So I forgot precisely how hard this book goes in its first pages, and you should probably consider that a warning ahead of time…
The Nac Mac Feegle are approaching Lancre at the same time as a carriage being driven by Igor, his master flying above. Nanny Ogg has an invitation and so does Agnes Nitt, who having a hard time arguing internally with her other persona Perdita; Granny Weatherwax is searching around the doors of her house for something. Someone knocks on her door and she’s called to Mrs. Ivy and her baby because something’s gone wrong. Casanunda is doing his highwayman routine when the other highwayman is pulled into a coach and then thrown out again with no blood left in him. The coach stops briefly and the Count and his family survey Lancre, and talk about bringing Granny over to their view on things. Nanny and Agnes arrive at the naming for Magrat’s baby, and Agnes notes that Granny’s seemed to have something on her mind lately . She also informs Nanny that the usual priest won’t be doing the ceremony because he broke his legs. An Omnian priest called Mightily Oats has shown up for the occasion. Granny learns that Mrs. Ivy has been kicked by a cow and knows between she and her unborn child, only one will survive. She sends the midwife to sit with the father (after forbidding her to involve him) and saves Mrs. Ivy’s life.
Nanny is concerned about the Omnian priest because she doesn’t like their missionary deal, so she heads into the palace and tells Agnes to keep an eye out for him. Just as Agnes spots him (after an awkward convo with the Lancre falconer, Hodgesaargh), she’s called away to speak to Magrat. The Count and family come upon a troll who needs to stamp their passports. Granny notices fog rolling in from Uberwald on her way home. Agnes got to meet Magrat, who asks about how Nanny and Granny have been treating her, and tells Agnes that she wishes that they wouldn’t act like she’d settled by becoming queen. She hears Agnes’ perfect Granny impression, and asks if she’s coming to the naming, then worries over whether the invitation arrived—it was the first one they sent out and she asked Granny to be the godmother to the child. Nanny goes to talk to King Verence about the Omnian priest, but he’s far from cowed, launching into a speech about how the world is changing and he has to keep an eye on how in order to keep Lancre safe. The naming ceremony begins, but Granny’s still not there. Magrat’s maid asks Nanny if she’ll be godmother so as not to hold things up, and she agrees to stand in. Granny is at home, insisting that she doesn’t care that she wasn’t invited, and that if she had, she couldn’t have saved Mrs. Ivy.
Nanny and Agnes both head into the room for the naming and meet Brother Oats. Nanny decides she must be Granny in her absence and tells the reverend that he’s the do the ceremony in their tradition with no deviation. Greebo is on the throne, and Verence asks Nanny to remove him; Magrat is trying not to laugh. Reverence Oats names the child Esmerelda Margaret Note Spelling of Lancre, much to everyone’s surprise. Granny is at home, ruminating on how goodness got her nothing, wondering over and over again why she wasn’t invited. Magrat is mortified that “note spelling” ended up in her kid’s name when she’d just wanted to make sure that her daughter didn’t wind up with her name’s spelling, but they’re not allowed to change it. Agnes gets called away by Nanny, who shows her the carriage from Uberwald with a crest featuring magpies and the words “Carpe Jugulum” (Go For the Throat). They talk to Igor and find out that Nanny knew his uncle, a guy who used to stitch together people from dead parts, and he mentions that his masters are far too modern for vampires. They try to find the family inside, and Vlad helpfully introduces himself. He tells them that vampires have control over minds of lesser creatures and that he wants them to forget all about vampires. Nanny seems to go along with this, but Agnes feels that something has gone wrong.
Nanny and Agnes meet the Count and Countess de Magpyr and also their daughter, Lacrimosa (who Agnes hates on sight). Verence tells them that the Count is planning to move into their castle and rule Lancre, which he thinks would be an honor. The Count explains that they could only come because they were invited, but that it was a strange instinct they were working to overcome, as they have with garlic, for example. Agnes tells Vlad that she’s feeling ill and needs to go home, taking Nanny with her. They see centaurs from Uberwald on the way back, and there’s a small blue main her cottage. Agnes carves the word “VMPIR” in the wall without being able to control herself. She has some brandy and suddenly Perdita takes over her body. Hodgesaargh notes fire in the aviary and wonders if a phoenix has been born. Perdita (through Agnes) tells Nanny that the Magpyr family are vampires, and that they’re trying to take over. Nanny notes that this is Granny’s purview with the mind control aspect, but insists that they head back to the castle to sort things. They arrive and find Verence telling them that Lancre will become a duchy of Uberwald. Agnes is fighting the control, which Vlad notices, reading her thoughts and hearing Perdita shouting. The Countess tells her to collect Granny and take her friends when she goes to do so.
