Now this is how a Discworld story should be. After the uninteresting Interesting Times, Terry Pratchett came right back with the much stronger Maskerade. The Lancre witches take center stage, and stage is just right because most of the novel takes place in and around Ankh-Morpork’s opera house. Well, two of the witches do, which is precisely the problem because their third turned into a Queen at the end of Lords and Ladies. The canonical beginning gets off to a rough start.
An eldritch voice shrieked: “When shall we … two … meet again?”
A rather more ordinary voice said: “What’d you go and shout that for? You made me drop my toast in the fire.”
Nanny Ogg sat down again.
“Sorry, Esme. I was just doing it for … you know … old time’s sake … Doesn’t roll off the tongue, though.”
“I’d just got it nice and brown, too.”
“Anyway, you didn’t have to shout.”
“I mean, I ain’t deaf. You could’ve just asked me in a normal voice. And I’d have said, ‘Next Wednesday.'”
“Sorry, Esme.” (p. 9)
For all that Granny Esme Weatherwax prides herself on her abilities with headology (knowing what’s going on inside of one and acting accordingly), Nanny Ogg is also a shrewd practitioner of the art. She’s worried about Granny Weatherwax. Granny’s power has grown steadily, and witches whose abilities run unchecked tend to come to bad ends.
Sometimes, of course, they didn’t go bad. They just went … somewhere.
Granny’s intellect needed something to do. She did not take kindly to boredom. She’d take to her bed instead and send her mind out Borrowing, inside the head of some forest creature, listening with its ears, seeing with its eyes. That was all very well for general purposes, but she was too good at it. She could stay away longer than anyone Nanny Ogg had ever heard of.
One day, almost certainly, she wouldn’t bother to come back … and this was the worst time of the year, with the geese honking and rushing across the sky every night, and the autumn air crisp and inviting. There was something terribly tempting about that. (p. 11)
And so two witches need a third. The likeliest third, a young woman named Agnes, has other ideas. She has done what people who don’t quite fit into the small places they are from have done since time immemorial; namely, gotten herself to a much bigger place where she can find like-minded souls, or at least congenial company and reasonably gainful employment. Agnes presents herself at the Opera in Ankh-Morpork, just in time for an audition. Both her entrance and the audition itself are terrific pieces of comic business, with most of the action taking place in the gaps between Pratchett’s sentences. He sets things up, and the reader figures out what’s actually going on, which makes it even funnier. Further, he uses the slapstick to sketch out characteristics that will be important later in the book. It’s very economic exposition, deftly done.
Pratchett was obviously doing well as an author by the time Maskerade was published. Publishing success plays a plot role in Interesting Times. In Maskerade, the money that Nanny Ogg has made with a racy cookbook provides material for satire on publishing, opera benefactors, as well as business and wealth in general. It also enables the witches to overcome several obstacles within the plot. “And he dreamed the dream of all those who publish books, which was to have so much gold in your pockets that you would have to employ two people just to hold your trousers up.” (p. 16)
Agnes, who decides to take the stage name Perdita, meets a fellow junior member of the company.
The girl who had spoken to her was slightly built, even by ordinary standards, and had gone to some pains to make herself look even thinner. She had long blond hair and the happy smile of someone who is aware that she is thin and has long blond hair.
“My name’s Christine!” she said. “Isn’t this exciting?!”
And she had the type of voice that can exclaim a question. It seemed to have an excited little squeak permanently screwed to it. …
“Where did you train?!” said Christine. “I spent three years with Mme Venturi at the Quirm Conservatory!”
“Um. I was …” Agnes hesitated, trying out the upcoming sentence in her head. “…I trained with … Dame Ogg. But she hasn’t got a conservatory because it’s hard to get the glass up the mountain.”
Christine didn’t appear to want to question this. Anything she found too difficult to understand, she ignored.
“The money in the chorus isn’t very good, is it?!”
“No.” It was less than you’d get for scrubbing floors. The reason was that, when you advertised a dirty floor, hundreds of hopefuls didn’t turn up. (pp. 33–34)
With that, almost all of the elements are in place. But first, there is a brief discourse on the economics of writing and publishing.
“You done a book,” said Granny.
“Only cookery,” said Nanny Ogg meekly, as one might plead a first offense. …
“‘The Joye of Snacks,'” Granny read out loud. “‘Bye a Lancre Witch.’ Hah! Why dint you put your own name on it, eh? Books’ve got to have a name on ’em so’s everyone knows who’s guilty.”
“It’s my gnome de plum,” said Nanny. “Mr Goatberger the Almanack man said it’d make it sound more mysterious.”
Granny cast her gimlet gaze to the bottom of the crowded cover, where it said, in very small lettering, “CXXviith Printyng. More Than Twenty Thoufand Solde! One half dollar.”
“You sent them some money to get it all printed?” she said.
“Only a couple of dollars,” said Nanny. “Damn good job they made of it, too. And then they sent the money back afterwards, only they got it wrong and sent three dollars extra.
Granny Weatherwax was grudgingly literate but keenly numerate. She assumed that anything written down was probably a lie, and that applied to numbers too. Numbers were used only by people who wanted to put one over on you.
Her lips moved silently as she thought about numbers.
“Oh,” she said, quietly. “And that was it, was it? You never wrote to him again?”
“Not on your life. Three dollars, mind. I dint want him saying he wanted ’em back.”
