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Hogfather by Terry Pratchett (1996) 432 p.
Discworld #20 (Death #4)

Hogfather-2

Okay, obviously I meant to read this one around Christmas, but lots of other patrons of my various online library services had the same idea. But for those of you in the northern hemisphere who are still in the bleak-holiday free stretch of winter that comes after New Year’s but before the first gasp of sunrise in spring, perhaps it feels more seasonally appropriate. (When I remember winter from the year I lived in London, it’s not the cold that comes to mind, but the dark – that overwhelmingly depressing darkness, the sun just slinking along the horizon, the shadows always long.)

Hogswatchnight is the Discworld’s version of Christmas and New Year wrapped up together, the name clearly inspired by Scottish Hogmanay. The patron saint is not Father Christmas but rather the Hogfather, who rides a sleigh pulled by four fat hairy hogs and whose association with meat and sausages speaks to older, darker, Mitteleuropan pagan rites: predators in the forest, blood on the snow, sacrifice to bring the springtime. As we know by now, belief on the Discworld is a very powerful thing, so even if people’s beliefs have changed over the centuries, the Hogfather is still around.

Until one Hogswatchnight he’s not. The Assassin’s Guild of Ankh-Morpork has been issued a very peculiar contract, and to carry it out they dispatch one of their dangerously gifted young assassins, the visibly insane Mr Teatime. My most distinct memories of this book are the creativity of this story thread (thinner than I recall, and in fact not really coming into play until the third act) as Teatime assembles a small gang of thugs and takes them… somewhere strange, where the sky doesn’t seem to meet the horizon and the trees and water don’t look quite right. Slowly figuring out what this place is, and precisely how Teatime plans to assassinate a magical figure of myth, is really great. It’s a brilliant piece of plotting which Pratchett could only do a) in a fantasy series, where most readers probably know this old trick of magic folklore, and b) in his fantasy series, where he has spent multiple books exploring the nature of belief and reality.

Death steps into the role of Hogfather to attempt to keep the myth going while also encouraging his granddaughter Susan to investigate what’s happening. Susan is a fine character but it’s Death as always who really shines, from the wonderful jokes that naturally stem from him taking on this unconventional role, to the sense of frisson that flows from seeing Death – with his odd affection for humanity – step up into the role of investigator, protector and saviour. The Death books have always been some of the Discworld’s best, largely because Death himself is simply one of Pratchett’s best characters.

Next up is Jingo, one of the very best books in the series.

Rereading Discworld Index

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Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett (1993) 381 p.
Discworld #19 (City Watch #2)

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The City Watch books have always been the standout of the Discworld series, but Feet of Clay is where they really hit their stride. Following the mass conscription of rioters and the merging of the Day Watch and Night Watch at the end of Men at Arms, Commander Sam Vimes – newly married to Lady Sybil Ramkin and now one of the wealthiest men in the city – is overseeing something resembling an actual large, modern police force. (Thought he later says the Watch now has “nearly 30” officers, which seems low.) There are two central mysteries running through the book: a pair of murders which appear linked to the city’s small population of robot-like golems, mute creatures of clay who serve as obedient workers; and the mysterious ongoing arsenic poisoning of the Patrician.

The mystery of the poisoning storyline – in which Vetinari is bedridden but doesn’t seem likely to actually die – is not just a whodunnit but rather a howdunnit, as the Watch is baffled by how the arsenic is being administered. Vimes has his officers lock down the palace, bring in food from outside, replace the bed linen and the rugs, and even has cutlery brought from his own home. (At one point he has the brainwave that since arsenic is a metal, maybe the cutlery itself is entirely made of arsenic – until his newly hired forensics officer Cheery points out that Vetinari would notice the spoon dissolving as soon as it entered the soup.) When I first read Feet of Clay as a teenager I thought the eventual answer was brilliantly clever; I don’t know whether a more perceptive adult reader would spot it earlier. Either way it’s an engaging read, and has one of those classic Watch climaxes in which Pratchett takes a turn towards genuinely gripping set-pieces, though not quite as good as the chase through the sewers and high noon “I won’t be a policeman anymore” confrontation at the end of Men at Arms. It does, however, feature a climactic action scene which I never realised parallels the ending of Terminator 2.

The other storyline features the golems, mythical automatons of baked clay, tireless workers who cannot speak and expect no pay – rare, uncanny and not entirely trusted by the human populace, but extremely valuable to those captains of industry wealthy enough to own them. The golems are perhaps not as mindless as their human owners think, and it becomes clear fairly early in the book that they have created a new golem – a perfect one, a chiselled statue of an Adonis instead of the doughy lumps of clay the rest of them resemble – but to what ends, the Watch is unsure. These two storylines are woven together with the smooth and subtle skill we’ve come to expect from Pratchett here in the prime of his writing career.

