Everybody knows there’s no such thing as a female wizard. So when the wizard Drum Billet accidentally passes on his staff of power to an eighth daughter of an eighth son, a girl called Eskarina (Esk, for short), the misogynistic world of wizardry wants nothing to do with her.
Thankfully Granny Weatherwax, the Discworld’s most famous witch, has plenty of experience ignoring the status quo. With Granny’s help, Esk sneaks her way into the magical Unseen University and befriends apprentice wizard Simon.
But power is unpredictable, and these bright young students soon find themselves in a whole new dimension of trouble
I don’t do re-reads often – you know how it is, too many books, too few days left to live, but I’ve found that Terry Pratchett repays the effort. Re-reading him lets me see things I didn’t see the first time and, more interestingly, see things I did see the first time but which I now see differently. The text hasn’t changed but everything else has, including me. It’s one of those no one can step into the same river twice things. I can’t get back to the point where I knew as little of Discworld as I did when I read ‘Equal Rites for the first time. Judging from the publisher’s summary, I’m not the only one with the problem. The summary calls Granny Weatherwax ‘the Discworld’s most famous witch‘, a statement that wasn’t true of the Granny Weatherwax who appears in ‘Equal Rites’ but is true in the imaginations of everyone who has read all the Discworld books. Of course, the rest of the publisher’s summary isn’t very accurate either so who knows?
Anyway, the first and last time I read ‘Equal Rites’ was thirty-one years ago, in 1991 (Yes, I did have to look that up and yes, I do have a handwritten list – there was no GoodReads or LibraryThing back then -of what I read in the eighties and nineties). I’d only discovered Pratchett the year before. I’d been told repeatedly by the software engineers in the global computer company I worked for that Pratchett was a Must Read writer. I’d tried the first two books and wasn’t convinced. I tried ‘Equal Rites’ before giving up because I liked the title. By the end of it, I was hooked on Discworld and Terry Pratchett’s original, witty, knowing, angry, compassionate imagination.
I was delighted to find that, this time around, the book still sparkled, lit by a zestful imagination and flashes of quirky humour. I loved Esk’s passion for, well, everything. Her intoxication with the possibilities of the world and her own ability was wonderful. Granny Weatherwax was fascinating. She was definitely Granny but she wasn’t yet the impossible to phase and feared by all Granny of the later books but you could see she would get there. I liked that the visit to the Unseen University brought about almost as much growth in Granny as it did in Esks.
The plot wasn’t yet the full Pratchett either. The big themes were there and the story did a good job of belittling institutionalised misogyny while playfully debunking the enthusiasm of academics for pure research that can sometimes only be understood while it’s being explained by the person who did the research, leaving behind a comprehension that has a very short half-life and soon becomes more a wistful memory of what it had felt like to understand something complex and important, at least for a while. But the themes and the action weren’t as tightly woven together as they would be in later books and the resolution felt tentative, as if Pratchett was trying it on to see how it fitted. Which he probably was as this was only the third Discworld book,
What brought me back to ‘Equal Rites’ after all these decades, we the release of a new audiobook version of the story narrated by Indira Varma with Bill Nighy reading the footnotes, and Peter Serafinowicz as the voice of Death.
Indira Varma reads Pratchett the way the book has always sounded in my head, only more so. It is such a refreshing change from the dull delivery of Stephen Briggs that it woke my ears up. Take a listen to the SoundCloud link below and you’ll see what I mean. It describes the first time Ask and Granny Weatherwax ride a broomstick and Esk’s power pushes them so fast and so high that they’re in danger of flying over the edge of The Discworld. The descriptive text, which is actually quite impressive, is read straight but in full colour as it were. The humour isn’t lost but is delivered as a decorative flourish rather than a laboured punchline. Granny and Ask each have a distinctive voice that matches their character. It’s exactly what I want the narration of a Discworld book to be. I may have to listen to them all again now.
‘Equal Rites’ was the first book in my Summer of Witches reading challenge. I’m already looking forward to the next one. ‘Wyrd Sisters’.