In a distorting mirror

Holbein_Danse_Macabre_41
Holbein Danse Macabre. XLI. The Allegorical Escutcheon of Death (Totentanz. XLI. Das Wappen des Todes) Image: public domain

Terry Pratchett Equal Rites Corgi 1987 (1987)

“This is a story about magic and where it goes and perhaps more importantly where it comes from and why, although it doesn’t pretend to answer all or any of these questions.”

With such a portentous opening sentence, and especially with such a qualifying caveat, it is clear from the start that this a Terry Pratchett novel. The third novel, in fact, in his Discworld series. But, as he goes on to add, it is also a story about sex (something we might have deduced from the punny title) and “primarily” a story about a world (the Discworld, if you hadn’t already guessed). And though this is early on in his series of over forty Discworld novels it’s full of typical Pratchett tics — the humour (both slapstick and sly), the sense of the ridiculous (with occasional sparkles of the sublime), the fast-paced and consummate storytelling (despite the many asides) and the sheer joy of Creation (an irony which would have tickled the professed atheist).

Eskarina Smith is the eighth child of an eighth son, a fact which has marked her out as something special, as special as the seventh son of a seventh son in our world. Except that Esk is a girl. Which means she technically can’t become a wizard because — as any fule kno — wizards are men. Esk’s own granny Esmeralda Weatherwax is a woman and therefore it is only right that she is able to be a witch. But there is a problem: Esk was handed a wizard’s staff at her moment of birth. And that is a very big problem.

Now we see where the sex fits in: if Esk has the staff and the powers of a wizard why can’t she be accepted as one? (Overlooking the fact she is not even in her teens, let alone of the appropriate gender.) This requires an arduous trip with Granny Weatherwax down the Ankh river towards the capital of Discworld, Ankh Morpork, where her task is to be accepted into the wizards’ Unseen University. The ‘world’ is of course the Discworld, but our own world is obliquely referenced too — which is where the question of magic comes in. We toy with ideas of the supernatural, don’t we, and continue to be frightened of ghouls and suchlike lurking in dark corners and under the bed until our dotage (don’t we? Or is it just me?) — so is that not a kind of magic? Where does it come from if not the imagination? Why do we entertain such impossible thoughts? What happens if we infect other people with our fears and outlandish dreams?

Equal Rites riffs on the ideas that everybody, whatever their age, gender or abilities, deserve consideration on their own merits, not on what is stereotypically ascribed to them. It riffs too on our potential for creative imaginings and whether it ever has limitations; and let’s not forget that Discworld is our own world in a distorting mirror, that it’s the only world we’ve got and that we need to take care of it.

Eskarina is a charming creation, the daughter of a smith (in our folklore smiths had a reputation for magic, of course) and the granddaughter of an equally riveting character, the irrepressible Granny Weatherwax. While Granny reappears frequently in subsequent novels Esk, more’s the pity, disappears for far too long in the series. As I understand it, being a neophyte Discworld explorer, I haven’t missed out by neglecting earlier titles in the series, so I shall just rely on serendipity to determine my future expeditions there. Which I gather is entirely in keeping with Discworld philosophy …

Too many to enumerate here are the features that delighted or pleasantly perplexed me, but I’ll mention just one or two. The name Eskarina (‘Esk’ for short) is, as far as I can work out, Pratchett’s own invention. As is my wont I was tempted to conjure up an etymology for it — is it a compound of the river name Esk and the girl’s name ‘Karina’? Is it derived from Modern Greek Έξι (pronounced ‘ex-ee’) meaning ‘six’ and therefore a convoluted joke because she’s the eighth child? — but these just seemed to be dead ends. I suspect that Pratchett liked the sound, perhaps influenced by the name Esme or Esmeralda, the forename he’d arrived at for Granny Weatherwax.

The name of the wizard who hands the baby Eskarina his staff before promptly expiring is a little more easily explained (though the reasons for this choice of name are no less obscure): Drum Billet — for it is he — gets his unwieldy moniker from a shaped solid metal part used in a motorcycle engine.

No, nor me either.

*  *  *  *  *

Equal Rites is my choice for the annual event March Magics hosted by Kristen at WeBeReading.com. and supported by Lori at Emerald City Book Review. It was formerly known as Diana Wynne Jones March, a “celebration of the late, great fantasy author. This year the focus has been expanded to include Terry Pratchett, another giant of the fantasy world who is greatly missed.”

Author alphabet: P

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29 thoughts on “In a distorting mirror

  1. Lynn Love

    Nice review Chris. Love a bit of Pratchett and Granny is one of his strongest characters. Re read this just recently and found it as lively and entertaining as I remembered. Did you enjoy it enough to read some more? The other witches books are great – watch out for Nanny Ogg! – and the Guards books are terrific too.
    Very sadly missed, as you say.

