Many people say that this book is where Discworld gets brilliant. I’d have said that myself, before I read it. Unfortunately… I find myself a little disappointed.
That’s not to say that it’s not a good book. It is. It’s a great book. It just… isn’t quite there yet.
Wyrd Sisters is a book that’s both a continuation of earlier themes and a new direction for Pratchett. First, the familiar – the setting is the Ramtops again, and Granny Weatherwax from Equal Rites makes her return. This creates a bit of a problem, in that her established stomping grounds don’t really seem to fit in this new kingdom of ‘Lancre’. It seems that Pratchett has landed an entire kingdom on Granny’s doorstep, with the royal castle just down the road, making the area feel a good deal less remote and wild than it did in Equal Rites – yet Lancre the town, capital of this kingdom, feels a lot smaller and more ramshackle than the cosmopolitan neighbouring town Granny and Esk visited in Equal Rites. More generally, Lancre doesn’t feel as real and as important as Bad Ass did in the opening section of EQ – there’s a good deal more distance (in EQ, every individual in the area was a character, whereas here we read about villages being burned down en masse, in throwaway comments, with nobody being that perturbed by it). Nor does Granny feel as fully-rounded a character as in her first outing, having reverted to more of a stock bad-ass old woman, without the complexities and vulnerabilities we saw before (some of this may be explained in-world by her increased age and experience, and the fact we only see her through the eyes of cowed adults, not through the perceptive intimacy of a child’s perspective as before – but it still makes it less fun to read). All in all, it feels as though Pratchett began by wanting to write a Macbeth pastiche, and then decided to put in his existing character – a good decision for the franchise, but not an entirely natural fit. In other continuity news, Wyrd Sisters features the same hero(ic archetype) as in both Mort and EQ – it may even be argued that Rincewind also represents this type, albeit in an older, more cynical, more beaten-down-by-life variation.
On the originality front, however, Pratchett has the cunning idea of hiding this hero for most of the book (though it’s easy to work out what will happen as soon as you find the character familiar…). In place of the pivotal central figure of all the previous Discworld books, Wyrd Sisters features an ensemble cast, lead by two new witches to give support to Granny. Of these, Nanny Ogg is a great success – a character with impressive hidden depths (though, at least in this book, I found her surface often somewhat irritating – and did anyone else notice that her first words seem to be in an Irish dialect, promptly forgotten about?); the other, Magrat, is fair enough, I suppose, but a little too obvious. The two villains are a mixed bag as well – the Duke is fantastic at times (and it’s always good to find someone who can happily, even easily, face down Granny), but I didn’t feel Pratchett was able to fully sell his extreme and convenient personality changes, and the book would have worked better if his madness had built up over time rather than hitting top gear right away; the Duchess, unfortunately, is a walking aggregation of cliches, who was never remotely interesting. All in all, there are probably ten significant major characters, which is impressive, and the cast is for the most part handled very well (unlike, for instance, in Sourcery, where extraneous characters hung about on screen for far too long). On the other hand, while this is an interesting and mostly succesful experiment, the ensemble approach does, I think, weaken our emotional involvement it, thanks to the lack of a real central protagonist.
A lot of what is good about the book, and what is bad about it, comes from its direct and explicit pastiche of Macbeth. Resting so much of the book on such a famous prior work allows Pratchett to take shortcuts, both narratively (the plot may not be exactly the same, but we know how these stories are meant to play out, as do the characters themselves) and comedically (the riot of Shakespearian allusions). It lets him summon up some of the emotive power and resonance of the popular cultural myth. But it also causes problems for him. The plot is too big for the book, and everything feels quite rushed. Because he’s taking shortcuts, some of the leaps don’t feel like they really stand up if you let your mind pause too long on them. Aesthetically, borrowing so much from, relying so much on, another work makes this feel like a step backward from, say, Mort.
In the end, though, the problem is the end – and how we get there. We are railroaded rapidly toward the end, with almost everything being done, and done quickly, to move the plot along. But when we arrive at the end, with expectations of something really clever happening… it doesn’t work. It’s just too easy. After an entire book that feels like putting things in place, after arranging a big conceit for the purpose… it feels both as though the ending is un-earned (because they haven’t done enough to accomplish it) and over-earned (because the simplicity of the ending makes the complexity of the set-up feel wasted). It feels as though we’re meant to buy a sort of karma here – they trade the plot for the ending. But although there’s a lot of plot, I don’t see how it equates to the ending. When I was young, I bought this completely, because, I think, I was overawed by the clever irony and the literary allusion and the big fancy grand wittering about destiny and narrative causality and stories shaping themselves and whatever, but now it feels like a lot of gloss on a rickety beam. The fairly crude farce that surrounds the conclusion is also not helping matters for me. And then when you think about it a little more, you see just how much handwaving and inconsistency has lead up to this – the plot has been driving the characters, not vice versa.
Then again, having an ending that even momentarily looks satisfying is an improvement over most of the earlier Discworld books, it must be said.
Adrenaline: 3/5. Plenty of incident and some tension. However, a slightly scattergun feeling (probably resulting from the large cast size and complicated plot) prevented any real excitement.
Emotion: 2/5. Doesn’t have the strongly sympathetic protagonists of Equal Rites or of Mort; didn’t really feel there was any one character with an arc that I could get worked up over.
Thought: 3/5. Clever, primarily in its use of allusion and irony. But not stunning.
Beauty: 3/5. Could mark this up for its irony, but that would probably be being over-generous.
Craft: 4/5. Very nearly flawless in construction. Didn’t feel there was quite the pop to the writing that there was in Mort, and more importantly the structural work is still a little rickety.
Endearingness: 3/5. Close to 4/5, but things like the lack of a clear protagonist and the (admirable but alienating) moral ambiguity of the characters make it hard to love.
Originality: 4/5. Borrowing heavily from existing sources and tropes, it probably ought to be 3/5, but the cleverness of the execution and the distinctive authorial voice push it up a notch.
Overall: 5/7. Good. Wanted to love it, but didn’t – I thought the ambition outsped the execution. Nonetheless, it’s a good and enjoyable and memorable book – and probably particularly suited to a younger and less critical audience who might not notice some of the cracks in the foundations.
P.S. I think it might be a good idea for me to take a breather and read something else before I go on to Pyramids. Pratchett’s an author whose style can become repetitive, and although I don’t think I’ve lost the ability to judge objectively yet, I imagine that I will if I read too many more of his books consecutively…
…but six down, and only… …thirty-three!?!?!?… to go? Oh lawks, this is going to take me a while, isn’t it?
P.P.S. you have to admire an author who’s willing to make a pun that hardly any of his readers will understand… and then make it the title of his book! Chapeau, that man!