Author: Terry Pratchett
Length: 352 (paperback) | 8 h 28 m (audiobook)
Selected By: Elle Tea
Elle Tea’s Score:
Once upon a time there was a fairy godmother named Desiderata who had a good heart, a wise head, and poor planning skills – which, unfortunately, left the Princess Emberella in the care of her other (not quite so good and wise) godmother when Death came for Desiderata. So now it’s up to Magrat Garlick, Granny Weatherwax, and Nanny Ogg to hop on broomsticks and make for far-distant Genua to ensure the servant girl doesn’t marry the Prince.
Elle Tea’s Review
As stated in my previous Interim Review for this book’s predecessor (Wyrd Sisters), I actually intended each of these novels to be my monthly selection for November… and then I went and read both of them within the first couple of weeks of the month. Since I waxed ecstatic on my love of Pratchett’s Discworld in my previous review, I’ll dive straight into what makes Witches Abroad so great.
People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.
Everything. There. All done. 🙂
In Witches Abroad, Pratchett takes the popular modern versions (i.e., the Disneyfied tales as opposed to the original, darker versions) of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Hansel & Gretel, blends them into one giant pastel-coloured mass, turns the lump upside-down, adds a dash of the later Shrek 2, then whips it all into a magical gumbo.
All across the multiverse there are backward tribes who distrust mirrors and images because, they say, they steal a bit of a person’s soul and there’s only so much of a person to go around. And the people who wear more clothes say this is just superstition, despite the fact that other people who spend their lives appearing in images of one sort or another seem to develop a thin quality.
It all begins with an aged fairy godmother, who (to borrow from another excellent witch of fiction:) “feels the icy breath of Death upon her neck.” She must pass her wand on to another witch… and so it falls to our girl Magrat Garlick to heed the call. If you’ve read Wyrd Sisters already, then you know you may call on a single witch, but if that witch is part of a coven, then you get the whole set; thus, joining Magrat on this newest adventure are the other two witches who make up the Lancre Coven: Esme “Granny” Weatherwax and Gytha “Nanny” Ogg.
Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.
Wyrd Sisters is marketed as a tale about Granny Weatherwax; however, I find that this is more true for Witches Abroad. While there is no specific book that tells the entire tale of Granny Weatherwax from start to finish, Witches Abroad does a fair job of giving us a glimpse of her history. We learn a little about her mentor and how that relationship shaped the sort of witchcraft Granny herself practices; we find that there is something which Granny fears; we learn a bit about her family, and; while Magrat may have the wand, it is Granny who is truly put to the test throughout this novel, and the way she faces and deals with each challenge helps us build a stronger understanding of her character and the way she sees herself, witches in general, and the position of all of them within the Disc.
Racism was not a problem on the Discworld, because – what with trolls and dwarfs and so on – speciesism was more interesting. Black and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green.
A witch with a wand is a fairy godmother, and fairy godmothers exist to grant the deepest wishes of their charges’ hearts, and Magrat’s lot is no different: her new job comes with some strings – mainly one big string in the form of a young woman named Emberella, who lives in the far kingdom of Genua. What doesn’t come with the fairy-godmother kit are any sort of instructions, so all poor Magrat is able to manage with her new wand is… pumpkins. Lots and lots and lots of pumpkins.
It’s a strange thing about determined seekers-after-wisdom that, no matter where they happen to be, they’ll always seek that wisdom which is a long way off. Wisdom is one of the few things that looks bigger the further away it is.
Our primary villain is a totalitarian dictator who happens to also be a fairy godmother with an obsession for magical mirrors. Armed with a wand and the ability to monitor just about everything and everyone within her kingdom, this wish-granting nightmare is so hell-bent on everything being exactly as it is in fairy tales that she will literally destroy anything or anyone who doesn’t fall in line and fill the shoes of the role she has assigned to them. Granny, Nanny, and Magrat won’t stand for that, of course – some semblance of order must be maintained, after all – and so they must travel to Genua, both to help Magrat fulfill her requirements to Emberella and to stop the madness that has been unleashed across the kingdom.
