Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett
Published in 1987
Genre: Fantasy, satire
“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.”
Focusing on a different protagonist than the previous two books in the series, Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett continues his exploration into the magical world that is shaped like a disc. The first in what are known as the “witches” novels within the series (care to guess why?), Equal Rites introduces fan favorite character Granny Weatherwax and does so with grand fanfare. Prepare for another splendid, if succinct, entry in Pratchett’s most famous body of work.
Equal Rites begins with the accidental creation of the first female wizard when a dying wizard bestows all of his power to a baby girl through his staff. He believed he was giving the staff to the eighth son of an eighth son, who would have been born with natural magical ability, but instead gives it to the eighth child of an eighth son who is female.
All of this happens in the village of Bad Ass, which is found in the Ramtop Mountains and is also the home of Granny Weatherwax; a witch who, among other things, helps local women and their husbands with “health problems” in the bedroom. She explains the issue of the baby-girl-turned-wizard: there can’t be women wizards because it is the wrong kind of magic for them; men with the ability to do magic become wizards by studying math, alchemy, and reading books. Women become witches through the study of herbs and plants, having a deeper connection to nature, and following an oral tradition.
Granny decides to mentor Esk, the little girl who was destined to become a wizard, in order to help prepare her for when the evil Things that are drawn to her magic will come to challenge her. Esk doesn’t like learning about herbs and wants to learn “real” magic, despite showing her aptitude for the traditions of witches. Granny realizes that she can’t halt Esk’s ambition and decides to take her to study at Unseen University, the preeminent (a.k.a. “only”) magical university for wizards.
The pair make it to Unseen University and Esk challenges the Archchanceller, though her magic doesn’t work and she leaves embarrassed. They refuse to teach Esk because the “lore” states that only men can become wizards, though no one is able to find a scroll or official document that actually says so. She becomes a maid, along with Granny, at the university in the hopes of picking up lessons due to her unflinching desire to learn what is denied to her because of her gender. Creatures from the Dungeon Dimension begin to close in as they are drawn toward Simon, a stuttering wizard attending the university on a scholarship, whose use of magic puts everyone in danger. Esk travels to the Dungeon Dimension and, with some clever thinking and realizing sometimes the best way to fight is by doing no magic at all, she and Simon avoid the total destruction of the world.
Pratchett hadn’t quite hit his stride yet (which is understandable because it is only the third book his massive series), so some of his trademark charm and snark is missing. There are some jokes about witches; one standout is about a witch that has warts and no teeth, thereby gaining her credibility as a witch; Granny Weatherwax, on the other hand, has nice teeth and clear skin. Other than this subversion of the benefits of clear skin and a few other jokes thrown in, Equal Rites is not as campy and joke-heavy as other books, though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
As the pun in the title suggests, there is some social commentary about both genders thinking women have a specific station because that’s the way things have always been. This isn’t used in any other vein than for driving the plot along and exposing Pratchett’s views on the subject. There isn’t a torrent of heavy handed calls for women to become wizards and the few that pop up are from Esk herself; Granny has to be convinced that it is worth the trouble for women to want to become wizards. This book also shares some plot elements with a later book, Sourcery, which has a young wizard in possession of a magical staff and he is the eighth son of an eighth son, though that qualifies him as much more than a simple wizard in the later book.
Equal Rites isn’t Pratchett’s best work despite being a fun read; again, I want to reiterate that this is another early book in the series, so there isn’t much here to elevate it above the other fantasy novels out there. The characters are entertaining and the ending is clever, but without much of the wit and cheekiness that makes his writing standout, Equal Rites remains a solid piece of fantasy fiction. I look forward to reading more about Granny Weatherwax’s adventures and can’t wait to see where she grumbles along to next.
Verdict: 3 awkward broom rides out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of Terry Pratchett, witch enthusiasts with a sense of humor (or humour), people looking for a short but satisfying fantasy tale, and those who enjoy well-rounded characters.
Not recommended for: Enemies of Terry Pratchett, witch hunters, people looking for a long and unsatisfying fantasy tale, or those who enjoy skinny characters.