“Progress just means bad things happen faster.”
In Witches Abroad, the usual Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax must solve another problem, this time away from their beloved Lancre like in Wyrd Sisters. In fact, they have to go as far as the exotic Genua (a kind of New Orleans with a little more Disney magic). In reality, Magrat Garlick should solve that problem because the fairy godmother Desiderata Hollow on her deathbed left her her magic wand, and therefore the responsibility of preventing a young woman called young Emberella from marrying an elusive Duc (not Duke, because Pratchett doesn’t miss any good opportunity for a pun1). But poor Magrat can’t stop the two more experienced witches from going on a journey with her, and that was probably just what Desiderata wanted!
So, after a first part in Lancre with lots of very funny details about the Ogg family and Granny’s way of seeing the world, the second part is a hilarious journey through never-before-seen lands that give Pratchett the excuse of playing with fantasy (and non-fantasy) stories (a bit in the style of The Colour of Magic and Eric, if you like). The witches meet dwarves who live in kingdoms closed by doors inscribed with magical invisible runes (there’s even a cameo of Gollum), an unfortunate vampire who after terrorizing an isolated village for years meets Greebo, Granny’s adorable cat, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and they find themselves in the world of Oz…
Finally, the third part of the book comes to the main story, a story in which a very powerful witch (Lilith de Tempscire) decides to use people and animals to stage stories, regardless of the will of those same people and animals. The clash with Granny Weatherwax is inevitable, also because that witch has a strong connection to her…
The narrative flows well, accompanied by the funny letters that Nanny writes to Jason, even if it’s impossible to notice how the first half of the book is a set of adventures in some (weak) way linked together, more than an organic story from the beginning to the end. But when it comes to the point, there’s no shortage of exceptional characters. Lilith certainly stands out among the antagonists, of course, with a twist that I already knew in my second reading. On the other hand, I had a lot of fun noting the clues that Pratchett left here and there before the big revelation. Among the good guys, in addition to the protagonists, the legendary dwarf Casanunda, great Latin lover (!), makes his first appearance in the Discworld. And then there two beautiful and mysterious characters, namely Mrs. Gogol and Saturday (a kind of Baron Samedi) who, since the very first encounters with Granny and the others, prove to be complex and multifaceted, and in the grand finale they certainly manage to shine.
One thing to point out is how well the three witches work together. Granny and Nanny are so different yet so perfect paired with each other, with complementary talents. Nanny’s social skills in this book give rise to more than one well-thought-out scene, much to Granny’s disapproval (while she can’t tell a single joke about a crocodile sandwich). On the other hand, Granny shows off magical skills that go far beyond her famous headology!
And in all of this, Magrat comes out as a less powerful witch, yes (a wet hen, as Granny calls her), but with an absolutely satisfying story arc, given that in the book’s ending she takes the reins of the situation by ridiculing the Duc and becoming the protagonist of the story orchestrated by Lilith.
It’s clear that the first half of the book is practically something totally different from the second half, although clearly all the little adventures of the witches’ journey serve a bit to introduce Lilith, and also to introduce the themes of the book2. However, there’s no doubt that this causes the story to lose its organicity, also taking away space from a truly well-thought-out setting like Genua (and this is a shame). And also the final fight with Lilith is perhaps a bit disappointing, since in reality Mrs. Gogol is practically more important than her in the climax!
But what am I complaining about? Witches Abroad is a hilarious book to read, and when it gets to the point it does so using all of her characters very well. It’s the perfect way to continue with the adventures of the Lancre Witches, and to continue positioning the Discworld relative to the rest of the fantasy literature: firmly in the center, but making fun of everything else! And then, as in practically all of Terry Pratchett’s books, in this one too there are references to everything between literature3, film4, and even TV (with the Samedi Nuit Mort which is none other than the Saturday Night Dead instead of Live) and games5, and it’s a joy to read and discover them (although I guess I have recognized less than half of them)! Ciao!
PS: I also laughed a lot with the following joke: Oh, well. Just twist the first thing you can grab, as the High Priest said to the vestal virgin. This is the last line of a Discworld joke lost, alas, to posterity. Too bad, I’d love to know the whole joke!
1. It all ends with a duck pond.
2. And they also serve the purpose to create a lot of jokes. ‘I likes it out here,’ said Granny. ‘I LIKES IT OUT HERE, THANK YOU,’ she repeated. Granny Weatherwax’s approach to foreign tongues was to repeat herself loudly and slowly.
3. There are a million references to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, both with entire scenes and with small details like the following dialogue: “‘What some people need,’ said Magrat, […], ‘is a bit more heart.’ ‘What some people need,’ said Granny Weatherwax, […], ‘is a lot more brain.’ […] What I need, thought Nanny Ogg fervently, is a drink.”
4. For example, my beloved The Blues Brothers by John Landis! “Are you the taxgatherers, dear?’ ‘No, ma’am, we’re –‘ ‘– fairies,’ said Fairy Hedgehog quickly.” (with the tax gatherers rather than the police, and fairies rather than musicians).
5. “The witches flew along a maze of twisty little canyons, all alike.” This is a reference to the text-based adventure game ADVENT published by Crowther & Woods: “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.“