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Review 148: Carpe Jugulum

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett

In this book, we return to the small Ramtop country of Lancre, home to Granny Weatherwax, Gytha Ogg and Magrat Garlick. Picking up from where we left off, which is actually in Maskerade, which I haven’t reviewed here yet, Magrat is Queen now, with no time for witching. So the new Third Witch is Agnes Nitt (also known as Perdita, but only by her), a girl who is sensible, levelheaded and thinks quickly in a crisis. She is also a rather, shall we say, substantial girl (and lest you think I’m trying not to be mean, believe me – Agnes is meaner about her self than I can be), and as we all know there is inside every fat girl a thin girl and lots of chocolate. Well, Perdita is the thin girl, and Agnes is the chocolate.

But that’s not the main point of this tale. The main point is that vampyres have come to Lancre, invited by King Verence to attend the naming of his and Magrat’s daughter, Esmerelda Note Spelling of Lancre (well, when your grandmother managed to name your mother “Magrat” due to an uncertainty in consonant placement, one doesn’t take chances.) But what’s done is done. No doubt we will see little Spelly in future Discworld books.

I'd still rather see this than Twilight.

Once you have invited a vampire in, you are subject to its power. Of course, vampires know this. There are a lot of things that vampires know…. These vampyres have studied, they have prepared. They do not intend to make the mistakes their forefathers did – keeping lots of knick-knacks about that could be turned into holy symbols, leaving up flimsy, easily pulled-aside drapes, that sort of thing. These are modern vampyres, ones who know their place in the food chain – on top of it. They’re ready, and they have every intention of taking over Lancre.

They don’t want a killing floor, though. Indeed not, they simply want a herd. An… arrangement.

But there are the witches to contend with, especially Esme Weatherwax. And everyone knows about Granny Weatherwax….

If you read Lords and Ladies, or even my review of it, you can see there are some similarities. Evil, inhuman force comes to Lancre, wants to subjugate its subjects, and in the end are foiled by the indomitable Granny Weatherwax. And yes, there are similarities. But the differences are worth reading it for.

First of all, we get a better look at Perdita / Agnes Nitt. Yes, she’s the Third Witch, but she’s more at home being a witch than Magrat ever was. Perdita is two witches in one, and they don’t like each other very much – a volatile combination. And as the newcomer, Agnes has the unenviable role of being the stand-in for the reader. She gets a lot of explanation that seems redundant to loyal followers of the Discworld series, but I guess new readers have to come in somewhere.

Art by Zenzzen on DeiantArt

Secondly, we get to play around inside Granny Weatherwax’s head again, which is always fun. We see a reference to her sister, Lily Weatherwax whom we last saw in Witches Abroad, and her grandmother, Alison. It is implied that the Weatherwaxes have a definite dark streak to them, against which Granny must contend constantly. What bugged me about this book is that Granny isn’t quite herself – though I suppose it can be argued that she wasn’t meant to be. Confronted with immensely powerful vampyres in her country, and insulted by seeming not to have been invited to the young princess’ naming ceremony, Granny Weatherwax just… gives up. She believes she can’t beat them, and she doesn’t think anyone wants her around. This is a side of Granny that we haven’t really seen before, and it’s not a nice one.

She does recover, of course – that’s what Granny Weatherwax does. There’s no point in being a witch, really, if you can’t make the grand entrance and pop up just when everyone thinks you’re down.

Another really neat thing about this book is that we finally get to revisit the Omnians, who were introduced as a fanatical theocratic people in Small Gods. Time has tempered the Omnians, who are now the Discworld equivalent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. An Omnian missionary has come to Lancre, and he gets caught up in the battle against the vampires as well, and it turns out that, well, the Omnians aren’t that bad anymore. Since the Prophet Brutha gave them permission to think for themselves, the Church has schismed so many times that it finally comes down to a schism in one member, Brother Oats. Like Agnes, he’s of two minds about the world, and neither of them really get along.

So yes, there’s not a whole lot that’s really new in this book, but since I’m a hard-core Pratchett addict, I have to recommend it.

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“There’s no greys, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
– Granny Weatherwax, Carpe Jugulum
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Review 133: The Twilight Watch

The Twilight Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

This review is of no relevance to the cause of the Light. – The Night Watch

This review is of no relevance to the cause of the Dark. – The Day Watch

This world is one that is riddled with possibilities. Even though Lukyanenko has been pretty single-minded in his themes throughout the trilogy, there’s a lot to work with here. We have two distinct groups of Others, the Light and the Dark, with different character classes, powers, abilities, levels and ambitions. If anyone wanted to write fan fiction or even a role-playing game based on the world of the Night Watch series, they would be able to let their imaginations roam free. It’s an open-ended universe, rife with possibility.

