We’re back with our favorite coven… which is in need of a new member, it just so happens.
Nanny Ogg knows that Granny Weatherwax is on the verge of going bad because they’ve lost Magrat to marriage and a coven needs three. She decides that Agnes Nitt is the right one for the job. In Ankh-Morpork, Agnes Nitt goes to the Opera House to audition, running into the janitor, Walter Plinge. She changes her name to Perdita (again) on her form, auditions with the hedgehog song, then is asked to perform scales to give a sense of her range; she impresses everyone. Granny Weatherwax fixes up Jarge Weaver’s back with a “potion” (but really just chiropracty), aware that she’s getting too antsy and bored of her job. The new owner of the Opera House, Seldom Bucket, wants their soprano to be a nepotism hire named Christine who’s attractive but cannot sing, to the dismay of music director Salzella and choir master 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 see Agnes’s mother to inquire on her whereabouts and hears that she’s gone to Ankh-Morpork. Mrs. Nitt asks to have her tealeaves read, and what Nanny sees causes her to drop the cup. Agnes spends more time with Christine, who she likes despite the woman not having a thought in her head. Agnes knows that the witches have been eying her, and she’s unhappy with how she’s viewed in Lancre, which is why she ran off in the first place. Nanny goes to Granny’s house and tells her to make a cup of tea and read those leaves as well—there’s a skull in them, and Nanny believes Agnes is in danger and that they have to help. The mail arrives then, addressed to “The Lancre Witch” and Nanny tries to make a hasty exit before Granny realizes that these letters are not for her… Nanny wrote a (bawdy) cookbook, and it got published by the almanac folks in Ankh-Morpork, and apparently it’s quite popular. Granny does some math and works out 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,” it means that everyone is going to assume that Granny wrote the book. So Granny demands that they head to the city to have 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 about the theater seem off including a conspicuous chandelier. Something wet splashes onto the keyboard that 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 saw the Ghost. Salzella isn’t impressed with Tommy, but he is pleased that Agnes only recounts what she’s seen, which isn’t anything so exciting as a ghost. The opera organ has been smashed in the accident, however. Granny and Nanny board a stagecoach to get to Ankh-Morpork (though it wasn’t going there to begin with) because Nanny doesn’t want to fly. Salzella tries to explain the state of things to Mr. Bucket (who used to be a cheesemonger before he bought the Opera House): There’s a Ghost who really comes with the building, and the people who work there usually think of him as a good luck charm… until six months ago when “accidents” started. He then explains that the Ghost leaves notes after said accidents, and also that opera runs on something called “a catastrophe curve,” and that Mr. Bucket shouldn’t have gotten involved in the place if he’d planned on a quiet retirement. He also explains that time is the enemy of opera professionals and that they don’t ever make money in their business.
Meanwhile, Nanny and Granny have driven everyone from their stagecoach (due to Greebo being awful), and there’s only one man left, snoring. He wakes and Nanny feeds him, and he tells them they’ve made a friend of Henry Slugg, only when the coach pulls over there are people waiting and they call the man Enrico Basilica. The witches get set up in an inn for the night and are asked by the innkeeper and his wife to see to their baby and cow, both of whom are sick. Granny takes watch over them. Greebo turns into a human at random, and Nanny looks after him. Death arrives for the child. Granny challenges him to a game of poker, one hand, for the child’s life. Death agrees, then demands that they swap the hands she’s dealt before viewing them. They do so and then turns the cards over—Granny wins. She then offers to adjust his scythe arm, which has been giving him trouble. He accepts, then thanks her, and asks what would have happened if he hadn’t lost. She says that, for a start, she would’ve broken his arm.
Here’s the thing: I love Pratchett, but I can’t stand Andrew Lloyd Webber. He is far and away my least favorite musical composer. (Do I enjoy JC Superstar at moments? Sure! Can any of this make up for the many times I had to watch a VHS recording of CATS every time my choir teacher didn’t feel like doing much for the day? Absolutely not.) Now, I have been assured by my partner that the Phantom of the Opera book is a fun read, but thanks to ALW’s indelible impression on the source material, I’ve never been possessed of the urge to pick it up. So this story was always kind of a hard sell for me. I’m not a fan of Phantom, though I fully admit to bits of it being entertaining enough. (Though the mid-90s was still deep in the peak of the show’s popularity, making it perfect for parody purposes. …Say that five times fast. It’s alliteration hour.)
Pratchett ameliorates this issue by taking only the barest conceits of the story for the plot, and focusing far more on the witches themselves, and it’s entirely the right move. He knows these characters too well to let them get lost in the story, and this book in particular just jogs right along. It’s great getting to know Agnes better, but I’m struck on this read by how much she feels like she’s always been there. Also, her desire to get away from Lancre, having tried—however briefly—to be Perdita X Dream in a place where no one would grant her that because it seems like an Agnes is… painfully on 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 desperately wanted to be named Jasper, in fact.)
It’s refreshing to see Agnes view 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 excitable aren’t automatically easy to dislike. So often stories prioritize extreme reactions to extreme personalities without noting the fact that most people generally prefer to get on with peers where they can—the idea that Agnes would be hostile toward Christine is the sort of dynamic that sexism creates in fiction for faux drama.
But the real concern at the start of all this is Granny, and her bent toward perhaps turning bad if she doesn’t have a full coven keeping an eye on her. I’ve said it before, and it’s still true—one of the greatest things about Esme Weatherwax is the acknowledgment that she chooses to be good, but doesn’t often want to be. There’s a special brand of heroism that comes from doing good when you’d rather not, and it’s often reserved for swaggering antihero guys, but it’s so much more interesting coming from a very old woman who decides she’s going to beat Death at poker to save the life of an infant she doesn’t know.
Speaking of which, it’s pretty clear that Death is allowing her to win, given the hand swap, and the wink, and… the fact that time doesn’t actually exist for Death, so he already technically knows the outcome of this encounter. But I was also wondering about the cards. Death says he has all ones, and I found myself curious about whether he created one cards for the sake of the game, or whether Discworld card packs contained ones (which ours don’t, of course).
Then there’s the conceit of Nanny’s cookbook, The Joye of Snacks, which is the best play on The Joy of Sex being a riff on The Joy of Cooking cookbook that this world has been lucky enough to get. Using that as an excuse for sa tagecoach road trip is one of my favorite things that Granny and Nanny ever do.
Asides and little thoughts:
I really love Nanny thinking about the maiden, mother, crone dynamic and acknowledging that most women she counseled could avoid being mothers when they weren’t intending to if they followed her advice counting days between cycles and such. Proper witching, that. Not a perfect system, but the best many people with uteruses had for a long time.
Nanny’s liquor of choice smells of “apples and happy brain-death,” which is the accurate way to describe most good spirits (substituting in various fruits or herbs, typically).
Of course, the best Phantom reference is “For some reason Agnes’s practical eye was drawn to the huge chandelier that hung over the auditorium like a fantastic sea monster.”
I noticed the Death gets the pronoun “it” a few times in this section. Just saying, Death has multiple pronouns. Just bringing it up for no reason in particular…
Lightning prodded the crags like an old man trying to get an elusive blackberry pip 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 it must have been a human because walruses don’t wear coats.
It occurred to Agnes, as she trudged after the girl en route to her new lodgings, that if you spent much time in the same room as Christine you’d need to open a window to stop from drowning in punctuation.
Music and magic had a lot in common. They were only two letters apart, for one thing. And you couldn’t do both.
Granny’s hands touched smooth bone. She’d felt worse. As least these had never had flesh on them.
Next week we read up to “And Walter sat down beside him and listened to the music coming out of the walls.”