As usually happens, I started out the holiday season with overflowing Christmas spirit. I hummed carols while I decorated the tree; I baked cookies and wrapped presents; I tied on an apron and ladled soup for smelly homeless people at the local mission (okay, that last part is a lie). But with each passing day, each traffic jam and long checkout line, my enthusiasm has waned a bit more. Now, with less than ten days to go before Christmas, my face has settled into a permanent scowl which hardens into a snarl when I hear children laughing or the jingling bell of the Salvation Army guy. In short, it’s a perfect time of year for a story where Santa Claus has been cancelled due to lack of interest.
In the Discworld (a fantasy universe that bears more than a passing resemblance to our own), the winter holidays are overseen by the Hogfather, a jolly fat man in a red suit who comes down the chimney to leave presents for good little girls and boys. Of course, he’s not exactly like St. Nick – the Hogfather’s sleigh is driven by a team of boars, and children are encouraged to leave out sherry and turnips instead of cookies and milk – but the idea is the same. Who wouldn’t love the Hogfather?
Well, someone doesn’t. A mysterious group of beings hires the Assassins’ Guild to have the Hogfather whacked, and one of the assassins is actually crazy enough to try. Suddenly, the children stop believing, and the jolly old man simply vanishes. Worse, all the mythological energy released by his absence is causing some very strange new beings to appear, like the Hair Loss Fairy. The only way to set the Discworld back in balance is for a surrogate Hogfather to step in and take care of business, but who’s up to the task? How about Death, who’s ready for a cheerier gig where people actually want to see him coming. With a fake beard and an exceedingly ill-fitting red suit, Death is off to fill some very merry shoes. Will it be enough to restore the cosmic balance of myth and belief? And, more importantly, do you really want the kinds of presents that the Grim Reaper is likely to fill your stocking with?
An installment in the ever-lengthening Discworld series, Hogfather features many characters Terry Pratchett’s fans will recognize – Death, of course, and his rodent counterpart, the Death of Rats, as well as his granddaughter Susan Sto-Helit, the bumbling wizards of Unseen University, and cameos from various other Discworld luminaries. However, this novel relies heavily upon characters established and developed in previous books, and presumes reader familiarity with this background; those who are new to the series will miss much of the humor, and may find the story frustratingly unclear. The plot is also a bit confusing, and some post-reading analysis may be necessary to figure out its twists and turns in hindsight (it was for this reader, anyway).
Not a good place to start for readers who are new to the Discworld, Hogfather is nevertheless a fairly enjoyable, though rarely laugh-out-loud funny, satire on the selfishness, greed, and hypocrisy that too often get equated with “Christmas spirit.” It might just be the perfect stocking stuffer for the Scrooge on your list.