I’m now entering the sequence of Discworld books I remember most vividly, but there are still a lot of things that went over my head as a kid. It’s ironic that the golems are lifted very specifically out of Jewish mythology, because for the first time I noticed how Ankh-Morpork’s dwarves – often employed as jewelers, watchmakers, artisans etc, and slandered by the human populace as “greedy buggers” – could parallel Jews, or at least gentiles’ perceptions of Jews. (Though they also, notably in Thud, stand in for Muslims). And the trolls, perceived by Morporkians (wrongly of course) as brutish and unintelligent savages suitable only for hard labour, are reflective of the historical plight of the African-American populace, tying into Detritus’ crusade against the crack-like drug “slab” which is ravaging troll communities. Most interesting of all is the introduction of Cheery, a new dwarf officer who – although all dwarfs outwardly present as men (a trope of the fantasy genre dating back to Tolkien) – is in fact a woman, and now that she’s in the big cosmopolitan city feels she’s entitled to act like one. When Pratchett wrote Feet of Clay in the mid ’90s this was doubtless intended and interpreted as a metaphor for closeted gay people; in 2018, it much more obviously lends itself to the analogy of trans people. I can’t quite recall whether I picked up on the satire at all as a young teenager, but of course I would have understood that the broader point, and the reason it can be applied to both the gay and trans rights movements, is universal: the desire of people to express their disapproved-of-but-harmless true selves in defiance of their own conservative culture, and the liberating atmosphere of a big city in which they’re finally afforded the freedom to do that. It’s Angua who shows Cheery the way, demonstrating how a woman can come to be accepted and respected in the traditional male world of the Watch; though what Cheery doesn’t at first realise is that Angua is also a werewolf, a race Cheery despises, which serves as both an ongoing comedy of manners and also an example that, as Vimes himself says, “Just because someone’s a member of an ethnic minority doesn’t mean they’re not a nasty small-minded little jerk.” But it also, as Vimes himself shows in later books with his waning prejudice against the undead, doesn’t also mean that nasty small-minded little jerks can’t change.

Next up is the appropriately Christmas-themed Hogfather.

Re-reading Discworld Index

Maskerade by Terry Pratchett (1995) 368 p.
Discworld #18 (Witches #5)

Maskerade

This one is ostensibly a parody of opera, though it’s really specifically modelled on Phantom of the Opera. Agnes Nitt, one of the more level-headed members of Diamanda’s young coven from Lords and Ladies, is being eyed off by Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg to replace the departed Magrat as the indispensable third member of their own coven. Well aware of this, and not wanting to be the third fiddle that Magrat always was, Agnes departs Lancre for the bright lights of the big city to pursue her singing talent at the opera. Nanny, meanwhile, has (classic her) authored an erotic cookbook which has turned out to be a vanity publisher’s bestseller in Ankh-Morpork, oblivious to the fact that the publisher now owes her a lot of money. And so the two meddling old crones head down to the big smoke to recover her royalties and possibly, maybe, check in on young Agnes.

The crux of the novel centres around the Opera House, and the mysterious Ghost who has always been something of a superstitious good luck charm for the employees and performers. Unfortunately the Ghost has also recently started committing ghastly murders. Only a small number of characters at the Opera House are actually named, so as with any murder mystery it’s clear one of them will turn out be the culprit. The primary suspect is clear from very early on in the piece, and it’s a credit to Pratchett’s writing that this assumption is both right and wrong at the same time.

It is slightly strange to see a murder mystery in Ankh-Morpork as part of the Witches arc; had it been written even few books down the track it undoubtedly would have been a City Watch book. Instead we only see three Watchmen: the comic relief characters Corporal Nobbs and Sergeant Detritus, plus an undercover officer we’ve never seen before and never see again. I suppose at this point Pratchett had only written two Watch books, and hadn’t yet written one set in the modern, legitimate, hundreds-strong Watch – that’ll be the next book, Feet of Clay. (In fact of the next six books, three are City Watch.) Anyway, it works, and it’s actually a bit refreshing to see an Ankh-Morpork centred book which doesn’t heavily involve Vimes and his thin blue line. I recall Pratchett saying somewhere that after a certain point, any book he tried to write in Ankh-Morpork had a tendency to turn itself into a City Watch book.

Is Maskerade a good Discworld novel? It’s fine. It works in and of itself, but there was little here I remembered from my teenage reading apart from the Morporkian opera star who pretends to be foreign so people take him more seriously, and the amusing after-effects of Greebo’s transformation into a human in Witches Abroad, which culminates here in an opera-balcony-climbing and chandelier-swinging pursuit of the Ghost by the were-cat Greebo. Maskerade is certainly a step down from Lords and Ladies, but I’d rank that as one of the best books in the series, so that’s no insult. Still, I would personally define this as the end of a sort of sophomore phase for the Discworld series as a whole (and in how many series can you say that about the 18th book!). Now, with Feet of Clay, begins what I’d define as the golden age: a run of about ten solid books in which Pratchett almost unfailingly hit its out of the park.

