fallen in love with. But maybe I’m biased, not just because of the bizarre similarities between Geoffrey and myself, but because… this is it. This is the final book, the last one Pratchett completed before he passed. It hits at a weird time, and I do wanna thank the multiple people and mods who have reached out to me to give me one big ol’ trigger warning for this book. People had already told me to wary of the theme of death here, so I’m doing my best to put myself in the right headspace each time I sit down to record a video for The Shepherd’s Crown.
But that’s not what I was thinking about as I started the prologue. It’s been just over six years since I started this journey, and I have to accept that it’s about to come to an end. I remember in the early days of Mark Reads, I was so steadfast against reading series that were longer than trilogies. I rejected so many books back then because they were part of five or six book series. Admittedly, part of that came from an understandable fear: there was no way the popularity of Mark Reads could ever last more than a few more years. I just kept believing that I had a year or two in me, y’all would leave, and I’d move on to something else. Shit that goes viral online doesn’t really sustain itself into a full career, does it?
And yet, here I am. Mark Does Stuff turns ELEVEN this summer. And while I’ve done multi-year projects before—like reading Tamora Pierce’s body of work—this is easily the longest, most ambitious thing I’ve ever covered. EVER. And now that I’m here at the end… I’m so glad I read these in publication order, rather than skipping around from one series to the next. I would not have experienced one specific thing if I hadn’t done that, and you can see evidence of it in the video for this: Discovering who the focus of each book would be in the opening parts. I went from thinking this would be a witch book to realizing it was a Tiffany Aching book to realizing I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THIS BOOK IS ACTUALLY ABOUT.
So, let’s jump into this.
The Shepherd’s Crown
I get the sense after now having read nearly all of the Discworld books that Pratchett really, really loved writing the Tiffany books, especially since he has a personal connection to them based on where he lived. You can feel the love and respect in his words. This land is one where history is just under the surface, and living in a place like the Chalk is a reminder of that. That chalk is made of that history. And that history is present in the idea of the shepherd’s crown, the sand-dollar-like object that Daniel Aching finds and brings home. (At least that’s what is on my cover.) It feels like such a powerful metaphor for Tiffany, you know? That’s the legacy that she comes from. The Chalk is her home, and so it seems so fitting to me that we open with a reminder of what the Land actually is and why it is important to her family.
I imagine, then, that the bulk of the characters we’re going to see in this final book are probably those we normally see in Tiffany’s books. So, that definitely means the Nac Mac Feegles, though it was a surprise to me that their appearance in the first half of the first chapter is more so that Jeannie can play a part. We definitely don’t see her as much as we do Rob, but she’s so much more necessary. After Tiffany feels a pull to visit the old stones in the Chalk, Rob confirms that Jeannie has felt something, too. As I mentioned before, this chapter builds off the past. Not just the long history in the Chalk, but the past between Jeannie and Tiffany, too! I love that there is a casual respect between the two of them, which is something they both worked towards over the course of the Tiffany series. Each of them has a role to play in the world, and they assist one another when they can.
But as Jeannie warns about a possible intrusion into the world because the door between realms is thin, the conversation veers into something unexpected. Yes, I’m definitely worried about the return of the Queen of the Elves. She’s fucking terrifying. Yet I found myself way more interested in the smaller moment here: Jeannie inquiring into Tiffany’s personal life. It is one of two major things in chapter one that hit WAY too close to home. Like, did Pratchett somehow travel to the future and listen in on the last month of sessions with my therapist??? Because like Tiffany, I am prone to overworking. Not just overworking, but I take on projects to help others like it really is my business. I’m not exaggerating when I tell y’all that in my second session—SECOND!!!—my therapist asked me, “So who takes care of Mark during all of this?”
So, when Jennie asked Tiffany if that was any way to live, I felt attacked. DEEPLY ATTACKED. And it’s interesting that Pratchett loops back around to this in the end of the chapter. Tiffany says she wants to be more like Granny Weatherwax, but she appears to already model her enough. Granny has dedicated her entire life to the service to others. But she still forgets that there is value in being in service to herself. Like… eating? Regularly? Because your body needs fuel—that fuel being food and rest and love—in order to help others. And there’s no point in being prideful about that.
