Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Wertzone Classics: Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

Returning to their home kingdom of Lancre after travelling across the Disc, witches Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax discover that a new coven of hip, young witches has arisen in their absence. Magrat is disconcerted to discover that plans for her marriage to King Verence are steaming ahead without her involvement, with guests arriving from all over. On top of those issues, an invasion of beings from another dimension is at hand. It falls to the witches of Lancre and an unlikely assortment of allies - an annoyed orangutan, a legion of ninja morris dancers and a terminally frisky dwarf in a wig - to rise to the occasion.

Lords and Ladies is intriguing as the first Discworld novel to rely heavily on pre-existing continuity, a point Terry Pratchett was so concerned about he includes a warning about it (and a quick recap of prior books) in the start of the novel. The book is the fourth in the "Witches" sub-series following on from Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad, but it also intersects and crosses over with the "Ankh-Morpork Wizards" sub-series, previously established in Moving Pictures and Reaper Man. Think of it as The Avengers of the Discworld Literary Universe, or something.

Those fairly moderate (and likely overstated) continuity concerns out of the way, Lords and Ladies is a fun romp which fairly effortlessly fits into the upper tier of Discworld novels. By this point in the series, Pratchett had moved on from satirising fantasy as a whole and was far more interested in examining the human condition through the idiosyncratic lens of the Discworld. However, he was fairly regularly being bombarded (or at least lightly shelled) by fan letters asking where the elves* were. The Disc had dwarfs, trolls, pixies and fairies after all, so elves should be around. Their only mention thusfar had been The Light Fantastic, where Twoflower mooned over elves as being beautiful and graceful and Rincewind reacted the same way as when someone says, "Well, say what you will but that Mr. Hitler had some good ideas." That idea had clearly been rattling around for a while before Pratchett finally decided to give it a good airing.

The modern epic fantasy idea of elves as graceful, noble beings was a somewhat unusual one when compared to folklore, where elves are presented more as mischievous tricksters, if not outright evil. Pratchett decided to tap that field of inspiration for his elves here, who as much more Aes Sidhe than noble Legolas, and all the more interesting for it. The Aes Sidhe - the elves of Irish mythology - are a fascinating study in cruelty and alieness, and Pratchett's exploration of them here in a fantasy context would remain unmatched until, arguably, Peadar Ó Guilín's recent and hugely enjoyable Call duology.

The novel is divided into two halves. The first is fairly familiar, with the witches dealing with more mundane concerns in Lancre, Magrat getting annoyed at finding out people are trying to arrange her life without asking her and Nanny and Granny trying to deal with the fact that they're not getting any younger and they are risk of being out to pasture by fresh, new blood (with some very odd ideas). This sequence feels slight but still funny, and quite clever (how Granny Weatherwax defeats the younger witch trying to take her down a notch is both), interspersed with a road trip as the Ankh-Morpork wizards travel to Lancre through a series of increasingly bizarre adventures, culminating in one of the funniest scenes in the entire series as their coach is held up by noted lowwayman Casanunda (here returning from Witches Abroad).

The second half of the novel, after the elves show up, abruptly shifts gears into the rather unexpected Die Hard with an Elfgeance as the Lancre regulars have to tool up and take down the elves with a gusto that Professor Hugo Dyson (a noted elf-hater who mocked his friend JRR Tolkien about them rather gleefully) would no doubt approve of. In fact, given Pratchett's general reluctance to use violence as the ultimate solution to problems, the transformation of the story into what is possibly the closest he gets to writing an all-out action novel is rather surprising, even moreso for how accomplished it is. Pratchett being Pratchett, he also has to throw in some clever references to quantum theory along the way, culminating in his unique solution to Schrodinger's Paradox.

Characterisation is solid throughout and Magrat gets fleshed out a lot more than in previous books, whilst Granny Weatherwax continues her evolution into arguably Pratchett's finest protagonist. The book also gives much-needed depth to Ridcully, whose character could formerly be defined as "blusteringly pompous," but here emerges as a smarter, shrewder and more romantic character than previously. There's also some subtle foreshadowing of later novels as Ponder Stibbons' experiences here set up his investigation of other-universe theory, leading to further shenanigans down the road. A slight crack here is the continued degeneration of the Bursar into mental instability and illness and it being played solely for laughs, which feels a bit obvious and risks becoming stale (Pratchett just about  maintains it here, but by Interesting Times the joke has worn thin).

In overall terms, Lords and Ladies (*****) emerges as one of the strongest books in the series, and the second part of a formidable one-two punch after Small Gods. Pratchett shows he can play a story more strongly for laughs and even action, and still craft something as entertaining and memorable as that earlier, slightly more serious book about the exploitation of religious faith. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. I previously reviewed the novel here.

* Throughout the Discworld series Pratchett uses the more grammatically correct "dwarfs" rather than Tolkienian "dwarves" for the plural of that species, but even he had to admit that "elfs" looks weird and went with Tollers on that one.

1 comment:

Thadlerian said...

Absolute classic, thoroughly enjoyable - this one calls for a reread. The scene with Magrat fighting the elves is one of the most chilling and memorable in all of Discworld, with a true sense of character payoff.