Rereading Discworld Index

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett (1994) 416 p.
Discworld #17 (Rincewind #5)

Interesting-times-cover

Unlike a few of the novels surrounding it, Interesting Times is a book I have pretty strong memories of. It’s a compelling story, one of the few in the later series set in a genuinely foreign part of the Discworld, in which Rincewind is sent to the Agatean Empire – an amalgam of various Asian tropes and the home of his former friend and travelling companion Twoflower from the very first two books in the series – and finds himself thrust into a bubbling revolution while his old friend Cohen the Barbarian leads a band of geriatric warriors on One Last Job for a great heist in the capital city.

Why do I remember this book so well? Hard to say. Possibly because at this point in the series it feels like such a throwback to the early novels. It features characters we haven’t seen since Book 5, Sourcery, and takes place far from the now-familiar realm of Ankh-Morpork. But therein lies the rub.

Other re-readers have pointed out how culturally insensitive and borderline racist this book is – not in any sort of crude or deliberate way, for the most part, but in the manner Pratchett presents smart Westerners who roll in and solve the problems of naive Orientals, who are mostly just a series of cliches. Certainly if this book had been published twenty years later Pratchett would have been raked over the coals on Twitter.

I can’t disagree with these viewpoints, but for whatever reason, it didn’t strike me as quite so bad. Possibly it’s because Soul Music was such a lousy book that anything looks good in comparison. Possibly it’s because, throughout this whole re-read, I’m finding that Pratchett’s moral universe and common-sense sort of commentary is not as refreshing and wise as it seemed when I was a teenager, and therefore his clangers don’t stand out as much as they perhaps do for other fans. That’s not to say I don’t still enjoy his writing; I do, very much so. But sometimes – not all the time, but certainly during parts of Interesting Times – it’s a bit more like listening to an old-timer at the pub or a grandfather talking about something at length. He’s entertaining, you love him, he’s a decent bloke and he makes good points – but “open minded” would not precisely be the first word to come to mind. He is an older man who has coalesced around a certain viewpoint of the world and isn’t going to change it, and he tends to return to the same points over and over again.

The general thrust of Pratchett’s political argument in Interesting Times, such as it is, is a fairly well-worn (and very middle-class English) attack on the champagne socialist kind of revolution, in which the masters are overthrown and the well-educated seditionists take their place and life for the surviving peasantry goes on more or less as before – if it doesn’t get worse. This is indisputably based on historical fact, especially in East Asia, and there is something to be said for barracking for the little guy. But it’s not a particularly fresh or compelling point, and this isn’t helped by transplanting it over a stew of Oriental cliches. Pratchett certainly tackles the issue far better on his home turf in the marvellous City Watch book Night Watch.

Nonetheless: I like Interesting Times. I found it fun. Certainly it’s better than the last few Rincewind novels were. Cohen’s horde of elderly barbarians have a great dynamic, especially with their adopted teacher Mr Saveloy, who is attempting to civilise them. There are some genuinely funny moments; I love the title of Twoflower’s book which reveals to Agateans the forbidden world outside their empire, and is thus banned as a seditionist tract: “What I Did On My Holidays;” I also love the concept of the five perpetually battling great families of the Empire, the Hongs, the Tangs, the Fangs, the Sungs, and the McSweeneys. (“Very old established family.”) The final setpiece, in which a terracotta army comes to life to battle the enemies of the empire, is a genuinely great visual scene.

So Interesting Times cops a lot of flak. But I don’t mind it. As I mentioned before, this is one of the last Discworld novels which takes place out in the broader, exotic Discworld – the only other, if I’m not mistaken, is The Last Continent, which takes place in pseudo-Australia and which I don’t recall anything about. Every other book retreats back into Ankh-Morpork or its surrounding English/European countryside; the Eastern European lands of Monstrous Regiment are about as far as Pratchett ever ventures again. Given the mixed results of Interesting Times, I’d say that’s a good thing. But it was nice for one last hurrah, even if it is a little ~*~Problematic~*~.

Next up we’re back in good old Ankh-Morpork, with Maskerade.

Re-reading Discworld index

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett (1994) 432 p.
Discworld #16 (Death #2)

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I remembered very little of Soul Music from the first time I read it, and now – about a month after I reread it – I remember very little of it again. It’s not a memorable book. It is, easily, the weakest book in the Discworld’s teen years and probably one of the weakest overall.

Soul Music is a story of two halves, and they’re both variations on themes we’ve seen before. One of them is something from our real world taking spark as a brief fad on the Discworld – we saw this with film in Moving Pictures, and we see it now with rock music in Soul Music. As before, this is mostly an excuse for Pratchett to jam as many jokes and references in about the subject in question as possible. The second plot is the third story in the Death arc, and is about – you guessed it – Death going AWOL and experiencing the real world, resulting in somebody having to step up to take on his duty; in this case his granddaughter Susan Sto Helit, daughter of Mort and Ysabel from Mort.

