Witches Abroad

by Terry Pratchett

Cover image

Series: Discworld #12
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 1991
Printing: February 2008
ISBN: 0-06-102061-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 350

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Witches Abroad is the twelfth book in the Discworld series, but there's no strong reason why you couldn't start here. It's the second book about the three witches (Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick), following Wyrd Sisters, and the third book about Granny Weatherwax, but it doesn't assume any knowledge of the previous books or of Discworld in general.

Desiderata Hollow is dying. This is not a surprise; she's known for a long time exactly when she was going to die, and that time has come. She's not particularly bothered by it, but it does pose one difficult problem. She's a fairy godmother, as well as a witch, and she's balancing another fairy godmother because they come in pairs. With her dead, Lilith seems likely to win their long struggle, and that would be a bad thing. She needs to pass her wand on to a successor, but she wasn't the planning sort. At least she claims; this comment of hers turns out to hide an elegant bit of manipulation that leaves her wand in the hands of Magrat and sends the three witches on their way to the city of Genua to confront Lilith.

There are two halves to Witches Abroad. The first half is the setup described above and their trip across Discworld. The second half is a sort of retelling of Cinderella, as foreshadowed early on by Desiderata. But the whole book is about stories and story shapes and their head-on collisions with the practical confidence of Nanny Ogg and the endless stubbornness of Granny Weatherwax.

I think the three witches are one of Pratchett's best inventions, and Granny Weatherwax the best of the three. She has many of the characteristics that would normally relegate her to a supporting mentor figure: older, very knowledgeable, remarkably good at getting her way and at manipulating situations, and not particularly interested in going on adventures. But Pratchett turns this on end at every opportunity. Granny Weatherwax doesn't act like a mentor at all: she doesn't explain things to Magrat, or anyone else; she's almost constantly bickering with the other witches; and she's a fount of irritated and exasperated opinions about the world. She's one of the best irascibly competent characters in fiction, and she steals every scene she's in, refusing to become a supporting character and staying at the center of the story, despite not being a viewpoint character. (Pratchett wisely keeps her out of the viewpoint role for most of the story, since much of her knowledge and "headology" would be less effective if the reader knew what she was thinking.)

The dynamics between the three witches are the best part of this book, and I love all three of them. But I'm also a sucker for fractured fairy tales in general, and Witches Abroad is full of them. Their opponent loves stories and has gathered most of her power from reinforcing and manipulating stories, which means that the density of random stories keeps increasing as they approach Genua. That provides numerous opportunities for the witches to stumble through, analyze, take apart, twist, or untwist numerous familiar stories, ranging from Red Riding Hood to Sleeping Beauty. Pratchett keeps things moving right along, not belaboring connections and not explaining too much, which makes it very easy to keep turning pages.

The story does get a bit slower in Genua. There's quite a bit of scene-setting and figuring things out, and while Pratchett maintains the steady stream of humor, it isn't quite as compelling without the ever-changing context. He introduces a bit of voodoo magic, which I found to be the least interesting of the multiple styles of magic that show up here. But there are some absolutely brilliant bits with Nanny Ogg's cat, a wonderfully annoyed Cinderella, and an inversion of the traditional story that kept surprising me. I thought the ending was a bit of an anticlimax, but it does fit the nature of the characters.

Despite a few plot short-comings, this is my favorite Discworld book up to this point in the series. Definitely recommended, and not a horrible starting point.

Followed by Small Gods in the chronological sense and (later) by Lords and Ladies in the plot sense.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-02-25

Last modified and spun 2017-04-28