Carpe Jugulum, by Terry Pratchett

Just one part of my mammoth Complete Discworld Reread project…

By the twenty-third book in the Discworld cycle, Terry Pratchett is some sort of crop rotation system, regarding his subjects. Granny, Vimes, Susan, Rincewind, Granny, Vimes, Susan, (Vimes), Rincewind… OK, so Jingo dropped in an extraneous Vimes, but the pattern’s pretty clear and inevitably the next book had to be Granny. [And after that, it’ll be Vimes. The Truth will plop in out of sequence, but then it’s Susan and Rincewind again, before the new Maurice book takes the place of Granny…]

So we get another Witches novel for Discworld #23, almost as a matter of course. The problem is, as with The Last Continent, it’s not clear that Pratchett really had any great plan for this installment. Or rather, that’s the superficial problem. The deeper problem is that it’s just not clear that there is anywhere at all for these characters to go from here.

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Maskerade, by Terry Pratchett

Part of my ongoing project to re-read all the Discworld novels in publication order.

(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.

Lords and Ladies, by Terry Pratchett

‘Some people might say this is important’
‘No. It’s just personal. Personal’s not the same as important. People just think it is.’

Part of my on-going project to re-read all the Discworld novels in order.

Everybody knows that Small Gods is the best Discworld novel. We all know this. It is blasphemy to suggest otherwise. I even confirmed this in my last Discworld review, only a short period of time ago. And I’m not going to back down. Terry Pratchett has never written a novel better than Small Gods.

However, he did write Lords and Ladies. And Lords and Ladies…. may well be… well… better than Small Gods.

Now, Lords and Ladies is not Small Gods. The techniques may be the same, but the key is entirely different. It’s almost hard to think of them both at the same time, so different are they in their atmosphere. And at heart, this is because Small Gods is a book about the desert. It’s about sand, and rock, and an excess of sky, and no water. It’s about standing in the desert with no other living thing around you, just you and the sand and the rock and the sky and the no water, when the mind turns easily to profound questions of life and god and metaphysics and morality because there isn’t any world around you to keep your mind pinned in anymore, and it’s about dying for no reason other than the fact that it’s impossible to live, in the desert. But Lords and Ladies is about the forest and the hills, it’s about trees and rivers and mossy stones and the threat of snow, and about shadows, which you don’t get a lot of in the desert, and about being surrounded all about by life, but not all of it friendly, and not being able to see the sky at all because of the trees and the mountain tops and there are places where the sun never reaches at all, and here too the mind turns easily to profound questions, but of a different king, profound questions that involve things in the woods that you can’t see, and claws, and teeth, and being eaten, and how to avoid it, and unlike the desert the forests and the hills are great at keeping your mind really focused on the mundane things like what’s behind that tree and can it see me, and it’s about dying because something has killed you and is eating you. In the desert, you can build in straight lines, and you can see to the ends of the earth, to the point where you can’t see any more solely because the earth has decided to bend herself away from you, but in the forest and the hills there are no straight lines, only spirals, and you can’t see more than five feet in any direction because there’s something in the way, and in any case you’d better stop looking so far into the distance anyway, because you really ought to be looking at that tree over there and making sure there’s nothing there that’s going to eat you.

So naturally there are going to be some differences in tone.

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Lords and Ladies is a new start for Pratchett. Underlyingly, this is because it represents a move away from (albeit not a complete abandonment of) the central themes of belief, stories, representation and so on that so dominated Moving Pictures, Reaper Man, Witches Abroad, and Small Gods – those themes remain an important part of the metaphysical bedrock of this novel, but the novel is not about them in the way its predecessors seemed to be. Superficially, meanwhile, the new start is not having a new start at all. This is the first direct sequel since The Light Fantastic, being set immediately after Witches Abroad (only two books before), and is the first (and I think only?) Discworld book where the author felt the need for an explanatory ‘previously on’ foreword telling us who the characters are and what happened in the previous novel – although to be honest, this isn’t really necessary, since the plots are unrelated. All you really need to know is ‘the witches have been on a trip and are just now returning home’.

