Continuing my occasional column as I work my way through the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, one novel at a time.
This week’s book is the 18th, Maskerade.
First appearances: A bunch of characters who don’t, to my memory, appear again.
Introduced to Discworld: opera, musical theater
Plot: Things haven’t been the same in Lancre since Magrat became the queen. The coven is down to two, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, and two just isn’t the right number. Nanny’s worried that Granny will go bad, like very old and powerful witches sometimes do. She knows just the third, namely Agnes Nitt. Unfortunately, Agnes moved to Ankh-Morpork and got a job singing in the Ankh-Morpork Opera House. Her voice is a marvel.
She’s also fairly overweight and is stuck in the chorus, singing the part of some much thinner and prettier girl who can barely carry a tune.
The problem is, the Opera House has a Ghost that sometimes seems to murder people.
It’s probably a good thing Granny, Nanny, and Nanny’s cat Greebo were coming to the city anyway…
Commentary: During my review of Lords and Ladies, I suggested the book was really the last chapter in the Magrat Trilogy. Granny Weatherwax certainly does seem to be the main protagonist, and the one who seems to do the most to save the day, but Granny is a fairly static character. She doesn’t change. Magrat actually grew as a character over three books.
Magrat doesn’t appear in Maskrade. Nanny mentions her a couple times, but she’s the queen of Lancre now, so she’s not really able to be a member of the coven anymore. Besides, she no longer fits the role of “maiden” in the “maiden, mother, crone” set-up of traditional covens.
Instead, arguably, this book is the Nanny Ogg book. Granny Weatherwax and Agnes Nitt (sometimes known as Perdita) are there and do play important roles in the story, but Nanny really gets the spotlight here. That’s a good thing. Nanny was, for the most part, the silliest witch. She had a large brood of kids and grandkids, sang dirty songs about hedgehogs and wizard’s staffs, drank heavily, and didn’t seem capable of embarrassment. The only people she terrorized were her various daughters-in-law. Nanny was no slouch, and did assist, playing one of the three vital roles in defeating the elves in Lords and Ladies, but the best you could say about Nanny was she softened Granny a little. She was still a witch, still prone to do as she saw fit, and still able to hold her own with Granny and Magrat, but she never came across as serious a character as they did.
That doesn’t really change in Maskerade, but we do see more of her in action. Nanny’s actions were what got her and Granny to Ankh-Morpork, since it was Nanny publishing the world’s filthiest cookbook that got Granny off her butt and into the big city. It was Nanny whose social skills got her into the Opera House and able to learn everything she could possibly need to know. And it was Nanny who knew that Granny’s hard stare wasn’t going to work. Granny’s a pragmatist, and there’s nothing pragmatic about opera. They were clearly on Nanny’s turf for most of the book, and even Granny seemed to realize it.
Furthermore, Nanny has probably the most character defining line she ever utters when she is trying to subdue a panicky old lady. Nanny points out something that wouldn’t be apparent to readers up to that point by saying that she, Nanny Ogg, isn’t nice. She’s only nice compared to Granny, but everyone is nice compared to Granny. We’ve never really seen a mean Nanny, but likewise, we don’t really see a Nanny go out of her way to be kind to others. She does help other people out, but this novel has a digression where Granny goes to play cards with Death to save a sick infant. It’s worth remembering that Granny is a good witch, but it was never said she had to be a nice witch. She’s still a witch. And so is Nanny. Nanny can be mean when she wants to be, but the only evidence of that so far in the Discworld series is how terrified her daughters-in-law of her and her disapproval.
Likewise, we can see the recruitment of a new witch, and Agnes’ efforts to not be a witch. The problem is, you can’t not be a witch if you were born to be a witch. You’ll be too sensible, too inclined to see the truth that others ignore, and too much the kind of person who doesn’t get the happy ending but maybe can pull the strings to provoke such an ending.
The Witches books tend to focus on literary topics, like theater and fairy tales. Unfortunately for me, I’m not overly knowledgeable on opera. That means I caught a number of jokes based off opera titles, and had a vague inkling what the plot of Phantom of the Opera was, but more precise references were things I missed. I’ve read all of Shakespeare, so I got the references in Wyrd Sisters. Here, I was a bit more lost.
There’s also some subtle humor tying insanity to overuse of the exclamation point. Sharp-eyed readers can spot various characters clearly losing their minds as exclamation points are added to their dialogue as the novel progresses.
Pratchett also managed to sneak in a few cameos, which always amuse me. Granny and Nanny are hardly the most cultured people on the Disc. Having them at the opera on its own was obviously part of the joke, but then add in City Watch members Nobby Nobbs and Detritus, and even the Librarian, and the crazy goes up to 11.
There aren’t too many Witches books left. Pratchett eventually switched from Granny and Nanny to Tiffany Aching, a young girl that could be the next Granny. I only read one of those, and wasn’t overly interested in more. We’ll see how things turn out when I get back to Tiffany, but I think I’m really going to miss Granny and Nanny. The reread has been valuable for me since I gained new appreciation for a lot of what Pratchett did with the series, and that goes especially for the Witches, who I am liking more as protagonists this time around than I did originally.
NEXT BOOK: Murder in Ankh-Morpork! And lots of Golems! Can the City Watch find the culprit? Find out in Feet of Clay.