Continuing my occasional series as I work my way through the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, one novel at a time.
This week, I am covering the twelfth book, Witches Abroad.
First Appearance: Casanunda, the greatest lover on the Discworld. He’s a dwarf. Think about the name for a minute there to get the joke. I’ll wait.
Introduced to Discworld: traveling, the danger of stories
Plot: Just about everything on Discworld is actually alive and dangerous, so why would stories be any different? Fairy tales and urban legends actually happen on Discworld, sometimes over and over again. They can be outright dangerous.
Especially if someone decides to make them happen on purpose.
This novel opens with the death of a witch who had been a young girl’s fairy godmother. The problem is the girl has a second, a woman named Lady Lilith, who specializes in very dangerous mirror magic. The deceased fairy godmother, Desiderata Hollow, figured the thing to do is leave her wand to Magrat Garlick, knowing that not only will Magrat come to try and fix things, but so will Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. Using a bit of reverse psychology does the trick, and the trio come to the city-state of Genua, while hitting up various stops along the way, Nanny’s tomcat Greebo in tow.
Can the witches stop Lady Lilith from forcing a Happily Ever After when no one else really wants that ending, save a young girl, the city, and maybe even the Discworld itself?
Commentary: A part of me really wants to say a bit about Lady Lilith. She and Granny have a past that is heavily foreshadowed as the book rolls on. I’d read it before and knew what the twist was, so I caught all the clues as they appeared. Likewise, when Granny finally confronts Lilith, we find out why Granny holds Lilith in such contempt, and it may be the best line of the entire book. But because it is the best line of the entire book, I’m going to leave it out of this entry and let my readers discover it for themselves.
The fun of this book is that Pratchett has taken two of his least worldly characters (Granny and Nanny) and sent them into what they consider “foreign parts”. That mainly accounts for anything that isn’t the Ramtops and maybe Ankh-Morpork. Granny basically doesn’t believe in anything she deems improper and has no interest in anything outside her cottage in the woods. For Granny, anything outside of what she already does is not something she wants anything to do with.
Nanny Ogg, by contrast, believes herself worldly because she speaks “foreign”. This basically amounts to Nanny talking to foreigners using a bunch of different phonetically-spelled words from a wide variety of different languages. The net result is Nanny is actually no better than Granny on the way the world works outside where she comes from, but while Granny wants nothing to do with it out of willful stubbornness, Nanny is so convinced she already knows things that she has no idea how little she actually knows.
Magrat might be interested in other lands, but she’s basically bullied into submission by Granny at all times and doesn’t really have much oomph to fight over whatever is going on. Granny dubs her a “wet hen” at one point, and she may not be wrong. Magrat does want to find herself. Granny never doubts for a second who she herself is, so there’s no issue there. That certainty allows Granny to come out of a trap at the end of the book using her usual common sense.
The witches’ path to Genua takes a few interesting turns. There really is no actual real-world geography to go along with, but the three stop in what looks like Transylvania, witness something like the running of the bulls of Pamplona, gamble a bit on a riverboat, and other stops, with Nanny writing her oldest son Jason the blacksmith a steady stream of badly-spelled postcards as they go. My favorite may be a late one where Nanny writes how she is in jail…again. Pratchett in his footnotes states that none of Nanny’s cards will get back to Lancre before she does, but that is a universal truth for travelers everywhere.
Genua itself is located on a river, and between the gumbo, the voodoo, and “Fat Lunchtime,” sounds a lot like New Orleans. A little knowledge of real world voodoo won’t hurt the reader here.
The novel also gains a lot of humor from Nanny’s cat Greebo. Turned human at one point, Greebo is clearly a cat only his owner could love. Even Death, who generally likes cats, would have a hard time tolerating Greebo. Greebo is the witches’ secret weapon, sometimes acting so much so the witches themselves have no idea when he inadvertently saves the day.
While working off the ideas of dualities, Pratchett, through Granny, reinforces the idea of self-determination. While Lilith seems fit to impose happiness on people against their will, Granny insists that you can’t force people to be happy, even with magic. Especially with magic, which it takes a bit to get through to Magrat. Magrat’s continuing education makes for some growth in at least one of the witches. Granny wouldn’t believe in change. Nanny, on the other hand, probably can’t. The trio are a lot of fun anyway.
Next book: One of the best books to start reading about the Discworld is next. Pratchett takes aim at organized religion and faith in Small Gods.