“I can see that,” said Granny, still dwelling in the world of numbers. She wondered how much it cost to do a book. It couldn’t be a lot: they had sort of printing mills to do the actual work. … [Granny calculates for a bit]
“Hmm?” said Granny. She stared at the result and drew two lines under it. “But you enjoyed it, did you?” she called out [to Nanny in the kitchen]. “The writin’?”
Nanny Ogg poked her head around the sculler door. “Oh, yes. The money dint matter,” she said.
“You’ve never been very with good numbers, have you?” said Granny. Now she drew a circle around the final figure.
“Oh, you know me, Esme,” said Nanny cheerfully. “I couldn’t subtract a fart from a plate of beans.”
“That’s good, ‘cos I reckon this Master Goatberger owes you a bit more than you got, if there’s any justice in the world,” said Granny.
“Money ain’t everything, Esme. What I say is, if you’ve got your health—”
“I reckon, if there’s any justice, it’s about four or five thousand dollars,” said Granny quietly.
There was a crash from the scullery.
“So it’s a good job the money don’t matter,” Granny Weatherwax went on. “It’d be a terrible thing otherwise. All that money, matterin’.”
Nanny Ogg’s white face appeared around the edge of the door. “He never!”
“Could be a bit more,” said Granny. …
“It’s a lot of money,” [Nanny Ogg] said weakly. “What couldn’t I do with money like that?”
“Dunno,” said Granny Weatherwax. “What did you do with the three dollars?”
“Got it in a tin up the chimney,” said Nanny Ogg.
Granny nodded approvingly. This was the kind of good fiscal practice she liked to see. (pp. 49–52)
Granny is, however, at a bit of a loss to explain the book’s popularity. What’s so special about this particular cookbook?
“It is a cookery book, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes,” said Nanny hurriedly, avoiding Granny’s gaze. “Yes. Recipes and that. Yes.”
Granny glared at her. “Just recipes?”
“Yes. Oh, yes. Yes. And some … cookery anecdotes, yes.”
Granny went on glaring.
Nanny gave in.
“Er … look under Famous Carrot and Oyster Pie,” she said. “Page 25.”
Granny turned the pages. Her lips moved silently. Then: “I see. Anything else?”
“Er … Cinnamon and Marshmallow Fingers … page 17 …!
Granny looked it up.
“Er … Celery Astonishment … page 10.”
Granny looked that up, too.
“Can’t say it astonished me,” she said. “And …?”
[They go on in this manner for a while.]
“Gytha,” [Granny] said, “this is me askin’ you this. Is there any page in this book, is there any single recipe, which does not in some way relate to … goings-on?”
Nanny Ogg, her face as red as her apples, seemed to give this some lengthy consideration.
“Porridge,” she said, eventually.
“Yes. Er. No, I tell a lie, it’s got my special honey mixture in it.”
Granny turned a page.
“What about this one? Maids of Honour?”
“Weeellll, they starts out as Maids of Honour,” said Nanny, fidgeting with her feet, “but they ends up Tarts.” (pp. 52–53)
What to do?
“So you’ll go and see Mr Goatberger and have this stopped, right?” …
“And I’ll come with you to make sure you do.”
“And we’ll talk to the man about your money.”
“And we might just drop in on young Agnes to make sure she’s all right.”
“But we’ll do it diplomatic like. We don’t want people thinkin’ we’re pokin’ our noses in.”
“No one could say I interfere where I’m not wanted. You won’t find anyone callin’ me a busybody.”
“That was ‘Yes, Esme, you won’t find anyone callin’ you a busybody,’ was it?”
“Oh, yes, Esme.”
“You sure about that?”
Granny looked out at the dull grey sky and the dying leaves and felt, amazingly enough, her sap rising. A day ago the future had looked aching and desolate, and now it looked full of surprises and terror and bad things happening to people …
If she had anything to do with it, anyway.
In the scullery, Nanny Ogg grinned to herself.” (pp. 54–55)
Granny is not the only with who can practice headology.
With characters as good as these, Pratchett could dispense with plot and just depict the human comedy. Indeed, one of the book’s most affecting scenes is wholly independent of the rest of the story. It’s a card game between Death and Granny Weatherwax, and it’s an episode in the brief picaresque that takes the two witches from their natural environs to Ankh-Morpork.
But plot there is. A new owner has taken possession of the opera house, and with it the Opera. While he is learning the ropes, others are coming unraveled and dropping sandbags on unsuspecting members of the company, or wrapping themselves around other members’ unprotected necks. The Ghost of the Opera, a hitherto benign spirit, seems intent on an early closing. The witches, having already encountered the guest tenor in the stage coach on the way to Ankh-Morpork and planning to look in on Agnes anyway (but not as busybodies) decide to investigate. Eventually the Watch is called in as well, discreet as only an undercover troll can be. The rest is a character-driven farce that shows that cosmic stakes are by no means necessary for readers to care about the fates of the people in the novel. Christine faints, Agnes sings, and the rest of the supporting cast reveals unexpected traits as they struggle to catch up with the Ghost before he can bring down the house. The magic in this fantasy tale is almost all theater magic, with just a little bit of witchery (as distinct from headology) thrown in to keep everyone on their toes. The ending, when it arrives, is both operatic and satisfying. Like a great opera, Maskerade is a tale I want to enjoy again and again.