I forgot that this was the book that starts with… Hell, I was not ready to do this. Not this year.
Granny comes to the aid of a mother and her unborn child. It’s made clear by Death that ultimately she gets to make the choice here: the mother or the child. It’s also made clear that the midwife had planned to ask the father who should be saved and that Granny Weatherwax has absolutely no intention of giving him any say in this process whatsoever. She saves the mother, without hesitation. She saves the mother, even knowing that the child’s a boy, and how people value boys when considering the legacy that family is supposed to produce. She saves the mother and makes it clear that she would have considered the other option far crueler to the husband.
She saves the mother. It’s never a question.
And it’s worth pointing out that this is in a fantasy setting, where modern medicine can’t help Mrs. Ivy conceive again. Her chances in that vein are slimmer than they might be in our world and now, and Granny still chooses to save her life. She’s here and alive now, and no potentiality is worth sacrificing that. Simple answer to a simple question. A right that my country has recently overturned at the federal level, so there’s no mellow way for me to parse out my own anger and heartbreak over the fact that of course she saved the mother, you monstrous shitheels.
And from there, Granny winds up in a tailspin between thoughts that she hasn’t been invited to the baby-naming and thinking of the life she just saved. She gets existential about things, thinking on how goodness is relative, how life is built of choices that you’re making all the time whether you know it or not, how thankless that work often is:
What had she ever earned? The reward for toil had been more toil. If you dug the best ditches, they gave you a bigger shovel.
And then this:
She’d never asked for anything in return. And the trouble with not asking for anything in return was that sometimes you didn’t get it.
It’s at once a macro-level discussion on morality and living that runs so deeply personal. In the midst of all the silliness about namings and modern kingdoms and public events gone awry, all of this presses between the paragraph breaks and swells. Esmerelda Weatherwax’s pain is a solid thing here, and her choices will certainly take on a political context to the reader, but there’s nothing political in how she makes them. That’s not how her mind works. She make decisions so other people don’t have to, she does what she knows needs doing. And it’s lonely, how much she knows and sees. And despite all of her wisdom, the blunt, awful humanity of all this coming to a head because she thinks she’s been snubbed by someone dear to her is too much to bear—for me as a reader, at least.
You know, all Terry Pratchett books are good. Some of them are excellent. And then some of them come out swinging and even the first thirty pages sit on your chest like bricks. This is one of those.
I do have some side questions about time lapse with regard to the Omnians because Nanny says they were burning people (specifically witches, but Verence says other folks too) somewhere in their history, but… as far as I understand, Small Gods only takes place one hundred years previous. I’m only bringing it up because Christianity had been around for over a millennia before the more famous witch burnings and the Spanish Inquisition and so forth. Not to say that Christianity as an institution didn’t persecute anyone early on, it just seems kinda weird to compress that timeline so hard when you could’ve just said that Small Gods took place earlier? A little nitpick on my end, is all.
Asides and little thoughts:
- I do appreciate the accurate detail of singing fifteen verses of “Where Has All the Custard Gone?” to boil an egg, as songs and religious verses were historically used for time-keeping purposes before electric timers of various types became widely available.
- “What a dump.” I mean, I wasn’t expecting a Bette Davis/Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? reference from an Omnian priest, but…
- “Shave and a haircut, no legs” being the leitmotif of the Guild of Barber-Surgeons is just very good.
- The footnote about the mother naming her kid Sally instead of Chlamydia because it was easier to spell reminds me of a story a friend’s mother told me, where she met a woman who named her daughter Vagina because she’d heard it in the hospital and thought “it was such a beautiful name,” and if that doesn’t make you worry about the state of reproductive health education, I’m not sure what can.
- Gotta have that classic “I do not drink… wine” joke in there somewhere, of course.
- A troll calling himself Big Jim Beef being the equivalent of a man calling himself Rocky is also very good.
She liked the idea of “cordially.” It had a rich, a thick and above all an alcoholic sound.
Later on, there’d be a command performance by that man who put weasels down his trousers, a form of entertainment that Nanny ranked higher than grand opera.
Lancre operated on the feudal system, which was to say, everyone feuded all the time and handed on the fight to their descendants.
You can build up a very strange view of someone via the things they leave behind the dresser.
That was the worst part about being good—it caught you coming and going.
Behind him, Nanny Ogg’s was an expression of extreme interest that was nevertheless made up of one hundred percent artificial additives.
The smug mask of virtue triumphant could be almost as horrible as the face of wickedness revealed.
Not many people ever tasted Nanny Ogg’s homemade brandy; it was technically impossible. Once it encountered the warmth of the human mouth it immediately turned into fumes. You drank it via your sinuses.
Next week we read to:
“It sounds better the way she says it,” said Agnes.