Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett (1987) 288 p.
Discworld #3 (Witches #1)
I had dim memories of this one, just as I did of The Light Fantastic. I remembered it being slightly better than the first two, but still weaker than the next book, Mort, which I’ve always held in my memory as the first properly good Discworld book. I recalled that it introduced Granny Weatherwax, one of the series’ strongest characters, but that she was a sort of proto-version of herself who didn’t live up to later standards, and that it wasn’t really a proper Witches book.
Equal Rites begins with a wizard walking through the rain in the remote Ramtop Mountains, heading for a tiny village clinging to a ravine in the middle of nowhere. He knows that he is going to die, and he wants to pass his staff on to a newborn wizard – the eighth son of an eighth son. He finds the village smithy, where the blacksmith’s wife is in labour upstairs, and as the child is brought down he guides its hand to the staff before expiring. The only problem is that the baby turns out to be a girl – and as everybody knows, women can’t be wizards.
The first act of the book is the part I remembered best, and that’s probably because it’s the best. Eskarina Smith grows up under the watchful eye of Granny Weatherwax, the village witch, who is mistrustful of wizard magic and determined to ensure that Eskarina doesn’t become a wizard. As she grows older and begins showing signs of latent magic ability, Granny tries to steer her towards becoming a witch instead, and takes the girl under her wing. Esk moves into Granny’s cottage and begins learning the craft of magic, in a section of the novel very reminiscent of the early parts of Usrula Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea. Esk learns, of course, that being a witch involves very little actual magic, but an awful lot of herbology, fieldcraft, woodland lore and what Granny calls “headology,” which is to say, giving people the impression that you’re a witch; a psychological placebo. “Most people don’t set foot outside their own heads much,” Granny says.
Headology is a core part of Granny’s act, and the word will come up a lot in the later Witches books. I was honestly surprised to see it crop up so early. It’s a brewing indication of what would later become a more general theme of Pratchett’s: his fascination with the power of belief, which he writes about in arenas ranging from religion (Small Gods) to the rule of law (Jingo) to fiat currency (Making Money). Granny, too, is a far more fully-developed character in this novel than I recall her being. Obviously this is her first novel, and Pratchett improves as a writer, and all characters should grow in any case, but I had no problem seeing her as fundamentally the same Granny Weatherwax of the later novels: not necessarily intelligent in all things, but with a wise and powerful mind.
“If you can’t learn to ride an elephant, you can at least learn to ride a horse.”
“What’s an elephant?”
“A kind of badger,” said Granny. She hadn’t maintained forest-credibility for forty years by ever admitting ignorance.
It’s for that reason that I feel happy classifying this as the first Witches novel, rather than a standalone. Nanny Ogg and Magrat aren’t here, but Granny is, and she’s a far more substantive character than Esk, whom we never see again.
Equal Rites does stumble a bit after the enjoyable first act, however. Esk’s latent wizard magic is so strong that Granny has no choice but to take her to Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork for tutelage, before she hurts herself or others, and so Pratchett gets a bit of quick and aimless world-building in along the road to the city. The third act takes place in and around the university itself, where another talented young wizard is accidentally breaching the boundaries of time and space, exposing the Discworld to the Dungeon Dimensions.
This is the second Discworld book in a row to be built around the menace of the Dungeon Dimensions – the ugly plane of reality full of lurking Lovecraftian horrors, drawn to magic, constantly trying to break into the Discworld. I’d honestly forgotten how much they featured, and how much of a contrast they are to Pratchett’s later human villains. They are, of course, quite boring, and a climax built around them is always bound to involve of a lot of pokey-jiggery and hand-waving magical solutions. They’re an unavoidable reminder that this is still early Discworld and still fundamentally a satire of pulp fantasy, rather than the broader fiction the series will later become. Unfortunately, if I recall correctly, there’s at least two more novels to come that are built around them.
On the whole, though, Equal Rites is a good book. It’s still lacking a certain spark, but it’s a better novel than The Colour of Magic or The Light Fantastic. Next up is the first Death novel, Mort – and if memory serves, it’s quite a good one.