We’re back with our favorite coven … who needs a new member, it’s just happening.
Nanny Ogg knows Grandma Weatherwax is on the verge of getting bad because they’ve lost Magrat to marriage and a pact needs three. She decides that Agnes Nitt is the right person for the job. In Ankh-Morpork, Agnes Nitt goes to the opera house to audition, and runs into the janitor Walter Plinge. She changes her name to Perdita (again) on her form, rehearses with the hedgehog song, and is then asked to perform scales to give a sense of her range; she impresses everyone. Grandma Weatherwax fixes Jarge Weaver’s back with an “elixir” (but really just chiropractic), aware that she’s getting too angry and tired from her job. The new owner of the Opera House, Seldom Bucket, wants their soprano to be a nepotism villain named Christine, who is attractive but unable to sing, to the dismay of music director Salzella and choirmaster Undershaft. Agnes meets Christine, who is very excited to be there and even more excited that their rooms are right next to each other.
Nanny goes to Agnes’ mother to hear where she is and hears that she has traveled to Ankh-Morpork. Mrs. Nitt asks to have her tea leaves read, and what Nanny sees makes her drop the cup. Agnes spends more time with Christine, whom she likes despite the fact that the woman does not have a thought in her head. Agnes knows that the witches have looked at her and she is unhappy with how she is seen in Lancre, and therefore she ran away in the first place. Nanny goes to Grandma’s house and tells her to make a cup of tea and read the leaves too – there is a skull in them and the nanny thinks Agnes is in danger and that they need help. Then the mail arrives, addressed to “The Lancre Witch”, and the nanny tries to hurry before Grandma realizes that these letters are not for her … Nanny wrote a (creepy) cookbook and it was published by the almanacs of Ankh- Morpork, and it’s obviously quite popular. Grandma does some math and calculates that based on how much the book has sold, the publisher should have sent Nanny several thousand dollars. The thing is, because the book is basically sex advice, and the nom de plume it was published under was just “A Lancre Witch,” that means everyone is going to assume Grandma wrote the book. So Grandma demands that they go to town to get the book stopped and to get Nanny her money.
Christine shows Agnes around the Opera House, and they talk about the house “Ghost”, who wears a white mask and haunts the place. Agnes notes that a number of things at the theater seem off, including an eye-catching chandelier. Something wet squirts into the keyboard, which everyone thinks is blood – Agnes knows it’s turpentine. It turns out that Tommy Cripps, the man who paints their scenery, has been caught in the ropes and seen the ghost. Salzella is not impressed with Tommy, but he is happy that Agnes only tells what she has seen, which is nothing as exciting as a ghost. However, the opera organ has been smashed by accident. Grandma and nanny embark on a diligence to get to Ankh-Morpork (though it should not be there to begin with) because nanny does not want to fly. Salzella tries to explain the state of affairs to Mr. Bucket (who used to be a cheese merchant before he bought the opera house): There’s a ghost that really follows the building, and the people who work there usually think of him as a good happiness charm … until six months ago when “accidents” started. He then explains that the ghost leaves notes after the said accidents, and also that the opera runs on something called “a disaster curve”, and that Mr. Bucket should not have been involved instead if he had planned a quiet retirement. He also explains that time is the enemy of opera professionals and that they never make money on their business.
Meanwhile, Nanny and Best have driven everyone from their diligence (because Greebo is awful), and there’s only one man left snoring. He wakes up and Nanny gives him food and he tells them that they have made a friend of Henry Slugg, but when the coach stops, there are people waiting and they call the man Enrico Basilica. The witches are arranged in an inn for the night and are asked by the innkeeper and his wife to look after their baby and cow, who are both ill. Grandma takes care of them. Greebo happens to be a human, and Nanny takes care of him. Death comes for the child. Grandma challenges him to a game of poker, one hand, for the child’s life. Death accepts, and then demands that they change hands she has given before they see them. They do so and then turn over the cards – Grandma wins. She then offers to adjust his learm, which has given him trouble. He accepts, thanks her and asks what would have happened if he had not lost. She says she would have broken his arm at first.