So why isn’t it is popular worldwide as, say, Harry Potter? Probably because it’s more grown-up than the Potter series, and is therefore less attractive.

Sure, Draco turned out to be faintly ambiguous, but Crabbe and Goyle? They're just bad apples.

Don’t get me wrong – I liked Harry Potter. But for all its merits, it deals with human-level issues: friendship, family, duty, loyalty. And those are all well and good, and many a great story has been told from those elements. The Night Watch series, on the other hand, deals with harder, less everyday topics, such as the nature of freedom, and the fundamental differences between Good and Evil, if there is any difference at all. The themes in these books are headier, and it’s not as easy to look at a Light Other like Anton Gorodetsky and say, “I want to be like him.” It’s also hard to look at a Dark Other like the vampire Kostya and say, “Oooh, I hate him.”

This is because these characters are, more or less, human. The problem with humans is that their motives aren’t always clear, and Lukyanenko doesn’t tell us everything we need to know to judge them properly. With the exception of Anton, who is a first-person narrator, we don’t get into their heads, and so can’t completely understand why they do what they do.

In this volume we are introduced to some new players, some grand plots and some terrible secrets. There is an Other out there who has knowledge that everyone thought was merely a myth: how to turn an ordinary human into an Other. The ramifications of such power are immense – there are few Others in the world as it is, and they hardly get along. To create new Others at will would mean chaos, death and destruction. All the Others’ forces are sent out to find this mysterious person. The Night Watch, the Day Watch and the Inquisition are in search of the impossible.

Anton Gorodetsky, of course, is on the front lines of this, searching for leads in a Moscow apartment complex. What he finds there isn’t quite the secret he thought it was, but it is something he never expected.

How about some free-market capitalism, Scarecrow?

In the second story of the volume, he meets an ancient witch, Arina, who may have single-handedly destroyed the Soviet Union’s potential for greatness. In his search to defeat her, he learns the true nature of the Others, what gives them their power and how they truly interact with the world around them.

And in the third story, the Fuaran has been found – the mythological text with the spell to convert humans to Others – and it will be used in a truly novel manner. But the Other behind the plan that could tip the world into supernatural anarchy is the last person Anton would have ever expected….

As with the other volumes, this one blurs the line between good and evil. It tells us what we already know, but don’t really want to admit: that good people can do evil things – start a bloody revolution, for example, or try to brainwash thousands of people – and that evil people can do good – save children from wolves, or avert a chaotic and terrible future. People do things for reasons that are sometimes known only to themselves, not out of a higher allegiance to the abstract concepts of “good” and “evil,” but for reasons that are intensely personal.

There are, however, times when labels work just fine.

It is something to be remembered. We have a habit of idolizing and demonizing people in this world, elevating them to paragons of virtue or sin, and ascribing motives to them that we think they acted by. But that doesn’t work. Even to the end, Anton believes he knows why the holder of the Fuaran wants to convert people into Others – to raise an army and control the world – but he’s so very, very wrong. The true reason is much more personal and, oddly, much more human than that.

That is probably the best lesson to be taken from these books. “Good” and “Evil” are tags that we affix to people because it saves us the effort of thinking about them. Behind every act, however, is a personal reason that defies such simplistic labeling. Every saint, every monster, is only human. Just like us. I don’t know if knowing that makes the world better or worse, but it at least makes it a little more familiar.

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“We weren’t meant to fly.
All we can do is try not to fall.”
– from The Twilight Watch

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Review 119: Wyrd Sisters

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

A king is killed, usurped by a weak man and his overbearing wife.

A ghost haunts the castle, waiting for his son to come and avenge him.

On the highlands, three Witches hold their meeting, plotting the future of the kingdom.

I think Granny would not appreciate this image....

Sound familiar? It should. These are some of the most enduring tropes of English literature, and they’re all thanks to a singular playwright. Wyrd Sisters is Terry Pratchett’s tribute to some of the blood and gore and guts, tragedies and twists of Shakespeare’s great plays.

