It is well known that a vital ingredient of success is not knowing that what you’re attempting can’t be done. A person ignorant of the possibility of failure can be a halfbrick in the path of the bicycle of history. – Terry Pratchett
Equal Rites is the third of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld mega-series. This book takes a new direction, following a new character, the witch Esmerelda “Granny” Weatherwax. With this third book, Pratchett starts to build on the ideas of the Discworld, expanding its character base and developing the history and narrative that will flow through the series. We also see real world ideas and issues enter his writing, the first real sign of the roundworld parodies to come.
We start by following a wizard, one who knows his time on the Disc is short. His name is Drum Billet. On a stormy evening he travels through the Ramtop Mountains to the place where a birth is taking place. It is known across the Disc that the eighth son of an eighth son will become a wizard. Billet intends to pass his wizard’s staff to the newborn, ensuring their path into wizardhood. As he walks in, Granny Weatherwax comes down the stairs carrying the newborn to the father. Without a further thought, Billet touches the staff to the baby’s small hand, against the protestations of the witch. Only then, does he realise what he has done. The eighth son of an eighth son is in fact a daughter – Eskarina “Esk” Smith. And so, the Disc gains its very first female wizard. But there’s a problem – women just cannot be wizards. Men are wizards, women are witches.
Billet, his duty done, passes from the world, leaving behind a large problem. Esk is raised as normally as possible, until strange things happen in her presence. Granny decides to mentor the girl in the ways of witching. She learns about herbs, headology and borrowing-entering the minds of other creatures. Head-strong as she is, Esk ignores warnings of the risks of borrowing, and tries to take over an eagle. She likes the feeling and flies far and high, not returning for days. Eventually, with the help of the wizard’s staff Granny Weatherwax tracks down the eagle, the girl almost gone within.
She manages to return to her body, but only just. As Esk’s magic becomes stronger and more unpredictable, she starts seeing things. The chittering, nightmarish demons of the Dungeon Dimensions, beings that feed upon magic.There is no other choice but to head to Ankh-Morpork, maybe if she can join the Unseen University Esk can control her magic. The witch and the girl head out on their journey, getting separated along the way. At one such time, Eskarina meets Simon, a stuttering young man, and a genius in the theory of magic.
She travels with him and his mentor to Ankh-Morpork, with a number of magical mishaps and departures to the Dungeon Dimensions along the way. On arrival, things don’t go as Esk had imagined at the University. The wizards refuse to allow her to join, as women cannot be wizards. Granny has another way in for her, as a maid at the university. After a while though, the girl becomes bored that she is not learning any more magic, merely using her staff to help with the tedious tasks at hand.
She heads to the library to try and learn magic from the books. Here she runs into Simon, who tells her all about the properties of magical books. But she sees the demons once again preparing to attack. The books begin to fly about in panic, and the staff rises up, striking Simon, knocking him unconscious. Wizards arrive, taking him away to be treated. Esk flees, heading to the river, casting the staff into its waters in anger at what it has done to Simon. The boy remains unconscious for a number of days. Granny explains to Esk that the Dungeon demons were drawn by Simon’s magical powers, so the staff hit him to stop them entering the real world. Unfortunately, Simon’s mind has entered the Dungeon Dimensions, leaving his empty body behind. To try to bring him back risks bringing a demon back instead.
The witch and the girl head to the Great Hall to speak with the Archchancellor. The uproar caused by women being in the Hall leads to a magical duel between the witch and Archchancellor. Esk, sensing the demons preparing to attack, runs to the Simon at the infirmary. Behind his door are strange sounds and lights, so she forces her way in. Once the sound and light stops, all that’s left is the empty bodies of Simon and Esk. In the Dungeon Dimensions, Esk finds Simon, possessed and surrounded by creatures. He appears to be playing with snow globes. But they contain small planets, the Disc included.
She snatches the globe containing the Disc as it starts to crack, and runs, the demons in pursuit. Deciding to fight, Esk discovers the creatures are fragile, managing to bring down a number of them. They release Simon, now threatening to attack him if she refuses to hand the Disc over.
Back at the University, the great duel ends in a stalemate. Archchancellor and witch resolve to work together. They head out in a huge storm that has developed during their duel, causing the river Ankh to burst its banks. The pair set off in a boat to try to retrieve the staff. Just as the begin to fear it might be lost, the boat strikes ice. The staff must be nearby. They retrieve it and hurry back to the University.
Granny and the Archchancellor find Esk and Simon now in the library, the only place safe from the storm. Archchancellor Cutangle declares Esk a wizard, so that she might unlock the full potential of her staff. In the Dungeon Dimensions, the staff appears in her hands. In terror, the demons flee from it. Simon wants her to use it upon them, but she explains they are attracted to magic, and the real power is in not using it. This idea excites Simon’s mind, what possibilities might it hold back on the Disc?
He takes the glass pyramid in which the Disc sits, and locates the University. In the library, the staff lifts into the air, swirling. A bright light fills the room, and as it abates, the pair sit up, returned to their bodies.
As things return to normal, Granny Weatherwax decides to return home, not before being offered a teaching position at the Unseen University. Esk and Simon remain, set on exploring a whole new branch of magic.
Almost a breath of fresh air, Equal Rites opens up so many more possibilities for the series. New characters and new locations are beginning to form in the mind of Pratchett, and this is only the beginning. While this is not the last time we see Esk, it will not be for many more books that she returns. Onwards to Mort, the fourth book in the series, and yet another new avenue of the world to explore.