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Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett

Title: Night Watch (Discworld)NightWatch
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 408 pages
Genre: urban fantasy
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4.25 stars

This is the first City Watch book that I’ve really, genuinely liked. I’ve read others — Guards! Guards!Jingo, and The Fifth Elephant (though none terribly recently) — and while they’re all good, because Pratchett is good, none of them quite ever grabbed me the way the Witches series did.

I decided to pick this one up after someone tipped me off to the fact that it was Pratchett doing Les Miserables — and, at a wide stroke, this is true. I was expecting a far stricter parody than I ended up getting, though, and I think I’m okay with that. Really what Pratchett does is invert the structure, giving us the story of a good copper with quite a lot to lose. Night Watch is not as broadly comic as many of Pratchett’s novels, particularly those involving the Watch, and there are few moments in it which are truly just gut-wrenchingly awful. Pratchett throws some punches here that he often pulls elsewhere, particularly with regards to mortality. His political satire is as good as ever, with some particularly incisive observations regarding the nature of mob mentality, of anything done for the good of “The People,” and, as Ankh-Morpork so often allows him to demonstrate, of the lifesblood of cities in general.

So: What happens in Night Watch? Well, we begin with Sam Vimes at the top of his career and not entirely sure how he feels about that. He’s restored the Watch to repute and efficiency, he’s been made a Duke, he has a wife and a child on the way… and there’s something discontent, like his life doesn’t fit him quite right. He ruminates on this as his wife is in delivery on the Twenty-Fifth of May — a local day of observation having something, we gather, to do with lilacs. Later that day, while pursuing the maniacal murderer Carcer, Vimes accidentally gets sent back in time thirty years, where he has to fill in the gap left in history when Carcer (also sent back) kills Sergeant John Keel pre-emptively. Keel was, it turns out, young Sam’s mentor when he first joined the force, so Vimes now has to mentor himself to make sure he turns out okay. Make sense? No? Well, here’s Monk of Time Lu-Tze on it:

“Nothing’s certain, ’cause of quantum.”
“But, look, I know my future happened, because I was there!”
“No. What we’ve got here, friend, is quantum interference. Mean anything? No. Well… let me put it this way. There’s one past and one future. But there are two presents. One where you and your evil friend turned up, and one where you didn’t. We can keep these two presents going side by side for a few days. It takes a lot of run time, but we can do it. And then they’ll snap back together. The future that happens depends on you. We want the future where Vimes is a good copper. Not the other one.”
“But it must’ve happened!” snapped Vimes. “I told you, I can remember it! I was there yesterday!”
“Nice try, but that doesn’t mean anything anymore,” said the monk. “Trust me. Yes, it’s happened to you, but even though it has, it might not. ‘Cos of quantum. Right now, there isn’t a Commander Vimes-shaped hole in the future to drop you into. It’s officially Uncertain. But it might not be, if you do it right. You owe it to yourself, Commander.”

It’s more of the exploration of alternate realities that Pratchett does so well, and a theme which I always adore (Trousers of Time, and all). Vimes realises that he basically has no choice, if he ever wants to get back to the appropriate future, and so he takes up with the then-dissolute Night-Watch-as-was, takes himself under his own wing, and pretty soon is running the whole operation, never mind what the higher-ups have to say about it. Of course, this is an extremely effective way to make enemies very fast — especially since Carcer has taken up with the Cable Street Particulars, a special force with an expertise in torture.

Vimes also realises that he’s had the highly-questionable fortune to land smack in the middle of the famous street uprising which led to the bright-but-brief People’s Republic of Treacle Mine Road. He tries to assume the place in history left by John Keel, but his own thoughts and urges assert themselves, too, and as he tries to protect as many people as possible, he discovers that, thanks to his interference and Carcer’s, things aren’t turning out quite as he remembers them having done. Vimes has to out-think and out-react his opponents in order to keep both of himselves alive. We meet a whole contingent of Ankh-Morporkean regulars, including Rosie Palms, Nobby Nobbs, Fred Colon, Reg Shoe, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, and even a young Havelock Vetinari, the Assassins’ Guild’s most talented if under-appreciated student.