In fact, this book encapsulates my three favorite Shakespearean works – Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. Yes, they’re all tragedies, but that shouldn’t surprise any of you by now. They plumb the depths of humanity to try to find glimmers of hope and bravery and redemption, and everyone usually ends up dead, but dead with a true sense of purpose. In this book we have, respectively, a king murdered by his own family, a woman who pulls the strings of the usurper, and a bloody great storm.

Anyone have some Purell?

Verence, the king of Lancre, has been assassinated. An accident, everyone says. He tripped and fell down the stairs, landing on his own dagger. Funny, that. But the new ruler of Lancre, Felmet, is not so steady in his convictions. He sees the blood on his hands, although he didn’t do it. He’s absolutely sure he didn’t do the deed. Anyone who says he did do it is likely to be shorter by a foot or so by morning. And his wife wasn’t there either. She didn’t hand him the knife. The point is that Verence is dead, long live the King, and now everyone can enjoy the easy life of a royal couple.

However, as so often happens in these things, complications arose. The dead king isn’t allowed to go away. He is confined to unlife as a ghost, unable to contact or interact with the world of the living – except in very small, nearly unnoticeable ways. As his murderers rule over his kingdom, Verence exercises his ectoplasm and plots a way to bring Felmet down. The king’s infant son was stolen after the assassination, you see – brought by a dying man to the home of one of Lancres witches, where he passed the infant to the three women there, and begged them to care for it.

Huh. Actors.

They did what some people would think would be the exact opposite – they gave the child to some traveling actors. As alarming as that might seem, they thought that a traveling troupe would be a much better place for a child to grow up than with three of the greatest witches of Lancre.

And that would seem to be the end of it, really. The king is dead, with no one to contradict the original version of his death. The infant son of the king is stolen, never to be seen again. By all rights, the kingdom should move on. Assassination, of course, is perfectly natural in Royal circles, happens all the time. The kingdom shouldn’t even blink.

But it does. Not only does the kingdom blink, it is furious. Not the people, mind you. The people barely notice a new king, except for the parties and the slight increase in executions. The Kingdom. As a body is an amalgam of cells, a Kingdom is the whole of its people and history. Felmet hates the new kingdom he has acquired, with its gorges and trees and people you couldn’t bully no matter how hard you tried. He hates the Kingdom, and the Kingdom hates him for it. A Kingdom, you see, is like a dog. It doesn’t care if its master is a good man or an evil man, so long as he cares for the dog. Felmet actively detested the land and its people, and in return the larger entity that was The Kingdom hated him right back.

In the meantime, Felmet’s Fool, formerly the Fool to Verence, is showing him how words have power, and how that power could help break the animal kingdom he ruled. Cutting the trees down, for example, might be called “horrible” or “terrible” by the people – and the kingdom – of Lancre. But call it, “Planned deforestation for industry growth,” and that’s a whole new story.

"Senior citizen"

Words have power, Felmet learns. The Fool eventually goes on to demonstrate the true power of words to the king.

Liar. Usurper. Murderer.

Words like that have a wondrous effect.

And then there are the Witches, who are a threat to Flemet, in his own mind. He can’t kill them, he can’t torture them. But he can change how people think about them, and so he decides that a play is the way to go….

It gets a little complicated after that, but rest assured, it’s a kicker. Felmet is insane, and his wife is worse. Their plan to destroy the witches of Lancre goes beyond what the Puritans of Massachusetts could ever have come up with – altering their very natures by altering perceptions. And fate sticks her fingers in all over the place, as the Witches try to restore a true leader to Lancre – even if the true leader doesn’t even know who he is.

Oh, what Shakespeare could have done with Granny....

Not only does this book showcase one of Terry’s best characters – Granny Weatherwax – but it takes an interesting look at the way we can alter our perception of things merely by altering what we call a thing. Words shape the world, whether we want them to or not, and the right word in the right ear can shift the balances of history. As with so many of his other books, Terry gives us a profound philosophical insight and shows it to us as something we knew all along.

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“Oh, obvious,” said Granny. “I’ll grant you it’s obvious. Trouble is, just because things are obvious doesn’t mean they’re true.”
Granny Weatherwax, Wyrd Sisters

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Review 40: Lords and Ladies


Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

Elves.

When you think of elves, what do you think of? The tall, fair-skinned beings of Tolkien’s Middle Earth? The ebony warriors from Dungeons & Dragons? Delicious cookies?

