Title: Witches Abroad (Discworld Witches)
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1991
Length: 384 pages
Genre: fantasy / humour
New or Re-Read?: Re-Reads
Rating: 4.5 stars
There is almost nothing I’m so much a sucker for as a retold fairy tale.
It’s why I love the graphic novels Fables. It’s why I love Catherynne Valente’s work. It’s why I like Mercedes Lackey, despite her faults, for her Elemental Masters series and her Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms. It’s why I like a lot of the romance novels that I do.
Fairy tales emphasize, as few things do, the power that a story has. And when it comes to that point, no-one, but no-one, hits the nail quite so firmly on the head as Terry Pratchett. I’m so grateful to him for giving me the phrase “theory of narrative causality”. It explains so much of what I believe about stories and about life (and about how little difference there is between the two, sometimes — and how much). For anyone not versed in the concept, I inflict up on you this rather long but vitally important excerpt:
People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.
Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.
Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling… stories, twisting and blowing through the darkness.
And their very existence overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.
This is called the theory of narrative causality, and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been.
This is why history keeps repeating all the time.
So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods. A thousand wolves have eaten grandmothers. A thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.
It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed.
Stories don’t care who takes part in them. All that matters is that the story gets told, that the story repeats. Or, if you prefer to think of it like this: stories are a parasitical life form, warping lives in the service only of the story itself.
Witches Abroad explores this concept to the hilt. When Magrat, youngest and wet-henniest of the Lancre witches, finds herself unexpectedly a fairy godmother to a girl called Ella, with the specific instructions that Ella not marry a prince. While this may seem easy enough — as the witches point out, plenty of girls don’t marry princes — things being what they are in the Discworld, there is, of course, a trick to it. The godmother from whom Magrat inherited her magic wand, knowing that Esme Weatherwax and Gytha Ogg need to be part of the story in order to help save the day, instructs Magrat not to let them come along under any conditions — thus assuring that, once they hear about the mandate, nothing in the universe will stop them from going with her.
The middle section of the book is less about narrative causality and more a good old-fashioned road trip (a sort of story which, after all, has rules of its own), and it’s a delightfully fun romp. We get to see Discworld’s versions of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, of Transylvania (more fully explored as Uberwald in Carpe Jugulum), Mississippi riverboats, Caribbean cruiselines, and Pratchett throws in some wonderful tongue-in-cheek references to The Fellowship of the Ring, The Sound of Music, and urban legends as well. During this journey, however, the trio starts to become aware that someone is forcing stories to happen, meddling in rather nasty ways to get the ends she desires. As such, in additional to the geographical allusions, the reader also encounters a hail of fairy tales, folklore, and classic children’s stories. Again, if you’re passionately interested in the references (as I am), I refer you, Gentle Reader, to the L-Space.
Things get more serious when the trio finally makes it to Genua — a Discworld combination of Venice and New Orleans, which someone is trying to shoehorn into being as squeaky-clean and seemingly perfect as Disney World. At least on the inside — outside, there’s still a bayou, and a woman well versed in swamp magic, and she figures into the tangle of things as well. Our Lancre witches have arrived (as the needs of the story dictate) just in time for Mardi Gras, or maybe for Samedi Nuit Mort, or Carnivale — all more or less the same thing, really, there’s a party on and even someone‘s machinations can’t stop it.
This is also a story about mirrors.
Because that interfering someone is Lily, Esme’s long-lost sister — a wanton, power-hungry thing who went bad, and, as Esme tells us, after Lily left, Esme had to be the good one. Each woman is a dark reflection of the other in some ways, and a shimmering temptation as well. Pratchett has some great things to say about what mirrors can give you and what they take away.
I love this book. Next to Lords and Ladies, it’s my favourite of the Discworld Witches series, because it mixes together so many things that are just wonderful treats for me — fairy tales, folklore, the power of stories, the ambiance of New Orleans, the family dynamics. It’s also just so much fun. I love when you can tell that an author must have just had a blast writing a book, and that gleeful sensation permeates Witches Abroad. It’s a wonderful book that gets better each time I revisit it, because I’m always noticing something new. As with the whole of this series, I heartily recommend it — particularly if you’d like to have some deep thoughts and ponder some meaningful things without having to read a particularly dense book to get there. Part of Pratchett’s magnificent skill is his ability to treat matters of considerable weight with such a light hand, blending the truisms in with the humour, deftly slipping in philosophy and metaphysical conjecture amid the parodies and romps. It’s a quick, easy read, but no less meaningful for that.