Witches Abroad, by Terry Pratchett

(Part of an ongoing project to re-read all the Discworld novels in publication order)

Moving Pictures, and Reaper Man could both be argued to fall inside Pratchett’s ‘golden era’, albeit at the less glistening end of it. Both could be argued to be among his best novels ever. Both could be argued to be utter rubbish.

Witches Abroad is… well… let’s just say there are some clear trends in this era of Pratchett.

Moving Pictures and Reaper Man are both novels about stories, the power of stories, about belief and imagery, and about the hyperreal, the postmodern condition in which reflections of reflections take flight from their foundations in reality and people’s lives come to be lived in a circular attempt to live the sort of lives that representations of life present themselves as representing. In other words, they’re novels about stories that tell their tellers.

So is Witches Abroad. Witches Abroad doesn’t mess about with cunning symbolism, though. It leaps straight into the heart of the matter: mirrors and fairy tales.

And, like its predecessors, it contains brilliance, and yet is terribly flawed.

As with Reaper Man, the chief problems here stem from trying to make a short story into a short novel. Backing away from the emotional and narrative mess of that novel, this time Pratchett takes a more direct approach, merely diverting his protagonists through some filler.

A lot of filler.

All in one go.

In fact, after a brief bit of set-up, the rest of the whole first half or more of the novel is filler, with little to do with the plot at all. The eponymous witches go, as the title suggests, abroad, where they encounter a series of amusing circumstances and get up to some humorous hijinks. Some of these are loosely tied into the idea of ‘stories’, with a lot of fairy tale references, but primarily it’s all an excuse for some fairly tired and traditional jokes about English tourists on the continent.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s funny. Sort of. Now and then. And conceptually I can see why someone might think it was a good idea to show us the protagonists with the pressure off a little, letting us see a little more of their characters, and how they deal with different circumstances. The riverboat gambling scene was particularly enjoyable, and was even more so when I was a child. There is, really, probably no scene here that I would specifically want deleted. They’re all… well, none of them is Pratchett’s best work, but they’re all perfectly enjoyable and serviceable.

The problem is that there are twice as many of them as there should be. A light diversion from the plot swells to take up half the book, and despite the repeated ‘ooh, something bad’s happening here’ moments, the effect is to drain away interest in that actual plot, which had started so promisingly. What’s worse, the scenes feel repetitive, as though Pratchett had sketched half a dozen ideas for a scene, and then rather than picking one he put them all in, like a theme and variations. By the end, I was really begging him to get a move on, which is really rare for me with early Pratchett.

Fortunately, eventually, he does. When we hit Genua, boy does he get a move on. Perhaps the particularly vexing thing is that there’s actually enough content in the second half of the book to work by itself, with a little more padding. Instead, what we get is rushed. Scenes link together almost as though Pratchett can’t be bothered to fill in the gaps (because they’re so obvious, surely the readers will understand – well yes we do, but I’d like to be shown, rather than having to deduce). There’s never a moment to reflect or get our breath. Foreshadowing and the build up of tension and the imparting of decades of backstory and red herrings and plot twists all have to be squeezed into a couple of pages, with no time to breathe or grow in the imagination.

What that does is produce a story that is gripping and page-turning. But what it also does is produce something that’s…. well…. cartoonish. I adored this book when I was young; re-reading it, I felt like the times when I’ve tried re-watching the cartoons I loved back then. A cartoon can rely on the imagination of the child to fill in all the gaps, to take every intimation of importance and significance and run with it, and amplify it. Children are good at turning sequences of events into stories. As an adult, however, I find I need a little more help. Too often here I felt I could feel the joints where the thing was bolted together shoddily. It didn’t help that the book has more than the usual Pratchett quota of ideas that go nowhere, scenes pushed in for the sake of a cheap laugh, jokes that may not entirely be in character; and then of course there’s the way that things just happen because they happen, with a deus ex machina that isn’t just not avoided, but is positively licensed by the book’s “stories want to tell themselves” theme. The ending also, again like that of Moving Pictures, and Guards! Guards! before it, is just a touch too complicated and prolonged.

But then there’s the other hand. And that’s the hand where the story does work – that’s the side of the brain that does suspend disbelief and just go with the flow of the narrative. And that side of the brain had a whale of a time. Because the climax of this novel is about as… well, climactic… as Pratchett ever gets. Brilliant image comes after brilliant image, badass quip after badass quip, portentuous philosophical rebuttal after philosophical portentuous rebuttal.

This is the book that makes the witches as characters, I think. Equal Rites was only a tangential introduction to Granny; Wyrd Sisters a tentative outing. Witches Abroad is where Magrat becomes a rounded character rather than a punchline, Nanny’s already considerable hidden depths siddle their way up to the surface, and Esme Weatherwax becomes…. legendary.

It helps that Pratchett doesn’t hold back on the shear amorality of it all. There is, he makes clear, a good and a bad side to things, and Our Heroines are the ones who know which is which… sort of… most of the time… but that doesn’t mean they’re nice people. Oh no. As Magrat notices a couple of times, when you get right down to it Granny and Nanny are both horrible people. And Magrat’s not much better than them, and to the extent that she is it’s mostly just because she’s a wet hen too timid to be horrible. Yet they’re the good guys. The bad guys are far worse. And then there’s Mrs Gogol. Mrs Gogol is one of Pratchett’s greatest creations precisely because it’s not just unclear which side she’s on, it’s not clear what it means to be on her side. Too many stories fall into over-simple dichotomies of good and evil… Witches Abroad is a rare novel that shows us three sides to one story. It’s not always succesful in how it does it, but it’s impressive that it does it at all.