The poignancy of the novel really comes into full swing when Vimes ends up in charge of the rebellion, knowing full well how it ends, knowing full well who dies — and trying like hell to change history and to save them anyway. He knows what’s going to happen, and he wants to change it enough to matter, but not so much that he can’t get back. It puts him in a terrible position, really, particularly as he tries to convey the importance of it all to his younger self. There are a few little moments that Pratchett sneaks in there that really do just seem to punch you in the stomach. Right in the feels, as it were.

Overall, I think what I can say the most about Night Watch is that it surprised me. It was not the book I was expecting to read, but I’m exceedingly glad that I read it.

Someday I really must read all of the Discworld novels in order.

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Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett

Title: Hogfather
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1996
Length: 354 pages
Genre: fantasy
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.25 stars

It’s the annual solar festival on the Discworld, but something’s gone terribly wrong. The Hogfather — a mythical being in a red and white suit who brings good children presents on Hogswatch Night, if any of that rings some bells for you — has gone missing. And Death has, against all sensibilities, decided to fill in for him until he can be retrieved.

And who has to retrieve him? That task falls to the unwilling Susan, Death’s granddaughter (it’s complicated), who just wants to live her blissfully normal life as a governess without having to deal with supernatural cataclysms interfering. It isn’t a matter of choice, though, and Susan’s journey leads her to discover just what has happened to the Hogfather. A group of beings called the Auditors have put a hit out on him with the Guild of Assassins — the Auditors appear in more than one Discworld novel, often in opposition to Death. The Auditors hate life and wish it had never been. They govern the universe, making sure things like gravity and centripetal force work, and would much rather that the universe was nothing more than rocks moving in circles, without these horrible little bundles of spontaneity and free will getting in the way. They’ve set their sights on the Hogfather as something too irrational to be endured and want him eliminated. The Guild gives the job to Mr. Teatime (pronounced Te-ah-time-eh), an Assassin who somewhat embarrasses the rest of them by enjoying his job a little too much. He’s the sort of person who has, in fact, devoted time to figuring out how to kill anthropomorphic manifestations, and anyone who cheerfully admits to that has to be functioning without some essential components of sanity.

But he is good at his job, and he sets to work immediately. Without giving too much away, because the way Pratchett teases around the concept is so enjoyable, he finds a way to control belief — and with that control, eliminates the Hogfather from it. It’s an interesting commentary, really, since in our own world, it seems like children stop believing at younger and younger ages. But Teatime has an opponent more than he bargained for in Susan Sto Helit, who is one of Pratchett’s more wonderful creations. Much though she tries to be normal, she has certain supernatural abilities inherited from her grandfather — like the ability to stop time, or walk through walls, or remember the future, or use Death’s voice to scare the everliving daylights out of someone. She’s eminently sensible and practical, but in a way that makes her dangerous rather than boring. She can see things that are really there, and she lacks the human ability to edit out things that are illogical. She’s well-educated but sees that as a possible hindrance to understanding rather than a benefit, and many of her comments on methods of education and teaching principles are particularly hilarious to someone, like myself, who works in the field of education also:

Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on.

Susan is close to being my favourite thing about Hogfather, just because her voice is so distinct and such a joy to read.

What Hogfather does best, though, is explore the correlation between belief and being human. This is something Pratchett ponders on frequently in his works (as does his friend Neil Gaiman) — the idea that belief creates gods and other figures. That is not new, though it’s given a delightfully weird edge in Hogfather, as the wizards of the Unseen University start accidentally creating the Oh God of Hangovers and the Cheerful Fairy and the Eater of Socks (in whom I fervently believe now) out of the extra belief left sloshing around by the Hogfather’s absence. But what Pratchett really does magnificently here is tie that capacity for belief with what it means to be a human, what it means to be this marvelous sentient creature, this marvelously narcissistic creature who thinks the whole universe is inside of its head and secretly believes the whole universe was created just to lead to its own existence. Things like the Hogfather and the Tooth Fairy are stepping-stones of belief, the training wheels of childhood so that a human can believe in the really big imaginative things later on. Death sums this all up for Susan (and us) near the end of the novel:

HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMANS. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little–”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO A FINE POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET– Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE UNIVERSE, AS IF THERE IS SOME… SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or else what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.

