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Dickens would approve!
on 26 July 2005
Eskarina Smith is the eighth child of an eighth son. If the child had been a son, it's nearly inevitable that a wizard would have been the result. Nearly everything was prepared. A wizard came to witness the birth. He passed his staff on to the newborn child, immediately taken by DEATH, as is fitting. But, as with everything else on the Discworld, there's a hitch. Eskarina's a girl, and everyone knows, girls can't be wizards. As she grows older, however, certain Powers begin to manifest themselves, leading Eskarina on a wholly unanticipated series of adventures. Like attending the wizards' school, the Unseen University.
This third Discworld novel takes us to the other aspect of that strange place's magic environment, the feminine side. PTerry introduces us to someone who will later loom large in the Discworld pantheon, Esme Weatherwax. Granny Weatherwax is the resident witch of Bad Ass and takes up the task of teaching Eskarina the role of how witching works through the use of headology. Granny's not a charlatan, but she knows the value of belief and spurns the cheap tricksterism so often manifest by the wizards. Eskarina's powers are too apparent for either of them to control effectively and Granny's forced to send Eskarina to the only place where that control can be learned. By various and adventure-filled paths, Eskarina arrives at the University, thrust almost inadvertently into a bizarre new world.
Esk's outspoken claim to "want to be a wizard" brings on the confrontation between tradition and The Century of the Fruitbat. Times certainly are a-changin' but for Esk they only become worse for some time. She's given into the care of the University's housekeeper, Mrs Whitlow, and quickly becomes a figure out of Dickens. Sweeping floors isn't what she had in mind, even if she can direct the broom to do the work while she sits in a corner pondering life's injustices. Yet her powers develop, to the point where she's forced to confront the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions, the greatest threat the Discworld faces. It's an even match.
Pratchett's characterizations are always more valuable than any of his story lines, and this early work is no exception. Eskarina's a forceful girl with modern views, even if she's writ a bit young for the role. Although this book ends rather weakly, the story's message is valid and needs expressing. As always, Pratchett attests that the Discworld is a "mirror of worlds", especially ours. Eskarina's plight is too common for PTerry to ignore and he presents it clearly and honestly. That he can add his sparkling wit in conveying his ideas is a added blessing for us. Put this next to Colour of Magic and Light Fantastic with assurance that you will pick it up again. His works never age, but remain a joyful read for years to come. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]