Maskerade

by Terry Pratchett

Cover image

Series: Discworld #18
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 1995
Printing: February 2014
ISBN: 0-06-227552-6
Format: Mass market
Pages: 360

Buy at Powell's Books

Maskerade is the 18th book of the Discworld series, but you probably could start here. You'd miss the introduction of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, which might be a bit confusing, but I suspect you could pick it up as you went if you wanted. This is a sequel of sorts to Lords and Ladies, but not in a very immediate sense.

Granny is getting distracted and less interested in day-to-day witching in Lancre. This is not good; Granny is incredibly powerful, and bored and distracted witches can go to dark places. Nanny is concerned. Granny needs something to do, and their coven needs a third. It's not been the same since they lost their maiden member.

Nanny's solution to this problem is two-pronged. First, they'd had their eye on a local girl named Agnes, who had magic but who wasn't interested in being a witch. Perhaps it was time to recruit her anyway, even though she'd left Lancre for Ankh-Morpork. And second, Granny needs something to light a fire under her, something that will get her outraged and ready to engage with the world. Something like a cookbook of aphrodisiac recipes attributed to the Witch of Lancre.

Agnes, meanwhile, is auditioning for the opera. She's a sensible person, cursed her whole life by having a wonderful personality, but a part of her deep inside wants to be called Perdita X. Dream and have a dramatic life. Having a wonderful personality can be very frustrating, but no one in Lancre took either that desire or her name seriously. Perhaps the opera is somewhere where she can find the life she's looking for, along with another opportunity to try on the Perdita name. One thing she can do is sing; that's where all of her magic went.

The Ankh-Morpork opera is indeed dramatic. It's also losing an astounding amount of money for its new owner, who foolishly thought owning an opera would be a good retirement project after running a cheese business. And it's haunted by a ghost, a very tangible ghost who has started killing people.

I think this is my favorite Discworld novel to date (although with a caveat about the ending that I'll get to in a moment). It's certainly the one that had me laughing out loud the most. Agnes (including her Perdita personality aspect) shot to the top of my list of favorite Discworld characters, in part because I found her sensible personality so utterly relatable. She is fascinated by drama, she wants to be in the middle of it and let her inner Perdita goth character revel in it, and yet she cannot help being practical and unflappable even when surrounded by people who use far too many exclamation points. It's one thing to want drama in the abstract; it's quite another to be heedlessly dramatic in the moment, when there's an obviously reasonable thing to do instead. Pratchett writes this wonderfully.

The other half of the story follows Granny and Nanny, who are unstoppable forces of nature and a wonderful team. They have the sort of long-standing, unshakable adult friendship between very unlike people that's full of banter and minor irritations layered on top of a deep mutual understanding and respect. Once they decide to start investigating this supposed opera ghost, they divvy up the investigative work with hardly a word exchanged. Planning isn't necessary; they both know each other's strengths.

We've gotten a lot of Granny's skills in previous books. Maskerade gives Nanny a chance to show off her skills, and it's a delight. She effortlessly becomes the sort of friendly grandmother who blends in so well that no one questions why she's there, and thus manages to be in the middle of every important event. Granny watches and thinks and theorizes; Nanny simply gets into the middle of everything and talks to everyone until people tell her what she wants to know. There's no real doubt that the two of them are going to get to the bottom of anything they want to get to the bottom of, but watching how they get there is a delight.

I love how Pratchett handles that sort of magical power from a world-building perspective. Ankh-Morpork is the Big City, the center of political power in most of the Discworld books, and Granny and Nanny are from the boondocks. By convention, that means they should either be awed or confused by the city, or gain power in the city by transforming it in some way to match their area of power. This isn't how Pratchett writes witches at all. Their magic is in understanding people, and the people in Ankh-Morpork are just as much people as the people in Lancre. The differences of the city may warrant an occasional grumpy aside, but the witches are fully as capable of navigating the city as they are their home town.

Maskerade is, of course, a parody of opera and musicals, with Phantom of the Opera playing the central role in much the same way that Macbeth did in Wyrd Sisters. Agnes ends up doing the singing for a beautiful, thin actress named Christine, who can't sing at all despite being an opera star, uses a truly astonishing excess of exclamation points, and strategically faints at the first sign of danger. (And, despite all of this, is still likable in that way that it's impossible to be really upset at a puppy.) She is the special chosen focus of the ghost, whose murderous taunting is a direct parody of the Phantom. That was a sufficiently obvious reference that even I picked up on it, despite being familiar with Phantom of the Opera only via the soundtrack.

Apart from that, though, the references were lost on me, since I'm neither a musical nor an opera fan. That didn't hurt my enjoyment of the book in the slightest; in fact, I suspect it's part of why it's in my top tier of Discworld books. One of my complaints about Discworld to date is that Pratchett often overdoes the parody to the extent that it gets in the way of his own (excellent) characters and story. Maybe it's better to read Discworld novels where one doesn't recognize the material being parodied and thus doesn't keep getting distracted by references.

It's probably worth mentioning that Agnes is a large woman and there are several jokes about her weight in Maskerade. I think they're the good sort of jokes, about how absurd human bodies can be, not the mean sort? Pratchett never implies her weight is any sort of moral failing or something she should change; quite the contrary, Nanny considers it a sign of solid Lancre genes. But there is some fat discrimination in the opera itself, since one of the things Pratchett is commenting on is the switch from full-bodied female opera singers to thin actresses matching an idealized beauty standard. Christine is the latter, but she can't sing, and the solution is for Agnes to sing for her from behind, something that was also done in real opera. I'm not a good judge of how well this plot line was handled; be aware, going in, if this may bother you.

What did bother me was the ending, and more generally the degree to which Granny and Nanny felt comfortable making decisions about Agnes's life without consulting her or appearing to care what she thought of their conclusions. Pratchett seemed to be on their side, emphasizing how well they know people. But Agnes left Lancre and avoided the witches for a reason, and that reason is not honored in much the same way that Lancre refused to honor her desire to go by Perdita. This doesn't seem to be malicious, and Agnes herself is a little uncertain about her choice of identity, but it still rubbed me the wrong way. I felt like Agnes got steamrolled by both the other characters and by Pratchett, and it's the one thing about this book that I didn't like. Hopefully future Discworld books about these characters revisit Agnes's agency.

Overall, though, this was great, and a huge improvement over Interesting Times. I'm excited for the next witches book.

Followed in publication order by Feet of Clay, and later by Carpe Jugulum in the thematic sense.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-05-30

Last spun 2022-06-26 from thread modified 2022-06-05