Book review, Discworld, Equal rites, fantasy, science fiction', Terry Pratchett

Equal Rites, (Discworld 3) by Terry Pratchett, 1987

Equal Rites’ is the third novel in the Discworld series. This is the novel where Pratchett really hits his stride. ‘The Colour of Magic’ and ‘The Light Fantastic’ are good, of course, but by comparison they felt a little childish when I was rereading them recently (see the reviews earlier in July). Some of the jokes in particular are quite crude, and the plotting is simplistic if not awkward – magic is used as the ultimate get out of jail card. Pratchett dips his toe in the waters of social issues, but quickly reverts to the frothy irreverent humour that is the trademark of these books.

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‘Equal Rites’ is different in kind. It introduces the extraordinary, imperious Granny Weatherwax -‘I’m not a lady, I’m a witch’. This is going to sound like hyperbole, but if Terry Pratchett had not written about any other character his place in the pantheon of great writers would have been secured by his portrait of Granny Weatherwax. She is funny and kind and clever and wise and respected and seems almost a real person.

Granny Weatherwax was a witch. That was quite acceptable in the Ramtops, and no one had a bad word to say about witches. At least, not if he wanted to wake up in the morning the same shape as he went to bed.”

I also love her stubbornness:

She was also, by the standards of other people, lost. She would not see it like that. She knew where she was, it was just that everywhere else didn’t.”

Pratchett’s theory of magic – that a large part of it is in the head of the person on whom the magic is being performed – ‘headology’ – is cleverer than any system of runes mana or potions you find in other fantasy series.

“I saved a man’s life once,” said Granny. “Special medicine, twice a day. Boiled water with a bit of berry juice in it. Told him I’d bought it from the dwarves. That’s the biggest part of doct’rin, really. Most people’ll get over most things if they put their minds to it, you just have to give them an interest.”

The central question posed in ‘Equal Rites’ is why can’t a woman be a wizard? Eskarina Smith is accidentally given a wizard’s staff, and despite all efforts to the contrary is destined to be a powerful magical person – be that a witch, wizard, warlock, sourcerer, thaumaturge or otherwise. She is apprenticed to Granny Weatherwax, who soon realises the girl’s potential, and they set off on a classic road trip to try to gain access to Discworld’s only college for wizards, the Unseen University. Her application to join the university is dismissed out of hand, and a passionate battle for equal rights ensues, with only one winner ever being likely.

Given that female wizards are unheard of in Discworld, Granny has to get a bit creative, so Esk enters the university as a servant. She is reunited there with Simon, an apprentice encountered earlier on the route to Ankh-Morpork. Simon is, like Esk, a naturally talented wizard, but he loses control of his magic and accidentally opens a rift to the Dungeon Dimensions. As you can probably guess this is not a good thing. With the help of Granny Weatherwax, Archchancellor Cutangle, and Esk’s staff, Simon and Esk manage to defeat the demons and escape back to Discworld.

The ending of the novel is one of its weaker features – there is never any real sense of peril or doubt that Esk and Simon will escape unharmed from the Dungeon Dimensions – but who reads Pratchett novels for their plot? it was great to read what is in effect Granny’s origin story. I am really enjoying my rediscovery of early Discworld, watching it emerge and expand before my eyes. The next novel in the series, Mort, takes us to Death’s own domain – I can’t wait!