‘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.
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…
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…