(sorry, my copy of Interesting Times has gone missing, so I’ll get back to that one when I find it. I know I saw it around here somewhere…)
I keep thinking the Witches novels aren’t my favourite part of Discworld. I tell people this. I think I’m being truthful when I say it. I just don’t like them very much, and I never have. To be honest, reading about Granny Weatherwax is just a little bit too much like spending extra time with the various female members of my family (living and dead), and with respect and affection toward them, I’ve spent enough time with them thank you very much, I don’t need them in my reading time too.
So I don’t like the Witches novels. So why is it I keep finding that they’re really good?
Maskerade is one of the least, if you’ll excuse the word, pretentious of all the Discworld books. Sure, there’s a little bit here and there about the truth of masks and whatnot, but basically it’s just an exciting murder mystery. But it’s a very good one.
There are problems. Most obviously, it’s not really clear what the Witches are doing in it at all – Agnes (a minor character from Lords and Ladies) being in Ankh-Morpork and getting caught up in things is fine, but this is a crime in an Ankh-Morpork and that makes it a job for Vimes, Carrot and most importantly Angua. Instead, the Watch characters are mostly missing and those that do turn up have limited screentime and importance, while their place is taken by Granny and Nanny. This, unfortunately, requires not one but two huge and obvious contrivances – one just to get the plot going at all, and another to…. well, I’m not really sure what the point of it was, I think it was just Pratchett spending three quarters of a novel just to set up a couple of scenes he thought might be vaguely cool but that don’t really go anywhere. At the time, this was rather inelegant, and in hindsight it’s more than a bit frustrating (first that he wasted that time and energy on it, and then that, having gone as far as he did, he didn’t make the most of what he’d set up while he had it). I also felt the end was underwhelming, to be frank – just when it seems it’s going to be a great explosion, it just fizzles out a bit.
…right, that’s the problems out of the way. What are the virtues?
Well, it’s funny. Seriously funny. I think the funniest Discworld since… is this the funniest Discworld? Maybe not, it’s hard to make a claim like that – they all have funny moments, and a lot comes down to mood when reading it. But aside from consistently being funny, it also has probably the single funniest scene in the sequence (so far, at least) – the dessert scene. [OK OK, so I’m childish…]
Leaving aside the humour, it’s also a real page-turner of a story. Murders, operas, a chandelier, swordfighting, secret passages, hidden identities, double bluffs, parcour chase scenes, more murders… it’s a ripping yarn, even if I did feel the ending was a little blunted.
Character work? Solid. Agnes isn’t among Pratchett’s absolute greatest creations, but she’s a really interesting and distinctive character who more than fills up her end of the story, no pun intended – and incidentally, do we need to wheel back in the old “you know Pratchett’s actually a great feminist author” thing again? I don’t know whether he’s really in line with all of the orthodoxy, so maybe ‘feminist’ is too specific a word, but “author genuinely interested in the life experience of women” probably fits. Most authors, probably most female authors even, wouldn’t see the brief “urban fantasy murder mystery, plus swordfighting and chase scenes” and think “of course, this story is clearly really about what it’s like to be an overweight teenage girl!” It’s doubly remarkable, thinking about it, given that his male characters so often fall into slight variations of the same mould, that his female characters are so wildly varied, particularly in this recent run of books. Eskerina Smith, Esme Weatherwax, Gytha Ogg, Magrat Garlick, Sybil Ramkin, Erzulie Gogol, Angua von Uberwald, Susan Sto Helit and now Agnes Nitt… that’s nine women, all of them to them extent or other arguably the good guys, all of them highly intelligent, all of them feeling like real, lived-in people, and yet you’d never confuse any one of them for any of the others. But because I think Pratchett is primarily a liberal, rather than a feminist, it never feels as though he’s doing this to make a point – he has interesting female protagonists because… well, why wouldn’t he?