The gem at the heart of this story is Death’s grief over his adopted daughter’s death, which occurs at the beginning of the novel as she and Mort go over a cliff in a runaway carriage. It’s never outright stated, it’s never even suggested by any of the other characters, but grief is clearly what Death is experiencing – a new and frightening concept for him, and one which jars against his duty to guide souls into the new world. He does this without question, only briefly entertaining the possibility that, yes, he could have done something to stop her death from happening, but Death nonetheless abandons his duty henceforth and spends the rest of the book trying to forget all about his daughter to end the pain of having lost her.

It’s easy to miss that this is his motivation – I don’t think I picked up on it when I read it as a teenager – not just because it’s the third time we’re going through the motions of Death Takes A Holiday, but also because it’s drowned out by what’s going on in the foreground of the novel, and I don’t mean that in a good way. We have a story about a magical pawn shop sidling into Ankh-Morpork from another dimension, an aspiring young musician finding himself in the possession of a magical guitar which begins to possess his soul, and a new kind of music launching itself onto the Discworld. Cue predictable jokes like the avaricious CMOT Dibbler becoming the first rock band’s manager.

All of the interesting stuff in Soul Music – Susan’s repressed childhood memories about visits to Death’s Domain, Albert’s carefully hoarded precious seconds of time in the hourglass hidden beneath his bed, a flashback to the showdown at the finale of Mort – is divorced from the main storyline, much as the touching fairytale at the heart of Reaper Man bears no resemblance to the oddball story about predatory shopping trolleys that felt like it made up more than half the bulk of that book. The dissonance isn’t quite as jarring, but at the same time the Death storyline doesn’t feel quite as good as that in Reaper Man. I’m not surprised I’d forgotten most of Soul Music’s plot – forgettable is the right word for it.

Next up is a return to Rincewind’s story arc in Interesting Times.

Rereading Discworld index

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett (1993) 381 p.
Discworld #15 (City Watch #2)

men_at_arms1

He took off his copper badge and buffed it absent-mindedly on the edge of his cloak. Then he held it up so that the light glinted off the patina’d surface. AMCW No.177. He sometimes wondered how many other guards had had the badge before him.

Well, now someone was going to have it after him.

The first City Watch novel, Guards! Guards!, has a jokey ending where despite having saved the city from a dragon, the motley crew of the Night Watch – when asked by the Patrician what they desire as a reward – simply request a new kettle and dartboard; not out of any modesty, but because it’s beyond their ken to imagine they actually deserve anything better from life no matter what they do.

At the beginning of Men at Arms they’re still the same oddball crew of hapless losers, but they now have three new recruits as part of the city’s affirmative action policy: a dwarf, a troll, and a “bloody w…” Vimes thinks, before being distracted; we assume he means woman, but later find out she’s also a werewolf. Vimes himself is retiring, as he’s engaged to marry Lady Sybil Ramkin, whom he met in Guards! Guards! and who also happens to be the richest woman in the city. (It’s never outright stated, but seems to be implied that it Wouldn’t Do for such a highborn woman to have a man of low means as a husband, so he can simply graduate directly into a life of aristocratic leisure. Nobody – not even Vimes, at first – considers that his job is pretty much his entire identity.)

Ankh-Morpork has come a long way since the Conanesque/Dungeons & Dragons medieval quest-hub city that it was in The Colour of Magic – certainly by Guards! Guards! it had evolved into something more akin to 16th century London – but this is the first book in which we really see it develop into a satire of the modern city, specifically one with large and growing populations of immigrants which a) discomfit the original ethnic inhabitants, and b) have imported all their ancient grudges from the Old Country. The trolls and the dwarves hate each other, and entire parts of Ankh-Morpork have become segregated ghettoes in which either dwarves or trolls will not set foot – but at the same time they’re still just people, working hard and keeping their heads down and beavering away, trying to make something of themselves in this new life, no different from humans. This is, incidentally, a good segment and something which literally anybody in a Western country will have heard a racist relative remark:

‘I admit that the old kings were not necessarily our kind of people, towards the end,’ said the Duke of Eorle, ‘but at least they stood for something, in my humble opinion. We had a decent city in those days. People were more respectful and knew their place. People put in a decent day’s work, they didn’t laze around all the time. And we certainly didn’t open the gates to whatever riffraff was capable of walking through. And of course we also had law. Isn’t that so, captain?’

‘They just move in and take over. And work away like ants all the time real people should be getting some sleep. It’s not natural.’
Vimes’ mind circled the comment and compared it to the earlier one about a decent day’s work.

