We’ve arrived at Genua, and it’s time to drink a lot of rum with bananas in. Let’s get up to no good with some Witches Abroad.
The witches make it to the gate of Genua (after accidentally landing in a swamp that Magrat thought was a field), but they are stopped at the gates for not being scrubbed up enough. Nanny insists that they are cleaning staff and gets them through. They try to get accommodation at a local inn, but everything is booked up for Mardi Gras, and they don’t have witches around these parts, so no one is impressed with Granny’s usual demands. Magrat and Granny have another spat in a local tavern and the trio adjourn to a stable for the night. Magrat gets up at dawn and decides she should handle this problem herself, leaving Nanny and Granny to follow Desiderata’s instructions. Nanny gets up directly after her and makes for the palace. Granny winds up at a public execution (someone stole) and encounters her first sign of Genua witchcraft: figures who appear to be women in veils. They climb into a carriage and Granny follows. Magrat meets the young woman she’s meant to be fairy-godmothering, Ella. Nanny heads into the palace and meets a woman named Mrs. Pleasant, and they get along swimmingly. Mrs. Pleasant tells her that the walls have ears and takes her out to the streets where she samples all the incredible food Genua has to offer. When she turns her head she finds Mrs. Pleasant has disappeared.
Nanny does some thinking and figures she’s been led where she needs to go. She notices a tent nearby with something bubbling in front inside a pot, helps herself to a bowl as she sees other folks doing, then steps inside and sits next to the owner of said tent: Erzulie Gogol. They gamely size each other up and compare magics, and then Esme shows up too. They meet her cockerel Legba, and then Mrs. Gogol takes them back to her house. Magrat sits down for tea with Ella, who explains to her that she’s not going to marry Genua’s prince or go to the ball, but her other godmother has insisted that she must. Everyone who has a fairy godmother has two: a good one and a bad one. But the other godmother and Magrat have both insisted they are the good ones. Nanny and Granny meet Mrs. Gogol’s zombie, a fellow who goes by the name Saturday. Mrs. Gogol tells them that the changes to their city occurred when their old Baron was murdered by the Duc. The Baron had a daughter who is being raised and kept by the Duc and his magical protector, so that she’ll marry him and his claim as ruler of the city will be legitimized.
In discussing who is protecting the Duc, Granny’s hat falls into the swamp and is snapped up by an alligator. Mrs. Gogol tells Saturday to fetch it, but Granny won’t allow even a dead man to risk himself. Mrs. Gogol has Saturday give Granny her best hat, and Esme finally admits that the witch causing all the trouble is her sister, Lily. Magrat is talking to Ella about her life in Genua, and the Sisters who watch her, and how she doesn’t want to go to the ball but suspects she’ll be forced to marry the Duc no matter what she wants. Nanny and Granny arrive to retrieve Magrat, and they run into the Sisters, who turn out to be transformed snakes. They escape, and Granny explains how her sister is feeding people into stories, making herself the ringmaster of a particularly gruesome circus. They form a plan: Nanny goes to the coachman house and begins drinking rum with the lot of them until they’re wasted; Magrat goes to find Ella’s wedding dress and rip it to shreds; the witches all meet in front of the coach and Magrat uses the wand to turn it into the pumpkin. Plan executed and story ruined, they decide to head to Mardi Gras.
The trouble is, Granny’s sister (who goes by Lillith now), isn’t that easily put off. As the witches join the celebration, Granny is worried—the story isn’t right and they fixed the problem too easily. She insists they go back, and they find Ella in a pumpkin carriage, drawn by two rats turned into horses and two mice turned into coachmen, on her way to the ball. Nanny suggests that they turn Greebo into a human for their plan, and he steps out in front of rat horses and mice coachmen as a cat human, and stop everyone in their tracks. The trio argue about how they should confront Lillith, and Granny decides that the only way forward is to send Magrat to the ball in Ella’s place, with Greebo as her coachman. She enters the ball (possessed of some of Granny’s confidence) while Nanny and Granny look around the palace. They find the Duc’s room and finally deduce his part in all of this—Esme realizes that her sister is combining more than one story in this set up. A rude ball invitee takes Nanny for a servant and demands to be shown the powder room; Granny makes her pass out so Nanny can steal her dress.
We finally arrive at Genua and get a feel for this New Orleans/Magic Kingdom mashup that Pratchett has created. Having been somewhat disappointed with how Pyramids did a Discworld-ed version of Egypt, this attempt to stretch out beyond Britain and “classical” histories, as they are often termed, works far better to my mind. Maybe it’s because New Orleans is a place you can currently visit and Ancient Egypt is sadly not? Maybe it’s just down to being an even more experienced writer who keeps honing how he prefers to tell these stories. This is still coming from my perspective as a white person, commenting on the work of another white person, so obviously I’m bound to miss things in the rendering that might not work. But there’s a canniness to how Pratchett approaches Genua, starting with the discussion on how the new city lays over the old one: “The new one might not like the presence of the old one, but it couldn’t quite ever do without it. Someone, somewhere, has to do the cooking.”