She tried to assemble her thoughts.

THERE IS A PLACE WHERE TWO GALAXIES HAVE BEEN COLLIDING FOR A MILLION YEARS, said Death, apropos of nothing. DON’T TRY TO TELL ME THAT’S RIGHT.

“Yes, but people don’t think about that,” said Susan. “Somewhere there was a bed…”

CORRECT. STARS EXPLODE, WORLDS COLLIDE, THERE’S HARDLY ANYWHERE IN THE UNIVERSE WHERE HUMANS CAN LIVE WITHOUT BEING FROZEN OR FRIED, AND YET YOU BELIEVE THAT A…A BED IS A NORMAL THING. IT IS THE MOST AMAZING TALENT.

‘Talent?’

OH, YES. A VERY SPECIAL KIND OF STUPIDITY. YOU THINK THE WHOLE UNIVERSE IS INSIDE YOUR HEADS.

“You make us sound mad,” said Susan. A nice warm bed…

NO. YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN’T TRUE. HOW ELSE CAN THEY BECOME? said Death.

There’s a nice counterpoint to all of this at Unseen University, where young wizard Ponder Stibbons is desperately trying to drag Discworld into a place where things like advanced physics make sense. He’s created an artificial intelligence called Hex, which broadly resembles one of the first computers, except that, as with most things in the Discworld, it’s slightly askew — requiring honeycombs, mice, and other oddities to function. Hex is meant to be what the Auditors want, really — the epitome of rationality and predictability. But it isn’t. It goes wrong. Hex understands itself and humanity a little too well.

+++ Humans Have Always Ascribed Random Seasonal, Natural, Or Inexplicable Actions To Human-Shaped Entities. Such Examples Are Jack Frost, The Hogfather, The Tooth Fairy, And Death +++

“Oh, them. Yes, but they exist,” said Ridcully. “Met a couple of ’em myself.”

+++ Humans Are Not Always Wrong +++

“All right, but I’m damn sure there’s never been an Eater of Socks or a God of Hangovers.”

+++ But There Is No Reason Why There Should Not Be +++

So, as the plot rolls on, Pratchett explores these concepts, along with a host of others — gift-giving, various traditions, the origins of some familiar carols, the commercialisation of holidays — all with his usual crisp humour and delightful oddities. That said, I don’t think the book is totally flawless. My attention wanders a bit during some of the sections involving the crew of thugs that Teatime recruits. The last hundred pages aren’t quite as tightly plotted as they might be.

For what it’s worth, the move adaptation (currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly) is magnificent. It’s remarkably true to the book, and what few cuts there are are ones I don’t notice, because they trim all those parts of the books I tend to forget about anyway. They tighten and streamline the plot without losing the quirky sense of serendipity that governs Pratchett’s world. It’s joined the ranks of my must-see holiday films.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone looking for non-standard holiday fare. If the radio’s been driving you mad and you’re feeling the compulsion to spear someone through the ear with a sprig of holly, pick this one up. It has a delightful way of restoring holiday spirits with just the right blend of snarkiness. No one said you had to be nice in order to believe, after all.

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Carpe Jugulum, by Terry Pratchett

Title: Carpe Jugulum
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1998
Length: 378 pages
Genre: fantasy / humour
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.75 stars

This felt appropriate to review on Halloween.