That said, although the plot is standalone, this is the second outing for most of the characters, and third or fourth for some of the main ones (and in one case I think the eleventh), so it’s probably a book that benefits from knowing about the previous novels, even if detailed recall of plot points is not really required. With the exception of The Light Fantastic, I’d say it’s the least standalone of the novels so far. And I think this is significant: Pratchett has, it feels, said what he wanted to say, done his experimenting, and is now returning to established parts of his world to tell stories.

Because while Lords and Ladies doesn’t feel like it has the thematic focus of previous installments, it sure as hell has a story.

Personally, I never liked Lords and Ladies as a child. This is largely because I was an obstreperous and stubbornly tribal child, and I objected to Lords and Ladies on the grounds that it hadn’t been in my witches trilogy omnibus, and thus wasn’t a real witches book and shouldn’t be prancing around distracting attention from the real witches books, damnit.

So yes, I was an idiot. Because this is the best witches book yet. And possibly the best Discworld book yet, or ever.

[And for good measure, reading Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad out of order with the other books, due to said omnibus edition, means that I never remember just how close together WA and L&L are in the chronology]

What makes the book great? Nothing, really. That’s the point. This isn’t a book with a deep and powerful theme or anything, or one fantastic moment. It’s just… really good. With the exception of Small Gods, it’s the novel (so far) that works best as a novel, with the least filler… and the pace is far faster than Small Gods. Small Gods is reflective and deliberate; Lords and Ladies is almost a thriller, mixing elements of horror with action, broad comedy, and character development.

Put it this way: there’s almost nothing wrong with it. Most strikingly, the ‘end’ starts in about halfway into the book, after which it’s gripping – it’s the first book in years that I’ve stayed up late into the night to finish because I couldn’t put it down.

It’s exciting; and I also laughed out loud, repeatedly. It’s not Pratchett’s most subtle humour, definitely, with many of the funniest bits being ghastly puns, and it’s probably not the funniest he can be, but it’s continually amusing and occasionally embarrasingly hilarious.

But it’s also serious, and moving. For instance, many of Pratchett’s characters are old men or old women, but few of his books have really addressed what that means in human terms the way that Lords and Ladies does. In particular, this book is a showcase for Esme Weatherwax, as we get to see her from a more intimate perspective, seeing more of how she works, both emotionally and intellectually.

And yet it’s not just a Granny vehicle. All three witches have their own narrative and character arcs; Nanny’s is appropriately low-key and unpretentious, but Magrat is just as much the central character here as Granny, if not more so, and her plot and Granny’s – a young(ish) woman deciding what she wants from life, and an old woman who has to live with the consequences of her own decision long ago – entwine and complement each other beautifully.

Indeed, all three witches fundamentally share the same theme: to but it bluntly, ‘be who you want to be’.

It sounds a lot better when Pratchett says it.

In fact, it sounds a lot better when Pratchett says it. Add the melancholy air to the Important Life Lesson and a big dose of dramatic narrative… and what blooms out of that is a number of Pratchett’s greatest scenes, and in particular a number of his greatest speeches, which are just shattering in their oratory.

Of course, without a plot, this would just be a bunch of characters wandering about Being Significant, in a very boring and narcissistic way. Fortunately, we get a plot, and while it may be a pretty thin plot it’s one with great verve and pace and light and dark, courtesy of possibly Pratchett’s greatest villains. The Gentry are, I’ll admit, a shallow and thin idea, never given much profundity or nuance… but they don’t need it. They’re a fantastic concept, and the execution is suitably… well, maybe not scary, per se, but definitely creepy, and terrifying enough for the characters, even if not for the jaded reader.