OK, so other than Agnes and the established duo of Granny and Nanny, none of the other characters in Maskerade really make a claim to be remembered beyond the confines of this novel (perhaps why the one of them who could have turned up later never did), but they’re colourful and tangible enough for the purposes they serve in the plot and in the humour.
Meanwhile, perhaps the greatest character of the novel is the setting (oh dear gods I hoped I’d never write that sentence… I spent years at school refusing to say it despite the blandishments of teachers and textbooks, and now I fall into it by accident… darn it). It’s not just the Opera House, although that’s pretty memorable in its own right: it’s opera. [I’m not an opera fan myself, but I am a classical music fan, and can appreciate the mindsight]. It’s the whole melodramatic, romantic, half-starved, fundamentally and defiantly insane world of art, and Pratchett delivers an appropriately double-edged paean, mercilessly ridiculing its foibles and powerfully questioning its priorities, while still managing to convey the beauty and majesty and transcendence – both genuine and painstakingly artificial – that allows people to buy into the madness in the first place, and ultimately leaving his own stance ambiguous. It’s what we should expect from Pratchett, I suppose, given the balancing act his career has been spent performing: cynicism and romanticism each sharpening the other’s sword.
Oh, and while the thematic and ideological stuff doesn’t get top billing, there’s enough of it there that the book doesn’t ever feel tawdry or crass: it may not beat you about the head with ‘the point’, but it does feel that there’s a point there, something beyond superficial entertainment. It’s interesting enough, and moving enough, not to distract from its virtues as a comedy thriller.
So all in all, I’m left thoroughly impressed with Maskerade. Perhaps it doesn’t feel like a Pratchett masterpiece – perhaps precisely because laughter and excitement seem to be the primary objectives, rather than anything deep and important – but it’s one of the very best examples of his ‘usual’ work.
Adrenaline: 4/5. Despite all the jokes, and plenty of room for character-building, it’s actually a pretty taut mystery-thriller with some exciting scenes. My heart wasn’t pounding, but I was definitely gripped.
Emotion: 3/5. The levity does make it harder for the book to engage emotionally, and the characters are all a little distant too. Plus, when Granny’s around there’s no chance things will go wrong in the end. That said, I did care about them.
Thought: 4/5. The mystery element is good enough, even on a re-read, to get the grey cells going, and then you can throw in the ruminations on life and the clever jokes on top of that. Not top marks because perhaps it is a little too superficial for that, a little too predictable.
Beauty: 4/5. Doesn’t somehow hit the highest notes, either in prose or in overall form, but is still really pretty on both levels.
Craft: 5/5. There are some contrivances, and the ending isn’t perfect… is that enough to dock a point? I’ve decided it isn’t. It’s not perfectly constructed, but it is craftsmanship of the highest calibre. If nothing else, the ease and speed with which Pratchett is able to flip from comedy of the broadest kind to tense dramatic scenes is something to behold.
Endearingness: 4/5. Really good fun, and really funny. Not given a 5 just because… well, I do find Witches novels hard to love. The characters inspire fascination, respect, recognition, and occasionally pity… but I don’t love spending time with them.
Originality: 3/5. As with most Witches novels, this one leans heavily and explicitly on familiar tropes and structures, and there’s nothing really surprising here (even the clever twists are clever twists of the sort you’d expect to find).
Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD. Not in the top tier of Discworld novels, but leading the following pack.
Programming note: must find Interesting Times, hopefully that’ll be the next Pratchett book I read. If not, it’ll be on to Feet of Clay. However, I was thinking about this project of mine the other day and realised that this would be an excellent time to finally read the five (so far) Discworld short stories – I only remember reading one, and I think I may have read another a long long time ago. Fortunately, the only story I own in book story is the only one that doesn’t seem to be online. So I think I’ll be reading “Troll Bridge” and “Theatre of Cruelty” next. I won’t write a full review for either, but I may put up some comments here if it seems merited.