King Verence II, in a fit of naive goodwill, issues an invitation to some neighboring vampires from Uberwald to attend the christening of his newborn daughter. Trouble is, since he’s king, that means he’s basically invited the vampires into take over the whole kingdom — which they intend to do. These are modern vampires, and the Count de Magpyr has trained his wife and children not to be susceptible to the usual pitfalls. They can eat garlic, aren’t fussed by holy water, have had religious symbols as mobiles, and barely flinch when caught in the sunlight. They subdue populations, not by sheer reigns of Gothic terror, but with a bureaucratic efficiency that’s much more frightening. Agnes Nitt discovers that she has a near-unique ability to resist their hypnotic power, thanks to her increasingly-assertive alter ego, Perdita. When Granny Weatherwax, initially absent due to sulking over having not been invited to the christening (she was, and in fact the baby was named for her, but the message went mythically astray), appears to lose her first confrontation with the vampires, it’s up to Agnes/Perdita, Nanny, and Magrat (recommissioned as a mother) to rid Lancre of its latest trouble.

This is a book that I always feel like I should like better than I do. It has the right ingredients — the Lancre Witches, mythical creatures, general snarkiness — and yet something about it always falls flat for me. I suspect in some ways it’s because this book bears too many resemblances to Lords and Ladies — which I love, but I’d rather read something with new themes than a re-hashing. There are a lot of similarities: invasive paranormal force, humanity has to remember why it fought these things to begin with and not just roll over for them, Granny ends up out of commission for a while but is preserved and triumphs via her Borrowing skill, the youngest of the three (here Agnes instead of Magrat) has to pluck up the nerve to defend the kingdom, etc. Nothing’s wrong with any of it, but you do get a bit of a feeling of having been there before.

The book picks up once Granny comes out of her sulk, and then out of her coma, and spends some time wandering about with Omnian preacher Mightily Oats. The entire dynamic between Mightily Oats and the witches is pretty great, actually, largely because of how Esme’s and Gytha’s respective prejudices bounce off of milquetoasty Mightily. The Omnian church, we can believe, once enthusiastically burned whoever it disagreed with, but has lots a lot of its fire in recent decades, not least because it schisms about three times a week, and none of the sects can even agree on who they should be burning anymore. Usually-tolerant Nanny has strong feelings about the Omnians:

“But you’ve never objected to the Gloomy Brethren, Nanny. Or to the Wonderers. And the Balancing Monks come through here all the time.”

“But none of them object to me,” said Nanny.

Esme’s a bit cannier in how she deals with Mightily, who ends up helping her back to the fight (only because he needed her guidance, of course, you understand. Under any other circumstances, she wouldn’t be having with his association). Esme senses what the readers get to see through Mightily’s eyes as well: that, like Agnes, he suffers from always being in two minds about things. “Good Oats” wants desperately to be a devout believer… but “Bad Oats” is the name he gives to the voice that questions, that’s skeptical, that isn’t quite sure about all of the dogma and trappings.

“You strong in your faith, then?” she asked, as if she couldn’t leave things alone.

Oats sighed. “I try to be.”

“But you read a lot of books, I’m thinking. Hard to have faith, ain’t it, when you read too many books.”

The story picks up even further when the citizens of Uberwald finally steel themselves to revolt against their vampire masters (with a little inspiration from Agnes/Perdita). The re-emergence of the old Count, a classic vampire who’ll have none of this modern nonsense, is one of the best scenes in the book. Ultimately, Carpe Jugulum is enjoyable, if not particularly exhilarating. I could have done with better exploration of new paths — the only new introduction, the Nac mac Feegle, just feels out of place against the backdrop of the vampires. They serve to get Verence out of the way and… not much else. It’s a strange diversion, to say the least.

So, overall, I don’t find Carpe Jugulum to be as strong as it might’ve been. It’s still a good read, though, and Pratchett’s humour is, as ever, quite engaging. There’s a lot of lovely satire in there about the vampires, and it’s somehow even more relevant now than it was back in 1998 when Pratchett first wrote it, considering the recent surfeit of vampire fiction. If you’re looking for non-standard vampire fare, where the arrogant toffs get what’s coming to them, then I can highly recommend Carpe Jugulum.