“Esme is shouting at everyone, I think she thinks they’re bein’ foreign just to Spite her…”
An interesting twist to the tale comes with the introduction of a new sort of witch. Erzulie Gogol is a self-proclaimed swamp-witch, a veritable voodoo queen and bayou chef extraordinaire. Mrs. Gogol is a perfectly-balanced cross between Granny and Nanny, possessing all of the good sense, formidable power, and practical thinking of the former while simultaneously exhibiting the same willingness to actually experience life and refusal to be bound by the opinions and judgments of others displayed by the latter.
“What do you mean by that, pray?” said Granny. “Pray?” thought Nanny. Someone has ended a sentence with “pray?” That’s like that bit when someone hits someone else with a glove and then throws it on the floor. There’s no going back when someone’s ended a sentence with “pray?”
And between all of these witches and witches-turned-fairy-godmothers are a host of fairy-tale and legendary characters as only Pratchett could make them: a frog-prince or prince-frog who is actually a Duke, a doomed vampire, the bulls of not-quite-Pamplona, a cat who’s also a man who never stops being a cat, a zombie, and of course, the requisite Masquerade Ball. And a house that falls on a witch. And Mardi Gras. And even more Oggs.
“Haven’t you got any romance in your soul?” said Magrat plaintively. “No,” said Granny. “I ain’t. And stars don’t care what you wish, and magic don’t make things better, and no one doesn’t get burned who sticks their hand in a fire. If you want to amount to anything as a witch, Magrat Garlick, you got to learn three things: what’s real, what’s not real, and what’s the difference – ” “And always get the young man’s name and address,” said Nanny.
As with most of Pratchett’s works, what you see is not necessarily what you get. Yes, Witches Abroad is a funny romp through a fantasy world, but it’s also full of intelligent opinions on touchy modern topics such as racism, gender equality, cultural taboos, how we define and interpret what is “foreign,” how what we do for a living often fails to reflect at all who we truly are, and how humans use legends, myths, and fairy tales to study, record, and deal with our own very real existences, fears, and hopes.
“I can hear something,” said Magrat. “Sounds like ‘Dingdong, dingdong.'” “That’s a dwarf song all right,” said Nanny. “They’re the only people who can make a hiho last all day.”
I love Pratchett’s Discworld novels, and those stories involving the antics of his witches are some of my favorites. I readily recommend taking up a tale from the Disc. If witches and fairy tales aren’t your thing, that’s fine – in the 40+ novels that make up the Discworld series, he’s surely got something to interest you: from dwarves to vampires, religion to the postal service, from Ancient Egypt to Christmas, there’s truly something for everyone on the Disc. And if there’s one thing all of us alive today could use in our lives, it’s a bit more laughter.
A few more of my favorite quotes from Witches Abroad:
The wages of sin is death but so is the salary of virtue, and at least the evil get to go home early on Fridays.
The invisible people knew that happiness is not the natural state of mankind, and is never achieved from the outside in.
“The good are innocent and create justice. The bad are guilty, which is why they invent mercy.”
“You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise, it’s just a cage.”
Cats are like witches. They don’t fight to kill, but to win. There is a difference. There’s no point in killing an opponent. That way, they won’t know they’ve lost, and to be a real winner you have to have an opponent who is beaten and knows it. There’s no triumph over a corpse, but a beaten opponent, who will remain beaten every day of their sad and wretched life, is something to treasure.
“Good and bad is tricky,” she said. “I ain’t too certain about where people stand. P’raps what matters is which way you face.”
“Well, I suppose there’s no place like home,” she said. “No,” said Granny Weatherwax, still looking thoughtful. “No. There’s a billion places like home. But only one of ’em’s where you live.”
Elle read the Amazon Kindle edition of this selection.