Not on Discworld. On Discworld, the Elves are folk of legend, and dark legend at that. People there remember the elves, although not very well. They remember through old wives’ tales, about leaving milk for the fairies and not going near the standing stones. Ask someone in the kingdom of Lancre, and they’ll think of elves as you and I think of elves – pretty, wonderful, magical…

Ask Granny Weatherwax and she’ll tell you the truth – that the Elves are not of this world, and don’t belong here either. She’ll tell you that when the barriers of the worlds grow thin, when the crop circles start to show up, the elves will be waiting, readying themselves to come back. For theirs is a parasite universe, a land of ice, and they desire ours for their… entertainment.

Such is the setup for Lords and Ladies, another one of Pratchett’s darker Discworld books. There is still his customary humor, of course, which would be sorely missed were it absent. But it’s also got a philosophical edge to it, as many of his books of this period do. It’s about faith in stories, and knowing the difference between what is true and what you wish were true.

It’s circle time again, where crop circles are appearing everywhere, and the parallel and parasite universes are coming into closer contact, and Granny Weatherwax knows that she is going to die.

Or is she? She can’t be sure….

Esme Weatherwax is the consummate witch. Tall, thin and bony, she’s the kind of woman who can wear the pointy black hat of a witch and dare you to think she’s anything else. She’s strong of mind, never afraid to speak the truth, the best witch in Lancre and not slow in admitting it. But many years ago, she was a headstrong young girl who was offered power by a mysterious woman in red who stood in the center of a stone circle. The woman promised power and freedom, but could not leave the circle. Rather than take the easy way to witchcraft, Granny worked, learned, and grew old. Which is always for the best.

As is the case with many Pratchett books, there are multiple plots that all center around the Elves and their newest attempt to gain the Discworld as their own world. Magrat Garlick, the third witch (because there must always be three) is going to marry Verence, the king of Lancre and a former Fool. Mustrum Ridcully, the Archchancellor of the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork, is attending the wedding and at the same time remembering his days in Lancre chasing after the headstrong young girl who grew up to become Esme Weatherwax. And Granny herself is remembering things that happened to all possible Esme Weatherwaxes, and for someone as sure of herself as she is, is having a serious identity problem.

Something needs to be said here about the three witches of Lancre, recurring characters as they are in all of the Witches books of the series. Normally this would be done chronologically, upon reviewing the first book in which they appeared, but I want to do it now. Besides, I haven’t read Equal Rites in a long time, but it’s on my list.

Granny is as I have said – the unofficial chief witch of the region, who has attained the status of being almost mythical in the village of Bad Ass. She is feared and revered, but only because she is always who she is.

Nanny (Gytha) Ogg is Esme’s polar opposite. She has a face like an apple left in the sun too long, her youth is filled with enough tawdry encounters to make a fraternity lose its breath, and her fondness for bawdy tunes (such as the ever-immortal Hedgehog song) has made her a figure of legend. But like any witch, Gytha is not to be underestimated. She can think faster than most anyone, and do so around corners. She’s the grounding influence for Esme when Esme gets too high on herself, and while being fearsome in her own right, she is one of the more approachable witches Lancre has to offer.

And then there is Magrat Garlick, the third witch. She is the soppy one, the romantic one, the one with the collection of occult jewelry and a library in her cottage. She’s the youngest, the least experienced, but not without potential. And while the other two witches may treat her like an ignorant stripling, they only do so because that’s how you become a witch – by learning things, not by being told things.

But now Magrat is going to be Queen, and there are only the two witches. And the elves are coming….

This is, as I have said, a darker book. We get an interesting look into Granny Weatherwax’s psyche – who she is, what she fears – and it’s a little chilling. The reader is used to the utterly unflappable Granny Weatherwax, so to see her, well, flapped is kind of disturbing. At the same time, though, it makes her more human than before, which she needs to be if she is to defeat the elves.

This book also offers a good look into the human need for fantasy. The elves anchor themselves to the Discworld by belief – if enough people want the elves to come, then they will. But the longer they stay away, the more time we get without them, the more they become what we think they are. Stories. Myths. Cute magical critters who are to be watched, but not necessarily feared.

We need our stories to get us through the “iron times.” Yes, we need elves, to help us escape from our lives from time to time, just as we need witches and wizards and gods. But we don’t need them here. Here, in the real world, we have only ourselves to count on, and we need to be strong enough to do that. Stories are good, in their place. But never mistake a story for the real thing.

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‘But all them things exist,’ said Nanny Ogg.
‘That’s no call to go around believing in them. It only encourages ’em.’
– from Lords and Ladies
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