Post Script: I apologize for the two-week dearth of reviews. I have been first at an educational residency in Shaker Heights, OH, and second helping to run the 6th Blackfriars Conference here in Staunton. Information about those events is up on the ASC’s Education Blog, if anyone is interested.

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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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Lords and Ladies, by Terry Pratchett

Title: Lords and Ladies
Lords and LadiesAuthor: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1992
Length: 400 pages
Genre: fantasy / humour
New or Re-Read?: many times re-read
Rating: 5 stars

This isn’t just my favourite Pratchett book; this is one of my all-time favourite books. One of the books that will make the list if someone asks me for my Top Five.

Like Wyrd Sisters, Lords and Ladies spirals around a Shakespearean plot, although considerably more loosely than Wyrd Sisters does (there are, however, subtler quotes peppered in all over the place, which is a delight to as thorough a Shakespeare geek as I am). At the essence of it, though, we have fairies, and a wedding: Magrat “wet hen” Garlick is about to marry King Verence II, lately of the Fool’s Guild. Verence has determined to be the best king he can, based largely on advice out of books he’s had sent from Ankh-Morpork. His efforts are continually frustrated by his citizenry, who don’t think a king has any business telling them how to farm since they don’t tell him how to king, and who are so vehemently anti-democracy that they’ve opposed all his efforts at instilling a more egalitarian form of parliamentary government on them. Magrat is caught between witch and queen (aware that she can’t be both unless she’s willing to go the route of behaving wickedly and wearing low-cut gowns), and is fed up with Esme and Gytha acting like queen is second-best option.

Esme and Gytha, meanwhile, are dealing with some young upstart witches — one of my favourite bits of satire in the book. Whereas Magrat is clearly inspired by New-Age-y, hippie type witches, what with the flowy garments and Eastern influences, the younger set — Diamanda (nee Lucy), Perdita (nee Agnes), Magenta (nee Violet), and the rest — are clearly inspired by the more recent Goth-type witches. I know what it’s like to be young and foolish, and while I flatter myself I was never quite so arrogantly obtuse as Diamanda, well, maturity’s memory does tend to gloss over the more shameful elements of years’ past. At any rate, reading about these girls is utterly satisfying, both as someone who has no patience with that sort of nonsense now and as someone who still retains a touch of nostalgia for that irreplicable feeling of being so young and so sure. It’s probably because Pratchett handles it so well, as he always did with Magrat’s brand of lunacy — it might be ridiculous and ludicrous, yes, of course, but it isn’t mocked in a truly cruel way. There’s still an indication that it either comes from the heart, from some place of purity (in Magrat’s case), or that it at least comes from a combination of youthful indiscretion and the near-painful imperative to know who you are and what you want to make of yourself, which may lead down absurd paths and rightfully earn some gentle ridicule, but which can’t be condemned, all the same, because we’ve all been there. I can laugh at Diamanda and Perdita and Amanita because I am, at least a little bit, laughing at myself, ten or twelve years ago.

Unfortunately, Diamanda’s wounded pride gets the better of her after she loses a witching contest against Esme, and she does something truly foolish — something that opens Lancre up to a fairy invasion.

And now we get to what I really love about this book. This book treats the Fae properly. Which is to say, as terrifying creatures who are the reason iron horseshoes are considered lucky, because we once needed it to protect us; as hypnotizing, merciless, pitiless, and unfeeling; as dangerous and carelessly destructive, thieves of children, slayers of cattle, ruiners of crops, who steal everything and leave nothing and take and take and take; as the dark truths behind a hundred nursery rhymes where, as Pratchett puts it, protective charms and cautionary warnings are passed down “from grandmother to grandchild in little bits of nonsense they won’t bother to forget.” In a way, the book is a nice satire of the transformation the Fae have undergone in the last two hundred years or so. The Victorians and Edwardians turned them nice, turned them into cute little things who grace stationary and can be portrayed delicately in watercolours. I don’t know whether I blame James Barry or the pre-Raphaelite painters more. It’s starting to swing back the other way, though (thanks in part to this book and to Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and Sandman), and the darker interpretation makes for much more interesting stories. A lot of those nursery rhymes and poems find their way, explicitly or not, into the story — the ballad of Tam Lin, Thomas the Rhymer, Arthurian legends, Cornish prayers. (I refer my Gentle Readers once again to the L-Space if you need a cheat sheet).