But the book isn’t perfect. As usual, the biggest problem is the ending. It often feels as though Pratchett’s ‘plots’ are just a series of images which he has to find a route between, and that really is true here. It all hangs together until the climax, but the climax is frankly anticlimactic. There’s too much talking, the villains, previously so dynamic, lapse into moustache-twirling, and the conclusion neither really makes sense nor feels really earned, though it’s to Pratchett’s credit that he’s very, very nearly able to pull it off on raw emotion alone. And then there’s the protracted bit after the climax, where remaining threads are dealt with far too perfunctorily.

It should also probably be admitted that some of the subplots – well, not subplots exactly because there’s only one plot, but lesser facets of the plot – don’t really prove themselves worthy. Some sort of work but I’d like more depth; others end up feeling like red herrings (the wizards are criminally under-used, not because they’re out of place but because there’s so much of a place they could take but don’t).

And if puns irritate you, you might end up irritated. Plus there was one jokes about Jewish stereotypes that, while not actively offensive in itself, did remind me against my will of some of Pratchett’s lazier stereotype-based jokes in later books.

But I feel I’m quibbling here. In terms of a fun and exciting narrative with little slack in it, this is probably this is probably the best Pratchett had written to this point. It’s also very funny, and with a touch of profundity along the way. It may not grab the attention in the same way as the overtly intellectual Small Gods – the same way that a tiny village set amid the twisting wooded hills just doesn’t hit the eyeballs the same way the Sahara does – but I think it’s every bit as good, if not better. It would probably be widely proclaimed as a great masterpiece of fantasy writing, if it weren’t hidden amid forty-odd other highly impressive novels by the same author…

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Adrenaline: 5/5. This isn’t to say it’s a flawless thriller, it’s not. But it’s as exciting as I think you could expect to be, and a cut above the books I’ve given 4 to, so I think this is justified. Once it gets going, the action really doesn’t let up until the end.

Emotion: 4/5. Not exactly emotionally devastating, but surprisingly affecting nonetheless – real, sympathetic characters, high stakes, big emotional speeches, and quiet wistful moments.

Thought: 3/5. I don’t know that it qualifies as above-par on the intellectual side, but it’s certainly not slow-witted, with some serious themes about life and possibility and identity and whatnot.

Beauty: 5/5. It’s a beautiful book, showcasing some of Pratchett’s best writing ever, and there’s really no uglyness I can find. OK, a few jokes I didn’t totally buy, but that’s mostly just taste. A bit more oil needed in how things fit together, but not really so inelegant as to be ugly. The prose is of course never less than elegant, with some real moments of beauty.

Craft: 5/5. As for the last item – a few things I can note in passing as imperfect, but nothing that merits docked points. Particularly if you sit back and consider just how structurally ambitious Pratchett has become in this era – him being 95% succesful still shows more craftsmanship than most authors succeeding in their intentions flawlessly.

Endearingness: 4/5. The one complaint I’d make here is that although the characters are very well realised, interesting, sympathetic and so on, there are no characters, and no arcs or plotlines, that I really love, really viscerally love.  That said, there’s a lot here that I like, and it’s both funny and fun.

Originality: 4/5. As is often the case, there’s underlying material here, mostly in the form of folk tales and Shakespeare, and there are also echoes of earlier Discworld books, and then again Pratchett never strays too far from the archetypal plot structures. But even without the inimitable style, the elements are arranged in a distinctive and memorable way.

OVERALL: 7/7. BRILLIANT. ‘Numerically’, I calculate this as very marginally better than Small Gods, but in all honesty the difference is easily within the margin of error. Small Gods feels both more ‘important’ and more careful, more deliberate. Lords and Ladies feels just slightly more out of control, but that can be exciting, and the more human scale is in its own way (despite the quote I lead with*) just as important as the grand vistas of the desert. Lords and Ladies is in my opinion more effective as a story, with characters and a plot – it’s a Romantic tone poem to Small Gods’ baroque sarabande. Or a deep dark wood, to Small Gods’ sea of sand.

 

 

 

*If the quote rings a bell for Discworld fans, the line gets used in a bunch more novels, and is more associated with a different character. Indeed, we’ll be seeing it again in the very next book…

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.