Hindsight is a unique perspective; it makes predilection seem easy. But based on The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, who would have thought that Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books would begin appearing with such regularity and increasing popularity? Probably the same number who said it wouldn’t. (I’d be curious what Sir Terry thought.) Regardless, looking back we can see that for as fun and funny as the first two novels are, Equal Rites, the third Discworld book, is where the series really starts to gain traction. Pratchett seeming to realize the potential of the Disc, the novel’s exploration of a social theme (in this case, gender) through a sustained and humorous (and sustainably humorous) narrative became the trademark of the series.
Equal Rites is the story of Eskarina Smith. Eighth son—err, daughter—to an eighth son, her births sees a visitor, the aged wizard Drum Billet, come knocking to pass on his staff of magic before dying. Without a care to the sex of the child, he enchants the staff to obey only the newborn child before DEATH takes him peacefully away. Beyond the power of Esk’s father and local witch Granny Weatherwax to tame, the rune-covered staff cannot be destroyed. So they hide it. But by the time Esk has reached her eighth year, it’s obvious there is something special about her. So her father sends her to study with Weatherwax to become a witch. Eventually the staff intervenes, and before Esk knows it, she and Granny Weatherwax are off on a perilous journey to Ankh-Morpork to see she receives a proper wizard’s education. Trouble is, there have only ever been male students at the Unseen University…
Eskarina Smith is everything one could want in a plucky young heroine. Intelligent and headstrong—often too much for her own good, she tromps and traipses her way around the Disc, from her village of Bad Ass all the way to Ankh-Morpork, upsetting convention everywhere she goes. A wonderful foil to the delightfully cratchety Granny Weatherwax, the interaction between the two is perhaps the strongest part of the book. Full of color, Pratchett gets the reader to cheer for both as they confront the almighty wizards at Unseen University.
The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic a hodge-podge of fantasy cliches—humorously satirized but a hodge-podge nonetheless, Equal Rites sees Pratchett more focused. Esk’s story is developed nicely from beginning to end in smooth, consistent fashion. The humor likewise more restrained, the novel also sees Pratchett digging a little deeper, a little more subtly into his bag of tricks. Not noticeably more or less funny than any other Discworld novel, there remains, however, a greater reliance on situational comedy. Playing off the stereotypes of witches and wizards, well, that’s just the frosting and cherries on the cake.
As would become the norm in Discword novels to follow, Pratchett is able to work his humor in mature, witty, and occasionally profound fashion into the theme of the novel. Gender and gender equality not easy subjects for a man to write about these days, Pratchett does it with full aplomb, striking a balance that is difficult to take issue with. The ending of the novel predictable, it is therefore the manner in which the idea is tackled and developed that provides the meatiest content.
In the end, Equal Rites sees the Discworld series begin to fulfill its potential. A slower paced, more thoughtful novel (relative to other Discworld novels, of course), Pratchett takes his time developing Esk’s character, as well the manner in which gender is treated on the Disc. Relying upon stereotypes of witches and wizards (too highly humorous effect), the author likewise seems to borrow a little something from Le Guin; a particular scene involving an eagle appears an open tribute to A Wizard of Earthsea. I don’t believe the manner in which Tehanu echoes Equal Rites was intentional, but there nevertheless seems some reciprocity, Granny Weatherwax the lynch pin. And if I had to guess, I’d say there is more than a pinch or two of JackVance in the Zoons, but I will let the reader decide. Regardless, fans of the Disc won’t be disappointed with the beginning of the Witches sub-series.