"Cats are like witches. They don't fight to kill, but to win. There is a difference. There's no point in killing an opponent. That way, they won't know they've lost, and to be a real winner you have to have an opponent who is beaten and knows it. There's no triumph over a corpse, but a beaten opponent, who will remain beaten every day of the remainder of their sad and wretched life, is something to treasure."
The Ramtop witches are back and this time their out to do some good, no matter who gets in the way! We first met Granny Weatherwax in Equal Rites, the story of a young girl who sets out to become a wizard. Wyrd Sisters introduced the rest of the coven, Nannny Ogg and Magrat Garlick, a couple of country witches that enjoy the home life and taking care of the neighbors. But now they are called upon to leave their mountain homes and come to the rescue of a young woman who's about to take part in every girls fairy tale.
You see, young Emberella is the daughter of the recently deceased Duc of Genua, and has been watched over by Desiderata, her fairy godmother and witch. When Desiderata realizes she's going to die she thinks hard of a way to gain protection for Ella, and what better protection than to get another witch, especially one as powerful as Granny. So she sends her wand to Magrat. Now Magrat is probably the last person you'd want as a fairy godmother, so Granny and Nanny are ready with bags packed to come along and help out.
It's never that easy though. It turns out that godmother's come in two's, and the the second, Lilith, has Ella under lock and key, just waiting for the Ball. Throw in a Duc who was once a frog, a voodoo priestess with the power to bring back the dead and a rapidly approaching deadline, and the witches are going to have their work cut out for them. But Granny doesn't know the meaning of the word quit, well, she does, she's pretty smart, but she understands that the word, much like taxes, doesn't apply to her.
The novel is a send up of a dozen different fairy tales, from Red Riding Hood to Snow White, Wizard of Oz (I love the farm house falling on Nanny - "It's the willow reinforcement.") to the Lord of the Rings. It's also a Discworld tour of the world. There's a village where they do this "thing with the Bulls", though that will never be the same after the witches pass through. There's a city very reminiscent of certain European mountain towns with sharped tooth, late night visitors. And of course the city of Genua, with its swamps, voodoo and zombies, will feel familiar to anyone who's ever been to New Orleans. I often get the feeling that Mr. Pratchett isn't too sure about tourists. After reading The Colour of Magic and Light Fantastic, I thought that he saw tourists as just somewhat blind to their surroundings. After reading Witches Abroad, I'm sure of it. And in my own experience he's right. Of course, most tourists don't have the power the witches do, so their tour of the world maybe a whole different experience than most people.
Two scenes that really stand out to me: the riverboat and the final battle. On the way to Genua, the witches decide to take a break from the broomsticks and take a room on a riverboat. And of course what do you find on riverboats? Right, gamblers. And Nanny can't resist the temptation of a few hands of Cripple Mr. Onion, and quickly loses all their money. Granny, though, is a fighter, and she knows just the weapon to use this time: headology. I think one of the things I like most about Granny is that she understands that power is dangerous, so while it's good to have, there are times when it's better not to use it. So she uses headology, the ability to really get into people's heads without magic. She just knows people. As someone who's not a people person, that's an ability I can admire.
The other scene is the climax, when Granny is facing off against Lilith atop the highest tower in the castle. The other ability that Granny has always shown that I admire is the core of strength, and the nice thing about being strong is it allows you to do things the weak cannot, like be merciful. And Granny shows that for all the hardness inside her, she really is all about helping people, caring for them in her own way. One of my favorite quotes, when Granny is describing what a godmother should be: "We're the kind that gives people what they know they really need, not what they think they ought to want."
This is certainly one of my favorite Discworld novels. It really showcases Mr. Pratchett's ability to craft a unique story using elements from a variety of other stories, in this case, his use of fairy tales. He's able to combine this with other themes, in this case tourism, and develops a story that is one of a kind to the Disc. Like all good fables, this one provokes us to think, about what it means to be powerful and how we shape our own destiny, but interweaves it with a fun tale, filled with laughs.