Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett. ★★★★
Witches Abroad is the twelfth book in the Discworld series, and the second one following the witches from Wyrd Sisters, which you’d probably want to read first to get introduced to the characters.
Witches Abroad revolves around fairy tales. Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat journey to Genua (Discworld New Orleans) to stop a kitchen maid from marrying the prince.
I love what this book does with fairy tales, how it mashes them up, many tales at once, all seen from the perspective of already established characters. The best moment has to be when a farmhouse falls on Nanny Ogg.
But possibly because of the focus on fairy tales, Witches Abroad has real problems with its pacing. The first half of the book is the three witches traveling to Genua and undergoing various encounters along the way. This is hilarious but slow moving. The plot doesn’t get compact and moving until into the second half when they actually reach Genua.
I love the witches trio. They bicker and fight and have an overall wonderful dynamic. Nanny Ogg is funny and convivial, Magrat is young and lacks confidence in herself, and Granny Weatherwax is confident to the point of arrogance and always knows who she is. Granny’s the hero of the book, undoubtedly, and here she has a worthy opponent.
“What was supposed to be so special about a full moon? It was only a big circle of light. And the dark of the moon was only darkness. But halfway between the two, when the moon was between the worlds of light and dark, when even the moon lived on the edge…maybe then a witch could believe in the moon.”
Something very unusual about Witches Abroad is just how much it is focused around female characters. The trio of witches are the center of the story, their opponent is a fairy godmother who bends stories to her will, and the witch’s main support consists of a voodoo witch who lives in the swamp outside Genua. I read an assertion somewhere that it fails the reverse Bechdel test – having two named male characters who talk to each other about something other than a woman. This isn’t actually true. Witches Abroad passes due to one conversation between a named male character and Death, who uses male pronouns. But the fact that it comes so close to failing shows just how remarkable it is, especially for a fantasy book written by a male author.
While Witches Abroad might not be as deep as some of Pratchett’s other works, it still has its moments. In a large part this is because of the contrast between fairy godmothers and witches – fairy godmothers give you what you want, and witches give you what you need. The overarching idea is that you can’t make people’s lives better by forcing them to act as you want.
“You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage.”
I’d recommend Witches Abroad for people who liked Wyrd Sisters, who love fairy tales, or who want a book focused around excellent female characters.