Here’s the thing: I love Pratchett, but I can not stand Andrew Lloyd Webber. He is far from my least favorite musical composer. (I enjoy JC Superstar in moments? Of course! Can any of this make up for the many times I had to watch a VHS recording of CATS every time my choir teacher did not feel like doing much for the day? Absolutely not.) Now I have been assured by my partner that Phantom of the Opera the book is a fun read, but thanks to ALW’s indelible impressions of the source material, I’ve never been obsessed with the urge to pick it up. So this story was always a little hard to sell for me. I’m not a fan of phantom, though I fully admit that parts of it are entertaining enough. (Although the mid-90s was still deep in the top of the show’s popularity, making it perfect for parody purposes.… Say it five times fast. It’s alliteration time.)
Pratchett improves on this problem by only taking the closest imaginings of the story to the plot and focusing far more on the witches themselves, and that’s exactly the right move. He knows these characters too well to let them get lost in the story, and especially this book just jogs right away. It’s great to get to know Agnes better, but I’m struck by this reading of how much she feels she’s always been there. Also her desire to get away from Lancre, after trying – albeit briefly – to be Perdita X Dream in a place where no one would give it to her because it seems like an Agnes is … painfully right point. (Emmet is not the “Perdita” name for me, even though it was a change I chose for myself. When I was a kid, I actually desperately wanted to be called Jasper.)
It’s refreshing to see Agnes watch this version of Christine with kindness rather than annoyance or hatred. The woman may not be the brightest bulb, but people who are chipper and agitated are not automatically easy to dislike. So often, stories prioritize extreme reactions to extreme personalities without noticing the fact that most people generally prefer to move on with peers where they can – the idea that Agnes would be hostile to Christine is the kind of dynamic that sexism creates in fiction for false drama.
But the real concern at the beginning of all this is Grandma, and her tendency to maybe get bad if she does not have a full pact to keep an eye on her. I’ve said it before, and it’s still true – one of the greatest things about Esme Weatherwax is the recognition that she chooses to be good, but does not often want to be. There is a special heroism that comes from doing good whenever you do not want to, and it is often reserved for confusing anti-hero guys, but it is so much more interesting to come from a very old woman who decides that she will beat Death in poker to save the life of an infant she does not know.
Speaking of which, it’s pretty clear that Death allows her to win, given the handshake and blink, and … the fact that time does not actually exist for Death, so he already knows technically the outcome of this encounter. But I also wondered about the cards. Death says he has them all, and I was curious if he made one card for the sake of the game, or if Discworld card packs contained them (which ours obviously does not).
Then there’s the conceit of Nanny’s cookbook, Snacks The joywhich is the best game at The joy of sex be a riff on The joy of cooking cookbook that this world has been so lucky to get. Using it as an excuse to take a bus ride is one of my favorite things grandma and nanny ever do.
Side and small thoughts:
- I really love that nanny thinks about the virgin, mother, crone dynamics and recognizes that most women she advised could avoid becoming mothers when they did not intend to if they followed her advice to count days between cycles and such. Proper witchcraft, that. Not a perfect system, but the best many people with uterus have had in a long time.
- Nanny’s favorite spirits smell of “apples and happy brain death,” which is the exact way to describe most good spirits (typically with various fruits or herbs).
- Of course, the best Phantom reference is “For some reason, Agnes’ practical eye was attracted to the huge chandelier that hung above the auditorium like an amazing sea monster.”
- I have noticed that Death gets the pronoun “it” a few times in this section. I’m just saying that Death has several pronouns. Just bring it up for no particular reason …
Lightning struck the rocks like an old man trying to get an intangible blackberry out of his false teeth.
There was no sound for a while, but the roar of the wind and the sound of Nanny Ogg cutting bread, which she did with about as much efficiency as a man trying to chainsaw a mattress.
The person behind must have been a human, for walruses do not go in coats.
It dawned on Agnes as she trudged after the girl on her way to her new home that if you spent a lot of time in the same room as Christine, you should open a window to avoid drowning in punctuation.
Music and magic had a lot in common. They were only two letters apart, for one thing. And you could not do both.
Grandma’s hands touched smooth bone. She was feeling worse. At least these had never had meat on them.
Next week we read up on “And Walter sat down next to him and listened to the music coming out of the walls.”