Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett (1988) 368 p.
Discworld #6 (Witches #2)
I always think of this as the first Witches book, but I decided Equal Rites counts as the first and I suppose I have to stand by that. Although really, since Esk is actually a wizard, Equal Rites really only features a single witch in a major role: the inimitable Granny Weatherwax. It’s Wyrd Sisters which firmly introduces the plural, with Granny’s newly formed coven of Nanny Ogg (a rambunctious, drunken, garrulous old matriarch) and Magrat (a flowery New Age hippie).
Wyrd Sisters is the novel where Pratchett thankfully moves beyond the tiresome Dungeon Dimensions as his villains-du-jour and instead breaches fresh ground. It’s largely a mash-up of Hamlet and Macbeth, with a half-crazed duke and his imperious duchess of a wife murdering the king of Lancre and seizing the throne in his place, leaving the king to wander the castle as a powerless ghost. A loyal retainer flees with his infant son on the night of the murder and delivers him to the witches, who thoughtfully place the child into the foster care of a troupe of wandering actors, and cleverly hide the royal crown in the one place it will never be noticed – amidst the jumble of fake crowns at the bottom of the actors’ props chest.
We already met Granny Weatherwax in Equal Rites and she remains the main character here, but Pratchett does a great job of making the other two just as memorable in their own ways. Magrat is the odd witch out both in terms of age and method – a younger woman who believes in fruitier, hippy-dippy nonsense and dislikes the other witches’ more practical, rural approach to magic. While Magrat remains an important character in later books, she’ll soon be sidelined as she becomes a queen and leaves the coven. Nanny Ogg, on the other hand, remains a fantastic foil to Granny Weatherwax for the rest of the series. Both are well-respected and accomplished witches, but in every other way they couldn’t be more different: Weatherwax is a solitary, rigid, crabby old woman while Ogg is the sort of crazy old aunt everybody wishes they had, a fun-loving party animal who seems to have sired half the village and whose house is serviced by her numerous daughters-in-law, “a tribe of grey-faced, subdued women whose names she never bothered to remember.” Yet while she often serves as comic relief even in a fundamentally comic series, she nonetheless has the same serious and competent core as most of Pratchett’s protagonists – one of his greatest strengths as a writer.
Lancre, too, is a wonderful invention: a rugged little mountaintop kingdom where there’s plenty of flat ground, although most of it is vertical. If Ankh-Morpork is Pratchett’s answer to London, then Lancre represents the English countryside; all the quiet little rural places like Cornwall and Herefordshire and Worcestershire, which have been a rich vein of comedy stretching back to Waugh and Wodehouse. Lancre Castle is “Gormenghast without the budget,” and while extolling its virtues Nanny Ogg concedes that the river isn’t really “a stone’s throw away,” but rather a stone’s drop.
Having said all that – this is not quite yet a great Discworld book. It has pacing issues (the actors vanish for the first half of the book only to hog most of the second) and there is a little too much handwaving in the finale for my liking. It still feels a little like Pratchett is unwilling to let the plot get in the way of whatever jokes and satire he wants to cram in there. But compared to Sourcery – in fact, compared to every Discworld book thus far except Mort – Wyrd Sisters is a huge success and one of the very first solidly good Discworld books. It’s nothing to compare to what will come later, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as a good starting point, alongside Mort and Guards! Guards!