You call yourself some kind of goddess and you know nothing, madam, nothing. What don’t die can’t live. What don’t live can’t change. What don’t change can’t learn. The smallest creature that dies in the grass knows more than you.
This book is excellent. After the wonder and ambition of Small Gods, Lords and Ladies is the conclusion to a Discworld trilogy of witches stories – from Wyrd Sisters’ spin on Macbeth, through the dark fairytale of Witches Abroad to this, a take on A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. It’s immensely satisfying, with a plot that just races and some fantastic character moments. It also bravely brings its climax forward to halfway through the book, ratcheting up the tension of the closing scenes immeasurably.
But it’s a hard one to write about, somehow. I feel it might be because Pratchett explores a lot of the themes he has been playing with so well since Moving Pictures again in this book.The dangers of myth, the attraction of the unreal, the corruption of power, all of these are things Pratchett has been sifting through since the first book in one way or another. But Lords and Ladies and the three books preceding it have done it in a much more effective way.
What is happening here? The elves, who are evil evil sadistic bastards, are trying to break through into reality by offering the temptation of unlimited power. And if Discworld novels have taught us anything, aside from how you should never call an orangutan Librarian a monkey, it’s that we should never, ever, get what we want. Coupled with this is how Granny is genuinely afraid that she is about to die. And Granny doesn’t really do fear. Being a witch meant knowing exactly who you were and where you were, and she was losing the ability to know both.
(I really don’t want to focus too much on what happens to Granny and the eerily prescient parallel with Pratchett’s own health issues but reading this with the benefit of hindsight was doubly chilling and deeply sad).
I’ve written before about Pratchett’s increasingly great ability to turn the screw on the reader and Lords and Ladies is no different. The elves feel like a real threat, the Queen is brilliantly sadistic, and Granny’s concerns about her mortality come as a surprise to the reader, having spent three books with her indestructible will and sense of self by this point.
Its best moments are character based. Granny and Nanny don’t really change – Granny is arrogant and brutally insensitive, Nanny crude and somewhat cruel. But the reader learns more about both of them. Granny’s vulnerability about her impending death is affecting and there’s a wonderful moment dropped into the plot when she returns to her cottage. On discovering a nest of birds have taken over her kettle, she places it over the door, to protect the chicks from weasels. It’s a small piece of character building but little details like that work in making a good character a great one.
There’s another instance of forehead slapping ‘of course!’ when you read of how Weatherwax and Archchancellor Ridcully were childhood sweethearts. Both are powerful, terrifying people who know exactly what they are capable of and keep a tight rein on their abilities. There’s a hilarious piece of plot subversion where Ridcully keeps trying to reminisce about the girl he once lost in Lancre.
You are not explicitly told of the fact until they meet but it is blindingly obvious he is speaking of one Esme Weatherwax.The problem with his misty-eyed memories is that no-one shows the slightest bit of interest. Pratchett has been good at foreshadowing twists in his other novels. His intentional overegging of this plot device is hilarious.
The book is not about Granny or Ridcully, as entertaining as both are. Lords and Ladies belongs to Magrat. Since she first emerged in Wyrd Sisters, the wet wallflower has been the brunt of her older, wiser coven colleagues’ jokes and slurs. She returns to her home in Lancre to discover her wedding to the King (who was the Fool in Wyrd Sisters, in case you forgot) has been arranged and she will be living the life of a queen. And she hates it.
But when the elves finally break through, it is left to Magrat to be active, and not her usual passive self, in order to save the day. She comes across the armour of the former Queen Ynci, turning herself into a female Thor, and rides to the rescue. In a wonderful Pratchettian twist about the power of stories, we later learn that Queen Ynci never existed and was invented to give Lancre a degree of romantic history.
Given her role in the last two books as the butt of all coven jokes, her reinvention as an action hero, but one that still remains true to her character, is really satisfying for the reader. She even says “I’ll be back” for goodness’ sake.
Pratchett’s strength at breathing life into minor players also comes through here. There is a wonderful scene at the beginning where a blindfolded Jason Ogg shoes Binky, the pale horse upon which rides Death. It’s about six pages long but conveys Pratchett’s respect for good craftsmanship and is shiveringly eerie, despite The Grim Reaper complimenting Jason on his excellent choice in biscuits. Another great minor character is the gruff beekeeper Mr Brooks, a Weatherwax in all but name. It is his bees that Granny borrows at the end of the novel to try and defeat the Queen of the elves.
I feel I am telling, rather than showing here, which is frustrating. There is virtually nothing wrong with the novel – it’s probably his second best after Small Gods and improves upon the phenomenal Pyramids.* It is one of the best distillations of what makes Pratchett such an incredible author and neatly explores a lot of themes I have enjoyed to date. But I’ve written about those and to list them again would be tiresome for me and whoever is reading this.
We need a change of scene and focus, I think. The next novel takes us away from Shakespearean allegories and brings us back to the Watch. A sequel to a cop story? Bring it on…
*I only have one problem with Lords and Ladies. In defeating the Queen, Granny channels a multiverse full of Weatherwaxes. At midsummer, the gap between worlds is smaller, hence the elves bidding for freedom. This is why she feels strange. She is experiencing all of her possible lives at once. It’s an amazing concept but one that is not really explored enough. I hope he goes back to it.