HOGFATHER by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's Discworld universe, centered on the city-state of Ankh-Morpork, is a place that may have magic and an Assassins' Guild but still manages to be a whole lot like our world.  In Hogfather, Pratchett blends fantasy and similarity in an adventure and mystery revolving around... Santa Claus.

In Ankh-Morpork it's almost Hogswatchnight, when boys and girls eagerly await the Hogfather: a fat being in a red suit who rides a sled pulled by four magic hogs, drinks Sherry left for him by the parents, and giving gifts to the good children.  But after a strange assassin named Teatime (which he insists is pronounced "Teh-ah-tim-eh") gets an assignment from shadowy being called the Auditors, the Hogfather seems to have vanished.

But there's a replacement Hogfather, and it's the last being one would expect: Death.  The Grim Reaper (who ALWAYS SPEAKS IN CAPITAL LETTERS) has donned a red suit and fake beard and, assisted by his servant Albert, is showing up in homes and giving presents to the needy (sometimes at the expense of others.)  At the same times, magical beings that do what everyone expects keep popping into existence at the Unseen University of wizards, who do things like eat socks or cause baldness (but not, as one hopes out loud, a Huge Bags of Money Goblin).

Meanwhile, Susan (a governess, member of royalty, and Death's granddaughter) is out to find out what happened to the Hogfather -- and why Death is so eager to take over.  She's joined by a talking raven the Death of Rats (who also only speaks in capital letters, but who only says SQUEAK), and Bilious, the God of Hangover (actually, the Oh God of Hangovers).  What could possibly go wrong?

HOGFATHER is sometimes thoughtful, often silly fun.  Terry Pratchett has a keep ear for language and satire, whether it's the inept academic wizard rulers fumbling around each other, trying to get their computer (Hex), powered by ants and bees, to work by figuring out what question to ask or what its answers mean, or just getting anything done:

The Archchancellor pointed dramatically skyward.
"To the laundry!" he said.
"It's downstairs, Ridcully," said the Dean.
"Down to the laundry!"

Death comes across as oddly nice, yet also unsuited for the distribution of free goods, as when giving gifts in a department store:

-- and a sword.  It was four feet long and glinted along the blade.
The mother took a deep breath.
"You can't give her that!"  she screamed.  "It's not safe!"
IT'S A SWORD, said the Hogfather.  THEY'RE NOT MEANT TO BE SAFE.
"She's a child!" shouted Crumley.
"What if she cuts herself?"

Susan is a suitably stable and rational heroine, trying to figure out what's happening and why, as well as the source of and reason for myths.  (She's also great at kicking monsters' asses with a poker.)  Teatime is, by contrast, a Joker-like villain who's as lethal to his allies as to his enemies (as he says about friends: "I don't seem to have many," he said, apologetically.  "Don't seem to have the knack.  On the other hand...  I don't seem to have any enemies.  Not one.  Isn't that nice?")

Hogfather is clever, from the characters and situations to the jokes and footnotes.  It's also oddly touching, as the characters try to find some kindness and justice in a seemingly uncaring universe.  And it's tremendously funny and nigh-infinitely quotable.  There are plenty of Christmas novels that are saccharine or preachy, but Hogfather is a slanted view that's both alien and familiar -- and damn entertaining.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

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 absolutely everything and see what happens?" he said.
And Ridcully responded with the traditional response.
"It's got to be worth a try," he said.

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