Fourteen books into Discworld, Lords and Ladies is the first time Terry Pratchett deemed it necessary to put in a note connecting the event in the book at hand to a previous volume. It hasn’t hurt that I have been reading them in order of publication, but it hasn’t been particularly necessary either. And in fact, it’s not terribly necessary to have read Witches Abroad, whose events lead directly into those depicted in Lords and Ladies. There are a few pieces of information it is helpful to know—there are witches not only abroad but also involved, indeed at the center of the action; the youngest of them had reached, or at least hinted at, an Understanding with the local king—but truth to tell, those aren’t all that necessary either.
Lords and Ladies is the fourth Discworld book centered on the witches: Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick. One of its strengths is that Pratchett doesn’t have to spend time establishing either the characters or the particular part of the Discworld where the story is set; he can get straight on with the tale, which happens at the intersection of the characters’ characters and external events in the small kingdom of Lancre.
The witches return from abroad, and Magrat finds that the king has not only accepted their Understanding, he has set wedding preparations in motion and advanced them to quite an advanced degree. The wedding will take place on Midsummer, just a few days hence. Guests are already converging on Lancre, including a deputation from the Unseen University, led by the Archchancellor, who turns out to have his own connection to the kingdom from long ago in his youth. Jason Ogg, one of Nanny’s numerous progeny, is shown in his smithy. As a smith, he is privy to a special and very old kind of magic, closer to that of witches than of wizards, but not dependent upon either. He is a particular kind of smith, who can shoe anything someone brings in, but at the cost of being required to shoe anything someone brings in. Pratchett plays the ability once for laughs by describing how Jason once shoed an ant. Then he gives a darker twist, showing one night when Jason shoes a horse for someone who isn’t named, but whom Discworld readers recognize BY THE WAY THAT HE SPEAKS.
Pratchett basically gave up on cheap japes about fantasy after The Light Fantastic, but in Lords and Ladies he plays with a fantasy staple, elves, in a more serious way.
Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder. Elves are marvelous. They cause marvels. Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies. Elves are glamorous. They project glamour. Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment. Elves are terrific. They beget terror. The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
Long ago, elves were driven out of the Discworld and into a reality next door, but they would like to come back for some fun. In their own particular view of what fun entails. There are some places where the realities are closer to each other; one of them is a hilltop not too far from Lancre town, a hilltop demarcated by a particular group of standing stones. There are times when the realities are closer to each other; Midsummer, for example. And there are things that can call to the Lords and Ladies, the fair folk; young women chafing at the confines of a small kingdom and playing at witchcraft by dancing near certain standing stones, for example, or a smith and his friends—rude mechanicals all—rehearsing in that same place the Entertainment for a king’s upcoming wedding.
There’s the danger, more keenly felt for being on the intimate scale of Lancre, and for the unwitting, normal behavior that put all of the characters in harm’s way. Whether and how Lancre escapes from its peril is the rest of this well-told tale.