Vimes, like most of Pratchett’s characters, is a decent man and happy to criticise ugly or contradictory thoughts when he sees them, but interestingly enough he’s not exactly not-racist himself – he despises the undead, for example. It might be fair to say that he’s racist, in the sense of having lazy pre-conceived notions about races in general, but not prejudiced, in the sense that he’ll treat anybody in front of him with fairness and justice without regards to their species.

While Vimes is concerned with his new recruits and his impending wedding and retirement, the scion of another aristocratic lineage, Edward D’Eath, resents that his family has fallen on hard times and believes this can’t possibly be a proper state of affairs. Obsessing over Ankh-Morpork’s royal heritage and deciding that what the city really needs is the return of the rightful king (just as the villains of Guards! Guards! thought), D’Eath procures a mysterious weapon in a heist on the Assassin’s Guild and sets about his plan. In a similar vein to the way that Pratchett often climaxed his early books with threats from the Dungeon Dimensions, we’re now two for two when it comes to City Watch books about people trying to restore a king to the throne. (And if I recall correctly, the next City Watch book plays that for laughs in a C-plot.) The difference is that while the hapless cabal in Guards! Guards! intended to put a patsy on the throne, D’Eath has correctly identified the true heir to Ankh-Morpork’s crown: as we readers already know, it’s none other than the humble beat cop Corporal Carrot.

Apart from firing on all cylinders in terms of the sentence-to-sentence movement of his prose – the jokes, the wit, the asides – this is another of Pratchett’s great novels, like Lords and Ladies, when he’s got an absolutely solid plot from beginning to end. (Actually this is true of all the City Watch books, except possibly at the very end when things start to decline.) The Night Watch is still treated like a joke by the rest of the city in Men at Arms, but they rise to the task nonetheless, taking us on an increasingly complex journey into an intriguing mystery. Even the B-plots, like Angua’s befriending of Gaspode and their encounter with a pack of liberated dogs, are fascinating. By the end of the journey – when the Patrician is nearly assassinated and Vimes and Carrot pursue the shooter into the sewers (with shades of The Third Man) it’s unputdownable stuff. This is what I’ve always loved about the City Watch books in particular: everything else aside, all the satire and wordplay and creativity, they always have genuinely exciting climaxes imbued with dramatic gravitas.

This is also a book that’s very much concerned – in a far stronger manner than Guards! Guards! – about the meaning of being an officer of the law. There’s a wonderful scene near the climax of the book, in which Vimes confronts the villain, who says (correctly) that Vimes won’t kill him because he’s a watchman. But it’s Vimes’ wedding day, and the day of his retirement, and Vimes points out – staring down the sights at his target, as the clocks ring noon out all over the city – that as soon as the bells stop ringing, he won’t be a watchman anymore. There’s a similar scene when Detritus arrives enraged at the Assassins’ Guild, wishing to avenge a friend’s death, and Carrot has to remind him that said friend would think, “My friend Detritus – he won’t forget that he’s a guard.” This is a theme that Pratchett will go on to develop more strongly in later City Watch novels, particularly his magnum opus Night Watch, but it’s nice to see it in genesis: that Pratchett went from writing a book on the whimsical idea of following the story of the blokes who have to run into a room and get slaughtered by the hero, to then latching onto an exploration of what it means to be a copper. It’s interesting that at no point in the Discworld series – even towards the end, as it’s becoming increasingly modern, with a rudimentary telegraph system and banks and post offices – do we ever get a hint of Ankh-Morpork’s justice system, of its courts and prisons. That seems incongruous when the City Watch is one of the major story arcs, but it’s not really. As Vimes points out in a book much further down the line, a policeman’s job ends at the arrest.

Next up is #16, Soul Music – the next chapter in the Death series and one which I have very little memory of, though I remember it’s a Beatles/rock’n’roll parody, and probably another of those oddly pasted-together stories like Reaper Man.

 

Rereading Discworld Index

Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett (1992) 381 p.
Discworld #14 (Witches #4)

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It’s interesting to compare the Witches arc with the City Watch arc. Both are generally considered the best threads in the Discworld series, but the Witches came along much earlier. Here we are at book #14, arguably the fourth entry in the Witches series, and I would say its peak; we’ve had only one City Watch book, and its own zenith won’t come along for another fifteen books (#29, Night Watch). I don’t think there’s much to be read into there; Pratchett had no master plan, he was just writing each new book as it took his fancy. Probably the only explanation is that the Witches – as a coven of Old-Englandey villagers in a magical kingdom – segued more naturally out of Pratchett’s initial fixation on fantasy tropes, wizards with pointy hats and dribbly candles and pentagrams chalked on the floor, all that sort of thing. (Indeed, Granny Weatherwax is first introduced in Equal Rites, which opens with a wizard arriving in the Ramtops and closes with another incursion by the Dungeon Dimensions at Unseen University). The City Watch books, on the other hand, hew much closer to satire of the modern age: of the city, of politics, of a multicultural society, with fantasy tropes merely serving as a stand-in.