Then there’s the fact that this book hits on another of my favourite topics — parallel universes. Because Pratchett sums it up in a way that I think is pure genius:

There are indeed such things as parallel universes, although parallel is hardly the right word — universes swoop and spiral around one another like some mad weaving machine or a squadron of Yossarians with middle-ear trouble.

And they branch. But, and this is important, not all the time. The universe doesn’t much care if you tread on a butterfly. There are plenty more butterflies. Gods might note the fall of a sparrow but they don’t make any effort to catch them.

Shoot the dictator and prevent the war? But the dictator is merely the tip of the whole festering boil of societal pus from which dictators emerge; shoot one, and there’ll be another one along in a minute. Shoot him too? Why not shoot everyone and invade Poland? In fifty years’, thirty years’, ten years’ time the world will be very nearly back on its old course. History always has a great weight of inertia.

Almost always…

At circle time, when the walls between this and that are thinner, when there are all sorts of strange leakages… Ah, then choices are made, then the universe can be sent careening down a different leg of the well-known Trousers of Time.

I’ve taken to using the Trousers of Time metaphor when discussing this sort of thing, and it either goes over quite well or like a lead balloon depending entirely on how willing my conversational partner is to accept my madness and move along. I do feel rather like Gytha pausing to explain the essential fractal nature of reality.

The wizards of Unseen University make an appearance in this book as well, and we find out some interesting details about the youth of Mustrum Ridcully, and that of Esme Weatherwax. We get some great jokes about quantum mechanics and the perils of discussing physics in a world that hasn’t quite invented it yet. We also get to see the magic of witches contrasted with that of wizards, with the note that everyone may be right all at the same time (because that’s the thing about quantum).

We get more of the normal folk of Lancre: from Jason Ogg and his artisan brethren (even if they don’t what an artisan is, much less a rude mechanical), a group of morris dancers prepping a play for the royal wedding (and under no circumstances performing the infamous Stick and Bucket dance); Hodgesarrgh, the falconer whose birds are only adept at maiming him; a cook who doesn’t believe in vitamins; a beekeeper whose trade involves such deep mysteries that he doesn’t feel the need to bow to royalty; a darling chambermaid named Millie with a tendency to bob and mumble. In addition, Jason gets visited by Death, not for the usual reason, but to shoe his horse, Binky — because Jason is the smith of Lancre, and the smith of Lancre can shoe anything, thanks to mysteries passed down to him. (There are a lot of trade mysteries in this book, come to think of it — it’s one of the subtler themes that can get a little lost under the fairy muddle, but there’s definitely quite a lot about the value of collective and hereditary knowledge).

All these disparate pieces weave together so beautifully that you hardly notice until they’ve collided into each other in perfect orchestration. Lords and Ladies is, apart from hitting so many of my favourite buttons, one of the more beautifully constructed books I’ve ever read — mostly because you don’t even think about how beautifully constructed it is unless you really pause to step back from it and consider. It isn’t one of those books that hits you over the head with how precise and meaningful its arrangement is. It slides right by your conscious brain and into your background awareness.

Another thing I like about this book is that the prose gets so elegant in places. Pratchett may be a humour writer, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything unsophisticated about his style — and when he really lets loose, it’s just gorgeous. This post could easily be nothing but my favourite quotes from this book, and it would still be twice as long as any other review. There’s just that much good stuff in there. And he slips in and out of it with such ease, so gracefully — it becomes ludicrous and hilarious again so swiftly, but the poignancy still lingers, trailing on behind you as you keep reading. I can’t resist leaving you with another, so take this last snippet before I wrap things up:

There used to be such simple directions, back in the days before they invented parallel universes – Up and Down, Right and Left, Backward and Forward, Past and Future…

But normal directions don’t work in the multiverse, which has far too many dimensions for anyone to find their way. So new ones have to be invented so that the way can be found.

