The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When the Queen of the Fairies steals her whiny little brother, witch-in-training Tiffany Aching joins with a rowdy group of tiny kilted men to rescue him.
This is the first of Pratchett's excellent YA Discworld series starring young witch Tiffany Aching as she grows up and into her considerable powers. It's full of Pratchett's usual wit and throwaway jokes - educations in sheep country, for example, are purchased with eggs or root vegetables - and introduces a female protagonist who is a worthy addition to the Witches of Discworld.
Witchcraft in Discworld is less about showy wand-waving and more about clever, clear-sighted women doing what needs to be done in their communities. In this spirit, Tiffany dispatches monsters with a frying pan and the uncommon sense granted to her by the gifts of First Sight and Second Thoughts. Her role model is her Granny Aching, a woman whose entire life was given to keeping sheep and influencing people with her quiet wisdom and power.
Tiffany stumbles into a clan of Pictsies known as the Nac Mac Feegle, a rowdy bunch of tiny blue men whose chief talents are fighting, drinking and stealing. They don't know the meaning of the word fear (not being great readers), and are only intimidated by lawyers and things written down - like arrest warrants and legal summonses. They are led by the appropriately named Rob Anybody, and primarily act as kicking, cursing comic relief.
For Pratchett, stories that obscure truth or try to make reality too simple are the real evil. The worst kind of sight, worse than being blind, is seeing things only as you think they should be instead of as they are. (He steals a good idea from C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in creating a world where "dreams come true", then asserting that a world like that is the most uncanny and terrifyingly eerie one imaginable.) One of the most moving aspects of the story is Tiffany's reaction to the tragic death of a local woman who was accused of witchcraft, a thread that Pratchett picks up in a later Aching sequel, I Shall Wear Midnight.
The character of Tiffany is a great one: she is a quiet, watchful girl with strong opinions. She reads the dictionary and enjoys thinking about words. She can be counted on to do what needs doing even if it seems impossible or dangerous, and is unflinchingly observant of human nature, including her own. (For example, she pursues her younger brother less out of affection than from a sense of outraged ownership because he is, after all, her brother.)
Tiffany can easily join Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (let's not forget Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, who could easily stand toe to toe with Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax) or Coraline from Coraline by Neil Gaiman. I would also compare her to Victoria Wright from Claire Legrand's The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, another unsentimental but thoughtful heroine who boldly goes to rescue others from danger.