Witches Abroad is the 12th novel in Terry Pratchett’s comic fantasy Discworld series, and the third in the “Witches” subset of books. Desiderata Hollow knows that soon she will pass on. She’s a witch. Witches are good at knowing things like this. The problem is, she’s also a fairy godmother to a girl far across the Disc in a land called Genua, whose destiny is being meddled with. She passes her wand onto Magrat Garlick, one of the witches of in the kingdom of Lancre, with express instructions to travel to Genua to help this girl, and to not allow the other witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg to help her (knowing full well that those two will do the exact opposite of what is asked of them). Their objective vague and their destination clear, the trio commence their long journey to Genua.
While I’ve enjoyed each book about about the Witches thus far, I think this book is where Pratchett really hits his stride in terms of how he writes them. It has been a couple of years since I read Wyrd Sisters, but I feel the dynamic between Granny, Nanny, and Magrat—a play on the Triple Goddess (Crone, Mother, and Maiden respectively)—introduced in that book was a lot more refined in this novel. The ways they cooperate and grate against one another were both humorous and dramatically compelling, each of their personalities differing so wildly it’s a marvel they ever get along, yet when they do it simply works.
Though made to share the narrative spotlight with the other two, Granny Weatherwax continues to be the backbone of their little coven in terms of both sheer will and ability. When I first started the novel, however, I did have some misgivings about her characterization. She’s stubborn, curmudgeonly, and willful as usual, but early on came across most as constantly indignant in a way that I didn’t like. Her particular displeasure at having to deal with “foreigners” on their travels I found more irksome as well. As the story progressed, she appreciably loosened up some of her bad attitude about traveling, however, and let her good nature shine through when people needed it most.
I feel I understand her better as a character after reading this novel than I ever have before. She doesn’t just stubbornly believe she knows best all of the time (though this certainly is the case), but she has an acute sense of what’s Right and what’s Wrong. This not only helps her resolve a lot of situations, but actually stops her from tapping into all of the power she is truly capable of. By all accounts it seems she could possibly be one of the most powerful magic wielders on the Disc, yet refrains from using it because more often than not magic is an easy solution to what you want, but does not give you what you truly need.
I love that this nature is somehow balanced with legitimate character weakness, with loosening up on their journey being something she gradually has to learn. She also frequently comes up against situations where she is clearly out of her element, and while she puts up a front to make it appear that is not the case, her unfamiliarity is transparent to the reader. It’s also heavily suggested that she wishes she could be as bad as her powers would allow he to be, but knowing so acutely what is the right thing to do stops her.
While the book has a lot of fun with tourism clichés for a good portion of the story as the witches make their way across the Disc, what I was most intrigued by was how it played with fairy tales. A conceit of the story is how, like many things in this fantasy world, Stories have a will of their own and can be manipulated by those with the knowledge. This is their explanation for why similar folk tales manifest in different places in the world. The villain of the tale, another fairy godmother named Lilith, has been manipulating stories to her own benefit, as the orchestrator of it all. As such, Genua has become a dystopian city where all denizens must rigorously adhere to familiar tropes and archetypes or face harsh reprisal. I loved this formulation of oppression, where forcing things to fit a fairy tale ideal is the source of people’s unhappiness.
In true Discworld fashion, Pratchett makes otherwise straightforward aspects of fantasy magic more complex in a compelling way. In this story this is most noticeably done with the transformation of animals into human/human-like beings, which is not at all straightforward. Coming up against the big bad wolf on their journey was the most affecting to me, as Granny does not see the creature as something to be feared, but a poor wretch. He has the body of a wolf but, by means of magic, has been made to believe he is human. As a result his existence is that of suffering, with a warped body and an irreparably confused mind. Granny’s dealing with this situation reveals the truth of her character behind her more abrasive exterior.
The only shortcoming I really found with this book as its treatment of Magrat. Her and Granny butt heads a lot, and while this serves as a vehicle for explaining Granny’s perspective on the world (since Magrat criticizes how little she actually uses magic) I think the character ultimately got short-changed. It was Desiderata’s intention for the entire trio to go all along, but Magrat is the one who inherited the wand and I wish she’d had more of an arc. She spends much of the book rather clueless about what to do, how to even use the wand, and continually belittled for being a “wet hen” by nature. I wish she’d had more of a moment to overcome these shortcomings on her own and grow a little, but it never really happens.
I’m twelve books in, but it’s hard not to love each Discworld novel I read. Certain books really feel to me like Pratchett hits a certain stride with a character or idea however, and Witches Abroad was that for me and the Witches. The previous two books were great in their own ways, but each felt like they were still feeling things out. This book really felt like both Granny Weatherwax’s characterization (a clear focal character in the series) and the dynamic of the witches as a trio working together truly coalesced. This novel is also, unsurprisingly, hilarious and had me laughing out loud long enough at one point that I needed to put it down for a minute. Alongside this it is possessed of some great drama and humanity, demonstrating that these books are almost always about more than just having a laugh.
My Rating: 4 out of 5
Featured image is Wyrd Sisters © Paul Kidby