It’s also an early intimation that although Pratchett is very talented at writing about England (whether that’s Ankh-Morpork’s London or the rural countryside of Lancre and the Octarine Grass Country), his works often seem most potent and alive when he allows himself a new and more exotic location. Despite the many great books Pratchett wrote later about Ankh-Morpork, I can’t help but wish we’d seen some more novels set in Genua, a setting that he manages to make vibrant and real – feasting on the echoes of both fairy tales and of Louisiana without feeling like a cheap parody or imitation – with admirably little effort.

[As a point of trivia, perhaps it’s worth noting that this is the very first Discworld novel not set in Ankh-Morpork for at least some of its scenes]

Before I’ll forget, I’ll also add that Witches Abroad is particularly stylish in its use of foreshadowing and callbacks – something Pratchett always dabbled with, but used more prominently here (and even more prominently in some of the books to come). This includes some fairly covert symmetries in addition to the obvious: for instance, only the observant may notice that the initial and final portions of the book feature prominent allusions to orchestral pieces by Mussorgsky, which pieces may be taken generally as symbolic of the distinction between home and abroad for the protagonists of the novel.

So what do we end up with with Witches Abroad? Well, a novel that can be seen in either of two ways. On the one hand, it’s an entertaining adventure with a really thrilling climax. It’s wonderfully alive, it develops memorable characters and settings effectively, and it’s very well-written. It really shows us what Pratchett can do, on every level – stylistic, narrative, and thematic. And all this is why it used to be one of my favourite Discworld novels. Until I re-read it. Now it’s not. Because the other way to see it is as a fundamentally light and hollow novel, the shakily-constructed but admittedly impressive dramatic conclusion of which fails to fully obscure the extent to which most of the book is filler.

And so I’m torn. I felt the same way about Reaper Man; the difference is, the brilliance of Reaper Man was enough to outweigh my  concerns, and Witches Abroad didn’t quite manage to blow me away to the same degree this time (though it did when I was younger). And I don’t want to suggest that the negative here should wipe away the positive – the good in this book is not an illusion. It’s just… I think that what we are seeing here is a brilliant author writing at the peak of his powers, and that that brilliance is enough to dazzle us a little here and there, but that fundamentally this is the wrong book, or the right book wrongly constructed, and although he tries impressively there’s ultimately not enough to grab hold of here for him to be able to bring his full powers to bear.

Anyway…

Adrenaline: 3/5. The somewhat boring, unimportant filler sections of the book would have pulled this down, but the powerful (if not entirely earned) ending lifts it back up again.

Emotion: 3/5. See last answer…

Thought: 3/5. Raises some interesting questions, but doesn’t do much with them – the philosophical/ethical ideas are played more for narrative utility than for intellectual stimulation

Beauty: 4/5. Pratchett’s prose is stylish and peppered with gems, and the end has some great imagery. But there’s also too much dead weight here.

Craft: 4/5. See last answer. Like an uncut diamond, the quality is immediately apparent, but its sparkle is dampened by excess material artlessly aggregated to it.

Endearingness: 4/5. Too light and uneven for me to entirely love, but still really, really likeable. Even the filler material, while dragging the book down as a whole, is still basically enjoyable.

Originality: 4/5. The predictability of a story based on other stories is ameliorated, and more than ameliorated, by the wit and skill with which multiple source materials (French, German, African and Russian) are woven together and made distinctively Pratchettian.

OVERALL: 5/7. Good. Perhaps not Pratchett at his absolute best, but very memorable, and sits perfectly happily within his ‘golden age’ novels without any need for embarrassment. As (almost) always with Pratchett, a really fun read. While probably doesn’t need to be included in many ‘best of’ lists, it’s still an important book for Pratchett fans, both for the continuing development of the three protagonists and for helping to explain his central concerns in this period.

In particular, this may be a particularly good Pratchett for younger readers, more charitable toward the structural sloppiness and more easily impressed by the sheer badassery and exoticism of the thing, and for whom the meaningful but underexplored ethical and philosophical dimension may be particularly significant. [Much of the comedy is also pitched at exactly the level of slightly-naughty-but-not-too-explicit innuendo that may appeal to younger readers while not overly worrying their parents; and parents of girls, in particular, may welcome a rare fantasy novel in which all the main characters are women]

Other than the Rincewind books, this is the first Discworld book that’s a direct sequel to another, so it may be better to read Wyrd Sisters first; on the other hand, Wyrd Sisters is only really connected to this through the main characters and a few references, and the characters are vividly painted here anyway, so there should be little trouble reading this before the prior novel.

 

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3 thoughts on “Witches Abroad, by Terry Pratchett

  1. Hans says:

    Oh, you know, you’re overthinking things? Or maybe I’m just remembering the novel in a way that can’t be bettered by re-reading it. 🙂 I remember reading Wyrd sisters and Witches Abroad at a place at the eend of the world, and some scenes still staying in my head after almost 20 years. Just the scene of Granny making her choice among the mirrors – that is worth a lot. The riverboat gambling scene – it’s not just that you see it ten miles coming, Pratchett knows that you see it ten miles coming, and it’s still fun. Pratchett as his best just cuts through the jadedness. It’s a pity that he now is become so hit-and-miss.

  2. Hans says:

    And now I wish there’d be a pre-view or an edit button.

  3. I think it’s a book that works better in the memory, because all the great bits stay there and the weak bits drop out. And of course, it really is a good book. And in particular it’s one with some really great moments in it, among Pratchett’s greatest moments (my two personal favourites come shortly before yours – “no ma’am, there ain’t no way to kill a dead man”, and the voodoo doll bit). But as a complete book, I don’t think it’s polished enough or deep enough to be one of his best.

    EDIT: oh, and I’m sure there isn’t anything needs editing in your post!

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