Like: East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

Or: Behind the North Wind.

Or: At the Back of Beyond.

Or: There and Back Again.

Or: Beyond the Fields We Know.

And sometimes there’s a short cut. A door or a gate. Some standing stones, a tree cleft by lightning, a filing cabinet.

Maybe just a spot on some moorland somewhere…

A place where there is very nearly here.

Nearly, but not quite. There’s enough leakage to make pendulums swing and psychics get very nasty headaches, to give a house a reputation for being haunted, to make the occasional pot hurl across the room.

So. I love this book. If you read only one Pratchett book ever, read this one. If you read only one book about fairies ever, read this one. If you read only one book I recommend, read this one. It’s a masterpiece.

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Witches Abroad, by Terry Pratchett

Title: Witches Abroad (Discworld Witches)WitchesAbroad
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.

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Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett

Title: Wyrd Sisters Wyrd Sisters (Discworld Witches)
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1988
Length: 265 pages
Genre: fantasy / humour
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

I haven’t read all of the Discworld novels.  I really had trouble getting into the City Watch series, I like the Death/Mort/Susan books okay, and some of the stand-alones are fun, but, for my money, the highlights of the series are the Witches books.

In Wyrd Sisters, the first proper Witches book (apparently there’s a brief appearance in Equal Rites, but it’s not a full focus), the kingdom of Lancre — a tiny mountainous realm near the magical Hub of the Discworld — is in danger. Its previous king has been murdered, and while that alone isn’t much of a problem (being one of the usual ways for kings to exit the world), the kingdom itself isn’t taking to the new ruler. It can sense that he doesn’t care for it. Unfortunately, he’s being pushed along by his highly ambitious wife — who pretty soon realises that the presence of three witches nearby could pose a significant challenge to her reign.  She’s also concerned about the missing son of the dead king — who the witches have packed off with a traveling theatre troupe.

And who are these three witches? Well, there’s Granny Weatherwax (Esme), a curmudgeon of the highest degree famed for headology, indomintable will, and impenetrable boots. There’s Nanny Ogg (Gytha), matriarch of a clan that would put anyone in the Ozarks to shame, who had an adventurous girlhood and doesn’t much appear to have let up even in her advanced time of life. And then there’s Magrat, junior member of the group, a soppy young thing who firmly believes in . I’ve always enjoyed the contrast between Magrat and the others, as Magrat is such a delightfully accurate parody of the New-Age-y types, whereas Esme and Gytha know that the intent and focus of the witch matters a lot more than the type of crystal she’s using or the precise incantation she utters. This leads to a really excellent scene where they summon a demon (despite Esme’s misgivings that demons shouldn’t be pandered to) to try and get some answers out of him — using a washboard for an octagram and a copper stick for a sword of art. They also demonstrate a degree of irreverence for spirits which I thoroughly appreciate:

“Who’re you?” said Granny, bluntly.
The head revolved to face her.
“My name is unpronounceable in your tongue, woman,” it said.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” warned Granny, and added, “Don’t you call me woman.”
“Very well. My name is WxrtHltl-jwlpklz,” said the demon smugly.
“Where were you when the vowels were handed out? Behind the door?” said Nanny Ogg.

In Wyrd Sisters, the trio begins their practice of interfering in as precise a way as possible. They’re not supposed to, you see, and in this plot, it’s particularly complicated, because a kingdom ruled by witchcraft just doesn’t work (and they don’t want to have to be solving everyone’s problems all the time anyway). So they have to find a way to fix things without fixing them. It’s the sort of thing they explore even more throughout the rest of the Witches series — a lot of it has to do with narrative causality, a concept I find fascinating and which I’ll talk about more when I re-read Witches Abroad.

