Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Blog Fantastic 003: Equal Rites review

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett
Cover art by Josh Kirby
Published by Corgi Books

Men are wizards and women are witches and that's that. Only things are not that simple for Eskarina Smith. On the night she was born, Esk received the staff of a powerful wizard. The wizard, feeling death approaching fast, want to give his staff to the eight son of an eight son. The only problem is that he ended up giving it to the eight daughter of an eight son. Having inherited his staff, Esk has also inherited the wizard’s powers. There’s a problem though, as a woman she can’t be a wizard. She’s a fluke of nature (well, magic) and she can’t be taught in the ways of wizard magic by the usual ways which is to attend the Unseen University. She just can’t. They wouldn’t accept her. Thus begins the third Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett.

Lucky for Esk, her village's witch, Granny Weatherwax, decides to try and teach her the way of witches fearing that her uncontrolled powers will hurt her or those around her. It's not an easy task, mostly because Esk catches on so quickly.

The world of Discworld is populated by all sorts of creatures found in the fantasy genre. Obviously witches and wizards but also dwarves and goblins and anything else you can think of. Pratchett also creates a few species and characters and cultures of his own, such as the Zoons. The Zoons are merchants and traders who travel the rivers of Discworld on barges. They're unable to lie, for the most part which makes their job rather difficult. Young Zoons who are discovered to have the capacity for lying are specially trained to become a sort of diplomat for the other Zoons. This special person is called a Liar and is in charge of trading with other merchants. That's just one of the many creations Pratchett has written to populate the world of his fantasy series.

Equal Rites doesn't have as strong a parody element as the first two novels The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic. Instead of parodying specific fantasy stories or characters (such as The Dragonriders of Pern and Conan the Barbarian in previous novels), Pratchett makes fun of more general elements of fantasy fiction as well as a few aspects of our society. For example, Granny tries to get a flying broom fixed by Dwarves who act like car mechanics in the way they go about it. Complaining about her broom being an earlier model and the difficulty of ordering that kind of wood, etc.; it makes for a funny scene. He doesn't completely refrain from parodies of well-known books and authors. Equal Rites has a good time poking fun of H. P. Lovecraft and Cthulhu.

I love this cover. It's a very different style from what you normally see on
fantasy covers nowadays but artist Josh Kirby is a pro. His style is
instantly recognizable perfectly suits the style of Discworld
Magic in Equal Rites:
As always with a Discworld book, one of the enjoyable aspects of Equal Rites is the humour. What makes Equal Rites stand out from the rest (keep in mind I’ve only read the first three Discworld novels) is the spectacular use of magic by Terry Pratchett. Magic isn't always regarded well in Discworld. It's a necessary job and people such as merchants need a wizard or two to protect their caravans while crossing dangerous territories but it’s regarded as a necessary evil. You wouldn't associate with a witch or a wizard if you didn't have to.

The magic of witches is particularly fun. It's as much about knowledge, secret and otherwise, and the art if fooling others into helping themselves. The magic of witches is also in tune with motherly instincts and other loosely defined female intuitions. Their magic is the magic of living things, of thinking things. Their understanding of how humans work will help them heal the sick. Their understanding as well as their love and compassion for all things living help them use nature to their advantage and to the benefit of others. 

In comparison, the magic of Wizards is brash, bombastic and destructive. It's about pinning down spells in large books to be used later, it's about the stars and the heavens above, and it’s about sparkling sparks and flaming fireballs. It's violent and uncompassionate. Wizards use their staffs to distil magic out of the old and powerful things of Discworld. The magic is then transferred to the wizard and he can then wield the raw, powerful magic using spells and incantations. Wizard magic is closely associated with worlds and symbols. Regular words are shadows or representations of everyday things. Magic words are different. They're more than just a shadow. Some magic words are so powerful they struggle to escape the paper and books they're inscribed on and become real. Ok Discworld, magic has a mind of its own and can be rather uncontrollable. 

In Equal Rites Pratchett takes the time to clarifies elements of wizard magic that appeared in the first two books. Wizards’ magic, and Discworld magic, are about the power of the written word. Spells written down in books have strong magical properties all to their own. They can bend time and space around them and cause a great deal of chaos in their immediate surroundings. As you can imagine this makes the library at the Unseen University a dangerous place to be. It’s also worthy of note that the rules the wizards mention throughout the book to support their stance against allowing women to practice wizardry are of an oral tradition. There is nothing written down anywhere as far as I could tell. This allows for some changes to be made hence Eskarina’s eventual admittance to the University. There isn’t a whole lot of information regarding the power of the written world in Equal Rites than the proper introduction of the concept but I assume that Pratchett continued to develop this in other Discworld novels. I can’t forget to point out that making the written word powerful and important in his fictional world, Pratchett is also making a nice meta commentary that I’m sure all readers enjoy.
Equal Rites is at its best when dealing with the main theme of the book, that of equality of the sexes and demonstrating that even in a fictional world women are as capable as men. Pratchett offers several conversations between characters offering different points of view on the feasibility of a woman becoming a wizard. It's quite clear that it’s considered a ridiculous notion on Discworld. I'm sure many if not all I the readers where thinking "Why not? What’s the big deal?" while reading the book but it remains an important and difficult question in our society today. What seems ridiculous in this funny little book is controversial in our own world. Even in the 21st century there are strong and seemingly unavoidable social pressures dictating certain jobs as being specifically reserved for men or women. A male hairdresser is a barber or a homosexual. A straight male hairdresser is not only an unusual sight but also something that is frowned upon by many. The same can be said for a female construction worker. Pratchett demonstrates his great skill at writing by making such a complete issue seem so straightforward yet during the entire book he also pokes fun at it and makes it all look ludicrous. Why are equal rights an important issue in all parts of the world despite all our other achievements and advancements? Then again, Equal Rites and all the other Discworld novels are just fantasy novels with jokes and not grand literature to be discussed in a serious way. My apologies.

The only reason you would want to read this book is if you like stories about witches whose broom's lifting spells are so old and weak she needs to run with her broom at shoulder height to give it a jump start. Either that or you enjoy well-crafted stories that expertly parody several elements of fantasy literature and the real world seamlessly into a surprisingly hilarious and worthwhile book. It’s all down to your personal tastes I guess.

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