Anyway. Lords and Ladies follows on almost directly from Witches Abroad, with the coven arriving back in Lancre after their long absence in Genua. While the cats were away the mice were playing: Granny and Nanny are irritated to discover that a group of local teenage girls have started dabbling in witchcraft themselves, and are mortified to learn that they’ve been dancing by moonlight near a ring of “boundary stones.” The stone circle is one of the few borders between the human world and the faerie world: the land of the fey folk, the gentry, the lords and ladies, the elves. It’s been centuries since the elves threatened Lancre, and most people think of them as beautiful and benevolent creatures out of a fairytale, but as witches Nanny and Granny know better.

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

So as Midsummer’s Eve draws near, as the kingdom prepares for the wedding of Magrat and King Verence, and as the younger witch Diamanda challenges Granny to a duel, Granny and Nanny are left to try to stave off an invasion by the feared and powerful elves.

I’ve complained in the past about how much of the early Discworld books culminated in a threat by the Lovecraftian horrors of the Dungeon Dimensions. The elves are much, much more interesting, tying into Pratchett’s fascination with the power of myth and belief. They draw their strength precisely from the folklore and fairytales that surround them, blinding people to the truth, enchanting people with their glamour and beauty. (“If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are,” Granny says. “Style. That’s what people remember.”) The most obvious parallel for a contemporary reader is Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – and in fact looking back at that review now, which I wrote eight years ago, I compared Clarke’s fairies to Pratchett’s elves. Although obviously both Pratchett and Clarke were drawing on the same old European myths and folklore: they may be magical and mysterious and beautiful, but elves and fairies still ultimately represent the frightening, ineffable things in the darkness beyond the glow of the campfire.

As with Mort, Guards! Guards! and a lot of the later books, this is one where Pratchett’s central conceit maps very well onto his plot. He doesn’t get carried away with too many jokes or flights of fancy. There’s a particularly good setpiece midway through the book in which Diamanda defies Granny Weatherwax and runs between the boundary stones, and Granny has to follow and retrieve her from the world of the elves. There’s a lot of stuff to like here: the first confrontation between humans and elves, Granny’s use of her Borrowing trick (in which she can enter the mind of an animal) to trip up the elves’ horses, and the general eerie atmosphere of an aurora-lit snowscape in the middle of summer. What I like most is Granny’s reaction to Diamanda getting wounded by an elf’s arrow. She carries the girl back to the boundary stones, and – although she does unashamedly tell Nanny that she draped Diamanda over her shoulder in such a way that if another arrow were to strike it would provide her with some cover – there was no chance whatsoever that Granny would have left her there. Granny has nothing but contempt for Diamanda – more than she does for people in general – but the girl is nonetheless one of the townspeople of Lancre, and Granny has an obligation towards her. Like a doctor or a teacher or policeman, she feels that she has an unwritten duty of care towards all the people in her little country – or perhaps all people, anywhere in the world, even if she thinks they’re mostly a collection of greedy, selfish dullards. It’s a very similar thread to what we come to see in Sam Vimes: a cynic about the human race who nonetheless dedicates their life towards protecting and helping people.

But neither has Pratchett quite Flanderised these characters, which sadly happens towards the end of the series, or at least it does with Vimes. Granny is far from infallible. Much is made of her skills at human manipulation and psychology, or ‘headology’ as she calls it, but the conclusion to this passage – when they bring the wounded Diamanda to Magrat to seek her help – stuck in my mind over the years:

Magrat’s cottage traditionally housed thoughtful witches who noticed things and wrote things down. Which herbs were better than others for headaches, fragments of old stories, odds and ends like that.
It was a cottage of questioning witches, research witches. Eye of what newt? What species of ravined salt-sea shark? It’s all very well a potion calling for Love-in-idleness, but which of the thirty-seven common plants called by that name in various parts of the continent was actually meant?
The reason that Granny Weatherwax was a better witch than Magrat was that she knew that in witchcraft it didn’t matter a damn which one it was, or even if it was a piece of grass.
The reason that Magrat was a better doctor than Granny was that she thought it did.

There’s plenty of other stuff I could talk about. I have no particularly cogent analysis or insight, just a whole bunch of things I really enjoyed: the horned Cernunnos figure who serves as king of the elves, the gaming of the witches’ duel between Diamanda and Granny, Granny’s neat trick with the bees at the conclusion of the book. But I’ll leave it at that. Lords and Ladies is up there with the very best of Pratchett’s work: a tightly plotted fantasy novel which just happens to have a comedic thread running through it, rather than a lot of jokes strung together with a plot. It’s not perfect – the younger coven is brushed out of the story about halfway through (which is odd, considering Agnes later replaces Magrat) and apart from Ridcully himself, the Unseen University emissaries seem a bit out of place. But as I said before: this is, I think, the peak of the Witches series, probably the best Discworld book in the series thus far, and would easily make it into the top ten of the series overall. An excellent book.

