[Part Three of an ongoing 're-reading all the Discworld Novels in chronological order' project]
The first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic was an uneven but sparkling exercise; the second, The Light Fantastic, was a disappointing attempt to recapture the success of the first.
Equal Rites is something very different.
In outline, there are strong similarities. The central character of Rincewind may have been dropped (thankfully – he didn’t have much narrative potential, not without allowing him the sort of growth that Pratchett clearly wasn’t willing to put into him), but in some ways this book seems like a re-write of The Light Fantastic – starting from a mountainous, peculiar wooded area near(ish) the Hub, the main character, an unconventional but strangely powerful wizard (strangely and very precisely powerful in Rincewind’s case, since he only knows one spell – it just happens to be one of the eight spells holding the universe together) treks across the Disc to the magical Unseen University, in legendary Ankh-Morpork, and thwarts the invasion of Things from the Dungeon Dimensions.
What’s different here is the tone. This feels completely different from the first two Discworld books – I’d suggest that this is where Discworld proper begins. There are still holdovers from the first two installments that mark this as clearly an early-era Discworld novel – there are some quite clunky fourth wall jokes, and there is clearly a lot more magic and a lot less logic in the world than there will be later. But the core transformation has happened: he’s stopped writing a parody of fantasy characters in fantasyland, and started writing a parody of ordinary people in Britain.
Where the first two novels proceed at breakneck pace from one set piece comedy episode to the next, Equal Rites wants to actually be a novel rather than a loosely-linked sketch show. It takes its time, at least by the standards of the first two books – more than a third of the novel is set-up, before the quest even starts, and halfway through the book we’ve barely started. As a result, there is far more characterisation than in the earlier books – of the protagonist, Esk, but more importantly of the dominant character, Granny Weatherwax, and more broadly of the ‘old remote rural Britain’ setting; when we get to Ankh-Morpork, it has been transformed from a violent and chaotic sword and sorcery city of adventurers into a parody of old London, complete with class structure and register-switching accents. It’s all very comfortable and familiar stuff, but it brings a depth, and in particular warmth, that was lacking in the first two installments.
The main plot, meanwhile, goes for the empathic throat of teenage geeks everywhere, as it focuses on an intelligent, sassy, rebellious, yet studious tomboy defying both gender roles and authority figures at the same time. Obviously, on that level I loved it. The early sections in particular also do a great job of making magic seem magical – and strange, and even disturbing.
Unfortunately, there are some problems. First, Esk is a ridiculous Mary Sue – I wanted her to kick ass as badly as everybody else, but having her be, basically, the best in the world at everything, even though she’s not even teenaged yet, kind of drains the dramatic tension out of things. Second, and more seriously, the end is just awful. Not the actual scenes near the end, some of which are very good – as with the end of The Light Fantastic, Pratchett is able to be surprisingly dramatic and powerful with what ought to be fairly light material – but rather the construction of the end, which involves far too many over-easy resolutions and nonsensical explanations, and too great a compression and ramping up of pace. It feels like the first half of the novel is what Pratchett actually wanted to write about, and the ending is just something he threw in because he didn’t know what else to do.
That said, it does make me nostalgic for the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions, sadly lacking in later books. Sure, their plot utility is limited, and they are overused terribly in these early books, but they sure are creepy. They have a wonderful combination of simultaneous patheticness and unspeakable danger that really adds an edge to these books, even when they are used as badly as they are in this book.
All in all, then, this is a badly flawed, but nonetheless quite interesting book, that marks an important turn in Pratchett’s writing.
Adrenaline: 3/5. Rather diluted by the rushed and unsatisfactory ending.
Emotion: 3/5. I love Esk.
Thought: 3/5. Pratchett does a good job here with the wry observations, both on life in general and on class structures and sexism and so forth, and the relative sloth of the early chapters is intriguing. On the other hand, nothing really penetratively insightful is said, and it remains a fairly light read.
Beauty: 3/5. Meh.
Craft: 3/5. Would like to give it a higher mark, since elements of this book are very well crafted. Unfortunately… the ending. And that’s really just a symptom of the general poor construction of the plot and of the poor pacing. At this stage, the author was clearly still learning.
Endearingness: 4/5. It’s respectably funny, and did I mention that I love Esk? If she’d been a tad less overpowered, and if her story had been a tad more interesting, I could really have loved this book.
Originality: 2/5. Stock characters, familiar plot, it’s surprising it feels as fresh as it does, frankly – and it’s hurt by reading it immediately after The Light Fantastic.
Overall: 5/7. Good. A promising shift in tone and style, toward a more realistic and complex type of novel – but one unfortunately hamstrung by the limitations of its plot and characters. Nonetheless, I found it a very enjoyable read. In particular, probably works very well as a children’s book, on account of its very young protagonist, themes of empowerment, and the greater latitude children commonly give to unsatisfying plotting.