It’s such a perfectly scathing commentary on everything from imperialism to its more commonplace contemporary cousin (gentrification) that it marks the city differently. There’s a lot of respect for the culture, the history, and of course the cooking that you find in New Orleans, and it helps pull the whole book together in a way that Pyramids doesn’t manage. As with many ideas you find in Discworld books, Pratchett has been playing around with these ideas for a bit—Baron Samedi has popped up before (around Death, of course), but now he’s finally found a place to make him a character within a story. It’s not the Samedi of Haitian Vodou religion by any means, as combining this location and culture with a fairy tale leads to a trope smash that alters the portrayal. I can understand if that ruins things for some readers, though, as accurate portrayals of Vodou that are rooted in its culture are harder to locate in fantasy narratives at this point in time.
I do appreciate that some familiarity with the figure gives you a great big hint in this narrative, though. Once the zombie announces himself to be “Saturday” and Mrs. Gogol talks of the city’s old baron being murdered, it’s not hard to put two and two together. There’s also Legba, who she says is a dark and dangerous spirit before passing it off more lightly… but of course, Legba is a crossroads spirit of the Vodou religion. The meeting of Mrs. Gogol and Nanny Ogg is wonderfully satisfying if you’re a fan of the “two experts meeting with suspicion and ending in mutual respect” sort of scene, which I love. But I wish a bit more of the narrative centered on Mrs. Gogol because she’s a riveting presence in the book. (Also, now I really want some gumbo.)
Also, the reframing of a wicked stepmother or fairy godmother figure as a “ringmaster” is maybe one of my favorite ideas this book achieves. Granny is using it to explain what her sister gets out of this gambit, and it’s effective as metaphors go, but there’s something particularly satisfying about taking roles that women are relegated to for the crime of simply being female (or worse, being female and old), and instead centering it on the idea of a genderless figure who appears to have mastery over an entire circus of delights. Ringmasters are sinister from a certain angle, when you think about it.
There’s something just a little heartbreaking about Magrat’s desire for the wedding dress when she goes to rip it up for Ella’s sake. It’s not the desire for weddings in particular, but more a real fantasy I’d imagine most people have in one form or another: a moment when you feel special, but more importantly, when you feel that you deserve to be special, and everything magically fits. A moment when you feel beautiful and content and capable, which are things that Magrat never really feels at all. I want that for her, and for everyone, really.
Have a beautiful, content, and capable day.
Asides and little thoughts:
- There’s a footnote about racism not being an issue on the Discworld on account of speciesism, which is a rather common way of handling social issues in fantasy—and for many authors I’m not inclined to give them that leeway. Pratchett is one of the few exceptions for me because satire demands a certain level of remove to be effective, and also because his stances on these matters are abundantly clear in his writing. He’s not using allegory to sidestep having to say anything meaningful or difficult within his work.
- Nanny Ogg likes cooking provided that someone else chops the vegetables and washes up afterward, and I know that sounds like she just doesn’t want to do the more work-y parts, but I’m also like this and I’m pretty sure it’s an ADHD thing on my end. (Certain parts of the task keep me moving, other ones bring me to a standstill.) Maybe Gytha has it too.
- “That’s the biggest cock I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a few in my time.” *gets judged on her upbringing* “What with living next to a chicken farm and all, is what I was going to say next.” GYTHA OGG IS A DAMNED TREASURE, I SAID.
- I’m just saying that there’s a whole aside here about the power and importance of hats and Pratchett was certainly very particular about his own hat. As a hat person myself, I’m inclined to agree. (But I also have a lot of different types of hats? I don’t subscribe to a central identity, is the problem, I suspect. Having a collection allows you to be different people all the time.)
Little old ladies were by definition harmless, although in a string of villages across several thousand miles of continent this definition was currently being updated.
Nanny could feel Granny Weatherwax’s disapproval. What they said about women with red skirts was even worse than whatever they said about women with red shoes, whatever that was.
A medium-sized Three-Banded Coit gave her a frightened look, considered biting her nose for a moment, thought better of it, and then shut its mouth very tightly in the hope she’d get the message.
That’s why kings had hats. Take the crown off a king and all you had was someone good at having a weak chin and waving to people. Hats had power. Hats were important. But so were people.
At her feet Greebo sat primly watching some dancing women wearing nothing but feathers, trying to work out what to do about them.
Next week we finish the book!