Maskerade, by Terry Pratchett

Title: Maskerade
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1995
Length: 384 pages
Genre: fantasy / humour
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is probably my least favourite of the Witches of Lancre books. I’m not sure why, but I just don’t find it as compelling as the others. There’s no reason I shouldn’t. It’s based fairly heavily on The Phantom of the Opera, which was one of my favourite musicals when I was younger, so familiarity and nostalgia should both be working more in my favour. And yet — something doesn’t take.

The story begins with Agnes Nitt, sometimes known as Perdita, leaves Lancre to escape the fate of becoming a witch — a destiny that she can feel creeping up on her from behind, particularly with Esme Weatherwax and Gytha Ogg on the lookout for a new junior member of their group to fill in for Magrat, who recently became queen. She strikes out for Ankh-Morpork and auditions at the Opera House. Agnes is a large girl with a lovely personality (unfortunate circumstances which she bemoans) and an incredible voice. Not only is her range unfathomable, but she’s practised in ventriloquism, so she can throw her voice almost anywhere. This talent gets her into the chorus — though she finds herself asked to act as the voice for pretty, popular, utterly empty-headed Christine, who has an unremarkable voice but possesses “star quality”. Agnes agrees, though the Perdita in the back of her head makes plenty of unkind comments (about both Christine and Agnes). Just as Agnes is adjusting to life in the admittedly bonkers Opera House, things there start changing — there’s new management, for one, a man with the strange idea that producing opera should actually make money, but more troubling than that, the Opera Ghost, up till now a harmless character, has apparently begun to commit random homicides.

Esme and Gytha find themselves in Ankh-Morpork as well, initially with the idea of forcing the publisher of Gytha’s cookbook to cough up more money (since her “special” recipes have made it an instant bestseller), but they look in on Agnes and wind up entangled in the mystery of the Opera House. We also start to see in Maskerade some twinges in Esme’s character that will play out more fully in Carpe Jugulum — hints that she’s starting to test the limits of her powers, and perhaps the boundaries guarding her own morality, as well as some indications of dangerous dissatisfaction. These hints draw the thread between Esme and the infamous Black Aliss again:

But Aliss, up until that terrible day, had terrorized the Ramtops. She’d become so good at magic that there wasn’t room in her head for anything else.

They said weapons couldn’t pierce her. Swords bounced off her skin. They said you could hear her mad laughter a mile off, and of course, while mad laughter was always part of a witch’s stock-in-trade in necessary circumstances, this was insane mad laughter, the worst kind. And she turned people into gingerbread and had a house made of frogs. It had been very nasty, toward the end. It always was, when a witch went bad.

Sometimes, of course, they didn’t go bad. They just went… somewhere.

We heard of her back in Wyrd Sisters, famed for putting an entire kingdom to sleep, the feat which gave Esme the idea about projecting Lancre into the future, and she’s popped up in reference in the other novels as well. Esme is, at least in the chain of teachers to students, a descendent of sorts from Black Aliss, and the correlation will become more important in Carpe Jugulum.

Lots of good ingredients, and yet somehow this book just doesn’t sparkle quite the way the others do. It doesn’t have the same balance of absurdity with profound truth that I like from Pratchett. I also feel like Maskerade, somehow, doesn’t have quite enough struggle in it. The stakes aren’t ever quite high enough. The Opera House is a world unto itself, and while there’s a lot of metaphoring that you can do with that, it means that nothing ever seems too terribly dire. It also drags a bit towards the end — the endgame is a little haphazard and takes a while to play out.

That said, there’s a lot of good humour in here, still. Nanny Ogg grappling with the idea of being fabulously wealthy — and then having Esme take the decision entirely out of her hands — is good for quite a few laughs, as is her attempt at a little revenge on her friend. And if you know much about opera or its descendant, musical theatre, there are an abundance of great inside jokes. I confess, I don’t catch as many of them here as I do with the Shakespeare-themed books, but, well, that’s what the L-Space is for. I do also thank this book for giving me the concept of the catastrophic curve — that point of right before everything goes to hell, a point that has no small amount of power in it:

Salzella sat back. He seemed to relax a little. “On edge? Mr Bucket,” he said, “this is opera. Everyone is always on edge. Have you ever heard of a catastrophic curve, Mr Bucket?”

Seldom Bucket did his best. “Well, I know there’s a dreadful bend in the road up by—”

“A catastrophic curve, Mr Bucket, is what opera runs along. Opera happens because a large number of things amazingly fail to go wrong, Mr Bucket. It works because of hatred and love and nerves. All the time.”

Though Salzella implies this is more true of opera than normal theatre, in my experience it’s remarkably true of most forms of art, especially the collaborative kinds. So, as with “narrative causality”, Pratchett’s added a valuable new phrase to my vocabulary.

This book leans more to the fluff side than the other Witches novels. Pratchett’s talent for accessible writing is fully apparent, however, as is his ability to draw incredibly distinct characters even with just short descriptions. From excitedly monotone Walter Plinge to overly exclamatory Christine to the not-so-inconspicuous “undercover” agents of the Night’s Watch, the cast of characters rounding out Maskerade are full of delights. Just because I find it the weakest of the Witches series doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of good material here. This is still well worth the read, a great way to spend a few hours, and a nice link between the other books.

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