“Go back,” said Granny. “You call yourself some kind of goddess and you know nothing, madam, nothing. What don’t die can’t live. What don’t live can’t change. What don’t change can’t learn. The smallest creature that dies in the grass knows more than you.”

Rereading Discworld index

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett (1991) 400 p.
Discworld #13 (Stand-alone)

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This is widely regarded as one of Pratchett’s finest novels, certainly in the early days of the Discworld series. It’s a standalone – possibly the most complete standalone in the series, taking place far from Ankh-Morpork or Lancre, with only a brief cameo appearance by the Librarian and of course Death. Pratchett takes us to the vast desert kingdom of Omnia, a religious autocracy built around worship of the god Om. On the Discworld, as we’ve already learned, belief can create reality – and so gods in turn are reliant on their believers for their continued existence. Om’s problem is that people no longer believe in him as a god per se, but rather in the institution of the church. Shrunk down into the humble body of a tortoise and with his omnipotence vanished, Om finds he has only one true believer left: the naive young novice Brutha, working in the gardens of the Church’s great Citadel. Om clings to Brutha like a drowning man to a life raft, well aware that if Brutha’s belief wavers then his own existence will be imperilled, as he tries to figure out how to make the people of Omnia properly believe again.

Brutha, meanwhile, has been recruited for a special mission by one of the Church’s deacons for of his eidetic memory. Accompanying Vorbis, Pratchett’s latest Machiavellian villain of iron-cast belief, Brutha thus sets out on the journey of a lifetime to Omnia’s neighbour Ephebe, with none of his retinue suspecting their god is riding along in Brutha’s backpack.

This is a case where I really have to differ from public opinion. I remembered very little of Small Gods, and I’ve learnt on this rereading project that this usually means the book didn’t make much of an impact on me the first time around and won’t the second. The best explanation I can come to for why Small Gods doesn’t engage me is because I’m not religious, I wasn’t raised religious, and I live in probably one of the most irreligious countries in the Western world. Being an agnostic or an atheist doesn’t mean you don’t have to cope with religion’s impact on society, but in Australia it has very little effect on me compared to if I were an atheist in, say, Alabama. I just don’t find Pratchett’s ruminations on religious belief as engaging as those on racism or politics or sexism or any number of other things.

As I said, it’s one of Pratchett’s most beloved books, and apparently he received plenty of approving letters from believers and non-believers alike, praising his depiction of faith, belief, and the critical differences between organised religion and a personal relationship with God. I can believe all that, and I can appreciate why so many others love it. It just didn’t strike much of a chord with me personally, and I find myself with very little to say about it.

Next up, we’re back to the witches of Lancre with Lords and Ladies.

Rereading Discworld Index

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett (1991) 286 p.
Discworld #12 (Witches #3)

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In the tiny hilltop kindom of Lancre, the witch Desiderata Hollow passes away – and passes on her magic wand and responsibilities as a Fairy Godmother to Magrat, the youngest of Granny Weatherwax’s coven. The three witches must set out for the distant city of Genua to find Magrat’s young charge Ella (as in Cinderella) and free her from the manipulations of her other, evil Fairy Godmother, Lilith – who also happens to be the de facto ruler of Genua, having deposed the old Baron.

Witches Abroad, as the title suggests, is a road story. The witches don’t actually arrive in Genua until halfway through the book. The first half is a sequence of comedic setpieces as a pair of old biddies and their exasperated younger friend bumble their way through Foreign Parts. (“Abroad” is such a classically English word.) At first – the dwarves, the vampire village, the running of the bulls – this is a reason for Pratchett to exercise his overactive imagination in amusing vignettes. As the witches approach Genua, however, their encounters are lifted straight out of fairytales – not just because Pratchett wants an excuse to satirise them, as would have been the case in previous Discworld novels, but because Lilith is deliberately engineering her local world to resemble a world of fairytales, regardless of the implications. This comes out most strongly in the Red Riding Hood analogue, as the witches save an old woman, only to find that the Big Bad Wolf is a victim as well – an ordinary wolf given human predatory instincts, slowly going insane:

She stared at the wolf, wondering what she could do for it. A normal wolf wouldn’t enter a cottage, even if it could open the door. Wolves didn’t come near humans at all, except if there were a lot of them and it was the end of a very hard winter. And they didn’t do that because they were big and bad and wicked, but because they were wolves.
This wolf was trying to be human.
There was probably no cure.

“Someone made this wolf think it was a person,” she said. “They made it think it was a person and then they didn’t think any more about it. It happened a few years ago.”

