Equal Rites, the third Discworld novel, makes a big leap in quality from the second. Terry Pratchett leaves the characters who were at the hub of the first two novels and sets off to tell a completely independent tale. Having spent the second book concocting a tale of danger to the whole Disc and then disposing of it in an off-hand way, Pratchett also abandons the need to tell a story of saving the world, or indeed changing it in any obviously momentous fashion. It’s as if here in the third book he realized that the setting was vast enough and interesting enough to just start telling stories within the Disc, rather than telling stories that did something to the Disc.
Consequently, he starts Equal Rites about as far as possible from the great city of Ankh-Morpork, which had been the previous center of action. He chooses an obscure village at the edge of civilization to have a bit of magic go wrong. On the Disc, wizards often know when their time is ending and may choose to pass much of their power on to someone else. In the first chapter, the dying wizard Drum Billet chooses to give his staff to a newborn he thinks is the eighth son of an eighth son, a particularly momentous lineage for magical purposes. Unfortunately for tradition, the babe is the first daughter of an eighth son.
The book follows Esk through her childhood, as the contradictions between Discworld tradition — men become wizards and women become witches — and Esk’s situation and growing abilities increase. Equal Rites is as laugh-out-loud-and-draw-occasional-funny-looks-if-you-are-reading-in-public as its predecessors, but the jokes serve the story rather than vice versa. They reveal aspects of the characters of their situations, even when Pratchett occasionally breaks the fourth wall.
Esk looked down at [her brother Gulta’s] face. She loved her brothers, when she reminded herself to, in a dutiful sort of way, although she generally remembered them as a collection of loud noises in trousers.
Esk glared down defiantly. Granny [Weatherwax, the local witch] glared up sternly. Their wills clanged like cymbals and the air between them thickened. But Granny had spent a lifetime bending recalcitrant creatures to her bidding and, while Esk was a surprisingly strong opponent, it was obvious that she would give in before the end of the paragraph.
They sat on bales of unknown herbs in the private corner made by the stall between the angled walls of the houses, and drank something fragrant and green out of surprisingly delicate cups. Unlike Granny, who dressed like a very respectable raven, Hilta Goatfounder [a witch in a nearby town] was all lace and shawls and colours and earrings and so many bangles that a mere movement of her arms sounded like a percussion section falling off a cliff. But Esk could see the likeness.
It was hard to describe. You couldn’t imagine them curtseying to anyone.
‘So,’ said Granny. ‘how goes the life?’
The other witch shrugged, causing the drummers to lose their grip again, just when they had nearly climbed back up.
Esk can clearly do both witch magic and wizard magic, but she cannot control the latter, and Granny Weatherwax cannot teach her. The main action of the book concerns their efforts to reach the Unseen University, the Discworld’s main place for training wizards, and then their efforts to gain entry, as a girl has never been previously admitted as a student.
That’s all there is to the plot, but nothing more is necessary, and I’m very glad that Pratchett realized that and didn’t try to weigh the book down with anything else. Esk is just right as she is, and Equal Rites is just right as it is, and one of the signs of Discworld’s coming greatness is that Pratchett lets both of them be what they properly are.