Equal Rites by Sir Terry Pratchett

(mild spoilers)

Equal Rites is a mildly odd book in that the central premise, particularly as suggested by blurbs, of a girl accidentally being gifted a wizard’s power and seeking access to the traditionally masculine wizard’s university, only takes up a fairly small and late part of the story. Equal Rites – that’s equal rights between men and women, innit? Well, yes a bit, but Pratchett wanders off in other directions a lot. I’d suggest that to get the most from Equal Rites, a wise reader would regard this as mostly a coming of age for someone who doesn’t fit into the traditional roles.

Let’s go back to the set-up a little more. On the Disc, women learn witchcraft and men learn wizardry. That’s just how it is. One of the good signs of wizarding potential is being the eighth son of an eighth son and so when the dying wizard Drum Billet hears of one being born, he passes on his staff to the newborn infant – before he or the father have checked the baby’s downbelows. So it is that Eskarina Smith, first daughter of an eighth son, gets a wizard’s staff.

Unsurprisingly, it soon becomes clear that Esk has magical potential. Normally in the Ramtops (rural England meets Gont), that means becoming a witch. But she has the wrong instincts for that, which gets into a certain amount of trouble. She’s also the child that doesn’t get on with their siblings, and that repeats things they shouldn’t; she’s a little bit of a misfit for her family as much as she’s a little bit of a misfit for her seeming life goal.

For me, stories like these often turn a good deal on the adults around the out of place child. Too clever and the story doesn’t make sense; too stupid and the story feels very trying (which is not to attack the realities of those who’ve lived this story with adults stupid on the issue). Fortunately, Granny Weatherwax occupies a happy medium for me (even if she doesn’t feel all that much like the Granny of later Discworlds) and makes a good foil to some of the more stupid adults around. Or more accurately stupid on this issue. Granny is clearly highly intelligent. The wizards are clever in their own fields. Just neither of them ever felt the need to be intelligent on children. Hence Esk’s problems.

The parts of Equal Rites where Granny and Esk rub along with occasional bursts of friction are the best parts of the book. They are good foils for each other in that they’re rather similar – headstrong, keen-witted, mostly good-hearted – but want different things and don’t quite understand how or why the other wants and thinks what they do. There’s some fine scenes there, showing Pratchett’s comic and dramatic gifts.

Where his skill is less on display is the ending, which feels rushed and a bit disconnected from the main narrative. Equal Rites works more on the power of each scene than as a building narrative to begin with, but it felt like the ending’s scenario comes a bit from nowhere – and is overly quickly. I am of course dancing around potential spoilers but suffice to say, expect a bit of a tone change.

All in all, Equal Rites is a good read. It’s entertaining, with plenty of good lines, shrewd insights, and colourful characters. Just don’t be surprised if the story on the page isn’t always the one you might have been expecting to get.

4 thoughts on “Equal Rites by Sir Terry Pratchett

  1. This was my first ever Pratchett read! I remember seeing it in a charity shop, liking the pun of the title, and then cackling my way through it. What I don’t remember is most of the story, except for the beginning and the general plot. Your comment on it being strong with its individual scenes and not so much with the big picture does sound right, but it got me into Discworld and I still smile whenever I see it!

    Liked by 1 person

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