As for that theatre troupe, they’re balanced precariously on the edge of time between when actors were just wandering vagrants in search of an innyard and when they started becoming just a little bit more, building their own spaces, settling down, making the crowds come to them. During the course of the book, they start construction on the Dysk. The troupe is led by Vitoller, an excellent Burbage analog. Their chief playwright is a dwarf, Hwel (a hilarious pun if you know much about the pronunciation of consonants in 16th-century English), through whom Pratchett exercises a great many of his Shakespearean illusions. As Pratchett explains creativity:

Particles of raw inspiration sleet through the universe all the time. Every once in a while one of them hits a receptive mind, which then invents DNA or the flute sonata form or a way of making light bulbs wear out in half the time.

Hwel, both fortunately and unfortunately, has a head that attracts inspiration particles like a magnet attracts iron filings, with the result that he ends up trying to find room for rollerskating cats or Abbott-and-Costello-esque comedy routines in the middle of his lofty revenge tragedies. And then there’s Tomjon, the missing prince that the witches convince Vitoller and his wife to adopt. Suspecting that they’ve fulfilled a traditional fairy-godmother-type role (though not so much as they will in Witches Abroad), all three witches give the baby blessings — though certainly not your traditional kind. No, they give him far more sensible gifts: that he will always make friends, that he’ll always know all the words, and that he’ll always be whoever he thinks he is. These gifts have the side effect of turning Tomjon into a staggeringly successful actor, who declaims his first words in iambic pentameter, and who can halt a tavern brawl just by standing on top of a table and starting to talk.

I love the witches, and there’s so much delightful about them, but my real glee in this book is with the theatre troupe. There are the obvious Macbeth references, but Pratchett clearly knows his Shakespeare, because he slips in a ton of other allusions as well — Julius Caesar, Henry V, Hamlet, Richard III, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even Henry IV, Part 2. (And lspace.org has a really excellent annotation if you’re interested in sussing them all out). There’s also a lot of heart and psychological truth (or, as Granny would call it, headology) in the book. I’ve seen it described a lot as Monty Python meets Macbeth, but I think that’s selling the story really short. Take, for instance, the dreams of Hwel. It doesn’t matter that he’s a dwarf who doesn’t like mining and who has rejected the dwarvish lifestyle in favour of taking up acting. It doesn’t matter that he gets called a lawn ornament when he goes out drinking in Ankh-Morpork. It doesn’t matter that he’s a parody of the greatest English scrivener of all time. What matters, at least in this passage, is that he’s a writer.

Hwel snored.

In his dream gods rose and fell, ships moved with cunning and art across canvas oceans, pictures jumped and ran together and became flickering images; men flew on wires, flew without wires; great ships of illusion fought against one another in imaginary skies, seas opened, ladies were sawn in half, a thousand special effects men giggled and gibbered. Through it all he ran through with his arms open in desperation, knowing that none of this really existed or ever would exist and all he really had was a few square yards of planking, some canvas and some paint on which to trap the beckoning images that invaded his head.

Only in our dreams are we free. The rest of the time we need wages.

I think anyone of a creative inclination knows that feeling. That kind of incisive poignancy cuts through so many of Pratchett’s works. These are humour books, they’re parodies, but there’s still something so real about them. Pratchett uses humour in the absolute best way — to reveal humanity’s soul.

Overall, this is the start of one of my favourite series of all time. It’s been a few years since I read Wyrd Sisters, and I’d forgotten how short it is (really, the only reason I knock off half a point, I could’ve done with a hundred more pages of madness). It’s a really entertaining story, though, and very cleverly crafted. It’s one of my go-to books when someone asks me to recommend them something. Pratchett’s writing is super-accessible without being in any way dumbed down or juvenile. It’s just wonderful, which is why these are some of my favourite comfort books. I can pick them up any time and be happy.

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