    1. Thanks, Lynn! I’ve been delving into Pratchett — Mort, Good Omens (co-authored with Gaiman of course), his non-fiction collection A Slip of the Keyboard and, currently, his short stories collection A Blink of the Screen — and certainly intend to keep up the forays. I’m buoyed up by the fact that so many regular blogging correspondents like you rate him highly too!

      1. Ooh, Good Omens is fantastic – one of my favourite books ever. The two authors worked very well together and it’s such a shame they didn’t produce more books. Now I’ve probably raised your expectations way too high! I’ll look forward to your reviews very much 🙂

    1. There seem to be several sub-sequences in the overall Discworld sequence, and I can see that I’m going to have to become au fait, not to mention up to speed, with those strands as well as the overarching concept. In addition I see there are related titles on Discworld maps, the science of Discworld and so on. *sigh* Sometimes pleasure is such a chore …

  2. earthbalm

    Great post for me because, believe it or not, I ain’t never read any Pratchett. I’ll have to get that fixed soon.

    1. No I do believe it, Dale, I only started recently. Must get a move on too if I’m to catch up on all those titles. Thank goodness for charity shops is all I can say …

      1. earthbalm

        I’m having a massive clear out here to make a space for an office as I’ve almost completely committed to try to make a living as a Welsh / Folk acoustic guitar player. If I send you a list, you can have anything you want from it. Otherwise, it’s bound for Oxfam, Cardiff.
        Dale

        1. Well, how kind of you, Dale 🙂 Though I suppose I should intone “Get thee behind me, Satan!” because that’s huge temption … but, hey, let’s live a little dangerously!

  3. This one was fun but seemed to me a bit like a warm-up for the Tiffany Aching series, which deals with similar themes and is stronger in my opinion. So far the next Witches book, Wyrd Sisters, is my favorite with its send-up of Shakespeare. Enjoy your explorations in Discworld!

    1. Yes, Lori, I enjoyed your recent review of Wyrd Sisters, enough for me to make a mental note to read it soon — especially as 2016 (and April especially) is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and a Bard-related book would be very apt!

  4. I would really enjoy discovering a TP I haven’t read yet. And yet, the first of his novels was to me like the first sip of whiskey – eeeugh! Then the taste got acquired, gradually, with some of the later ones. In fact, I later had to guard against copying his style.

    1. Pratchett’s style is so catching, isn’t it? You may have caught hints of it in some of the phrasing in my review. I find I have to hold back the Regency turns of phrase when I review Austen too! Have you read TP’s A Blink of the Screen? His collected short fiction appeared in 2012 and I’m taking my time reading it, all the better to savour it.

  5. Good starting place.

    I started with Guards, Guards! many many years ago and haven’t looked back since.

    They stick with you, and even his worst are better than a lot of people’s best. I’m actually halfway or so through re-reading the entire series between library books (“discovering” “new” authors).

    1. That’s dedication, Brent, forty-plus titles! Mind you, it clearly is a pleasurable experience for you — I shall be parcelling out Discworld in small chunks in order to spin out the enjoyment and delay gratification rather than gorge myself like a child at Easter time!

      1. Well, I did read my first about 20-25 years ago. I started a re-read (2nd to 10th time depending) shortly after he died, after reading the most recent Aching book and World of Poo, and am currently upto Hogfather.

  6. Christine

    Glad to hear the early Discworlds have agreed with you so far! This wasn’t my favourite, though I adore the rest of the witch sequence (each installment hits a soft spot, be it fairy tales, Shakespeare or Tam Lin narratives). This one felt a bit scattered, though Sir Terry did say he wouldn’t answer every question he brought up, and the ending was fair. I found it rather similar to Sourcery, which I only recommend if you enjoy inter-dimensional battles and “seventh son” riffs. Looking forward to the next Pratchett review, whenever it may be!

    1. Thanks, Christine, really pleased you enjoyed the review! I liked this even though the overall plotline wasn’t as intricate as I gather his later ones are and the climax seemed a little woolly and resolution a bit rushed. Still, only the third in the series and, I gather, published just at the time he’d decided to become a full-time writer, so such a lot of promise already in evidence! I shall be dipping my toe into more TP, never you fear …

  7. I’m so glad that you picked this one up, even late! I think I only read my first Discworld book two or three years ago. Now I’ve read a dozen or so and I’m definitely hooked. I always thought his books weren’t for me but then there was Good Omens to act as a gateway book … 😉

    Thank you for joining me again this month!

    1. I’m sorry my visits to We Be Reading are intermittent, comes from using different blogging platforms linked to too few hours in the day! Enjoying reading the DWJ and TP posts you’ve linked to this month that I’ve read so far, and hope to catch some more before long. But now it’s the 31st and that’s it for another year!

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