As if this wasn’t pointed enough, Pratchett then has to craft a character that feels like a direct commentary on my own life in Geoffrey Swivel. Y’all. I talk about this a lot when I do school visits, but I once turned down going to my parents annual Superbowl party because I wanted to stay in my room and read. Which is not to say that a fox hunt and the Superbowl are exactly the same… but come on. Both are “traditions” for families that absolutely are tied to masculinity, and like Geoffrey, I had little to no interest in doing anything that was typically associated with being a man.
So, this whole sequence felt like Pratchett plopped down an incredibly well written short story into the opening of this book. I was transfixed, y’all, but I made a comment on video about on particular thing that I promised to elaborate on. Pratchett skewers a number of things here: wealth. Patriarchy. Toxic masculinity. Child abuse. They’re all mixed up in the portrayal of Lord Swivel, and then, in Lord Swivel’s wife and in Geoffrey, we are shown who ends up being the victim. (Actually, to some extent, Hugh and Harry are victims; they’re definitely portrayed as being terrified of upsetting their father. But I’m focusing on those who are most often on the receiving end of Lord Swivel’s wrath.)
Geoffrey does not perform to the level that Lord Swivel expects of his sons, and I’d be remiss in not mentioning the rampant misogyny here, too. Like, what if his wife had given birth to a daughter? Oh my god, she would have been treated like DIRT. Instead, Lord Swivel seems to despise his wife just for… existing? She was only a means to an end—giving him two heirs. Thus, Geoffrey is, in every respect, the “runt” of the litter, to build off the metaphor that Pratchett uses. Lord Swivel only really needed two sons. But Geoffrey committed the sin of empathy. He committed the sin of having his own interests, especially those not traditionally seen as masculine. He committed the greatest sin of all, though, near the end of chapter one: He stood up to his father.
Here’s the very specific part that I’m leading up to, though. After Lord Swivel grossly abuses his son, this happens:
It hurt. But Geoffrey was suddenly full of… what? All at once he had the amazing feeling that things could be made right, and he told himself, I could do it. I know I can. He drew himself up to his full height and shook himself free of his brothers’ grasp.
“I must thank you, Father,” he said with unexpected vigor. “I have learned something important today. But I won’t let you hit me again—never—and nor will you see me again unless you can change. Do you understand me?”
I was instantly transported to the dining of the house in Riverside where I grew up when I read this. I was sixteen. It was the end of the first week of my junior year of high school, and that day, I made a decision. My mother, just before leaving work, threatened in me and rejected me. She told me that she didn’t want me in the house anymore, that I needed to leave and be gone when she came back. My mom was often an over-the-top person, but in that very moment, I made a decision to take her words at face value. There’s a thing that happens to a lot of us who are abused: we twist meanings. We try to see any other interpretation for what we are told except for the obvious, because these people can’t possibly mean exactly what they said. And then, we inevitably blame ourselves for the very abuse heaped upon us.
In this scene, Geoffrey changes. And I can report that as I packed up my cross country duffel bag with what few belongings I could carry, I changed, too. I felt this exact sensation: I could do it. I knew I could. I knew I could survive without her. It was a terrifying, heady, and intoxicating notion, and as I walked out of that house, vowing never to come back until my mother changed, I wasn’t sure what the future would be. I struggled, most definitely. That year was a nightmare in so many ways. But I’m proud of knowing that even if I was pushed to it, I finally stood up for myself.
I did it again. It’s been three years, but my mother did something really, really terrible to me. I’ve tried over the years to be a good kid, but things came to a point where I realized I was trying to raise someone over twice my age. I was trying to teach someone basic human empathy. I was still, after so much time, fighting to prove my own humanity. And three years ago, I had the same certainty pass over me: I could do it. I knew I could. I could live without her.
It’s been over three years, but I don’t regret that I have not said a word to her.
Mark Links Stuff
– You can now pre-order my second YA novel, Each of Us a Desert, which will be released on September 15, 2020 from Tor Teen!
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