Lilith’s autocratic wonderland is on full display as the witches eventually reach Genua: a swamp town, a party town, a very clear New Orleans analogue. It seems a strange place to set your novel about fairytales and princesses, but Pratchett is deliberately contrasting it with another city in the same part of the real world – Orlando, and specifically Disneyworld. In an interview he said:

[Witches Abroad] had its genesis some years ago when I drove from Orlando to New Orleans and formed some opinions about both places: in one, you go there and Fun is manufactured and presented to you, in the other you just eat and drink a lot and fun happens.

The old Genua – the swampy shanty town – still clusters around the outskirts of the new Genua, a pristine, polished wonderland which is utterly soulless, and which reminded me of Lord Farquaad’s castle in Shrek (which is, of course, another paordy of Disneyworld). The witches go about finding Ella, encountering a voodoo swamp woman who is neither quite ally or enemy, and and attempting to disrupt the threads of narrative power that will enable Lilith to cement her hold on the people of Genua.

I remember liking Witches Abroad quite a lot when I first read it, and I still do. The plot hums along very nicely considering it’s a book of two halves, treading a good balance between comedy and gravitas, much like Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards! (In fact, it’s strange to me that Pratchett clearly hit upon excellent characters in Weatherwax and Vimes, yet waited so long to write their follow-up stories – six and seven books respectively, if you consider the Granny Weatherwax of Equal Rites to be a sort of proto-character.)

What works best of all is the dynamic between the three characters: Granny, the iron-willed leader of the group, a cranky and contemptuous woman who was “born to be good” and doesn’t like it; Nanny Ogg, the rambunctious, cheerful, drunken old hen, the kind of woman you wish you had as a crazy aunt, who’s nevertheless sharper and more powerful than she first seems; and Magrat, the youngest of them, a hippie-dippie New Age wet hen. Granny and Magrat in particular clash a lot over the use (or non-use) of magic and Granny’s scornful attitude towards Magrat’s idealism, which culminates in a very nice scene at the climax of the book in which Granny overcomes a voodoo practitioner by doing something she repeatedly told Magrat is impossible. (“When Esme uses words like ‘everyone’ and ‘no-one,’” Nanny Ogg notes, “she doesn’t include herself.”)

An excellent entry in the series, and I again have to say how puzzling it is, in retrospect, that Pratchett waited so long before reintroducing some of his best characters. He must have realised he was on to something after this one; after Small Gods, which is next (and possibly the only totally stand-alone book in the series) he went straight back to the witches with Lords and Ladies, which I recall being the high point of their arc. The City Watch books will start coming thick and fast soon as well.

Rereading Discworld Index

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett (1991) 352 p.
Discworld #11 (Death #2)

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In the early novel Mort, Pratchett expanded upon one of his best creations: Death, the anthropomorphic personification of human mortality. A Grim Reaper figure who shepherds souls into the next world, he takes a professional pride in his work and has a sort of vague fondness for humanity. Mort is largely the story of his human apprentice, though, with Death himself sidelined on a sideplot in which he goes and tries to actually live: attends a party, takes a job as a short order cook, etc. It’s the B-side to Mort’s broader adventure.

Reaper Man builds upon that concept of Death as a fish out of water, treating it far more seriously. Death is merely a servant in the cosmic order of things, and he is informed one day that he has been replaced. (His sackable offence was developing too much of a personality.) He is given his own lifetimer, a certain number of remaining days, and is allowed to keep his pale white horse Binky. With no avenue of protest, Death sets out to spend his last remaining days in the real, human world – and naturally takes a job as a farmhand, being handy with a scythe.

This sounds like a screwball comedy, but Death’s story in Reaper Man actually struck me as a sort of fairytale, which makes sense in its own contained universe. People cannot see what he really is, and most of his dealings in the remote village he moves to have a symbolic quality: the landlady who was widowed before her wedding day, the young country boys who seem to become old country men with no intermediate stage, the dreadful new combine harvester which stands as a symbol of ruthless, efficient progress. Death’s combination of wisdom and naivete makes for an enjoyable and surprisingly earnest little story.

Unfortunately Death’s story thread is also smaller than I remembered; most of the book is taken up with what’s going on in Ankh-Morpork, where in Death’s absence people have stopped dying. Windle Poons, the elderly magician from Moving Pictures, is very annoyed to find himself returned to his body after a brief stretch in limbo, and sets out to discover what’s gone wrong.

This is where Reaper Man stumbles: a beautifully painted, emotionally affective story about Death learning to live with ordinary people is paired with a wacky-hijinks adventure in which Windle Poons and his crew of undead oddballs follow the trail of the randomly appearing snowglobes which turn into shopping trolleys which are then accumulating into a hive that grows a shopping mall (???). I wish I’d made any of that up. It’s an absolute brain fart of an idea which Pratchett never should have put to paper, let alone shoved in alongside one of his best stories yet. He’s written silly, disjointed books that fell flat before this, but never one which was so brazenly a creature of two halves. Reaper Man isn’t quite as good as I remember – but that plot with Death, out on the farm, living out his days, is still really something special.

Rereading Discworld Index

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