Lords and Ladies, by Terry Pratchett, is the 14th book in the Discworld universe and the fourth in the Witches cycle. I’ve previously read the first three Witches books, along with the fifth, and they are among my favourites in the whole of Discworld. Lords and Ladies follows fairly directly from Witches Abroad, and a note at the start suggests that you won’t understand it as well if you haven’t read that. I think you would probably be fine starting here – it’s possible to pick up almost all the essentials from the previous story line, which isn’t carried over in any great detail into this novel. That said, Witches Abroad is a great novel in its own right, and well worth reading – though it isn’t a patch on this. Lords and Ladies has now become perhaps my second or third favourite out of the twelve Discworld novels I’ve read so far. It was just exactly what I wanted to read right now.

Lords and Ladies (Discworld, #14; Witches #4) by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett’s work always contains cultural and literary allusions, some of which have kept their freshness and some of which now feel very dated. For example, his weird parody of 90s boybands, Soul Music, is one of the least successful of the series, even though it features many of my favourite characters. Lords and Ladies stays current by a simple expedient: almost all the cultural references are to Shakespeare plays and folklore, both of which have survived for centuries and are unlikely to suddenly drop out of circulation over two decades. Most of the Shakespeare references are to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is one of my personal favourites, so perhaps that accounts for how much I enjoyed this one. In this story, the fairies are rather less charming and more malevolent than they typically are in modern stories. I’m not particularly familiar with fairy folklore in the UK, but the links with Midsummer Night’s Dream were enough to keep me occupied and engaged throughout.

Something that I love about the Discworld is that there are a couple of different views of magic: wizards and witches see it very differently. This is (largely) split along gender lines, with magical men much more likely to become wizards and magical women much more likely to become witches, though it’s not a hard and fast rule. Wizardry is relatively formal, taught and researched at the Unseen University, with all the bureaucracy and posturing that go on at any academic institution. Witchcraft is much more closely tied to nature – mostly human nature – and is passed from one woman to others in an informal apprenticeship style. It more or less mimics the way that alchemists and “wise women” developed their trades in the nebulous past, and I really like the exploration of these two cultures – both after the same thing but fundamentally different in their understanding of it. Neither system is portrayed as more important or powerful than the other, but this is the first novel I’ve read where the wizards and the witches actually interact with each other in any kind of significant way. It gives Pratchett an opportunity to explore the detail of his magic system in more depth in a way that feels natural, and I enjoyed that tremendously.

Despite the great worldbuilding, though, this book – and all of Pratchett’s work – is strongest in his immense understanding of and love for people. It’s what comes through every time. Terry Pratchett is an example to male fantasy authors everywhere that writing women is quite easy if only you imagine that women are people rather than types*. This is the more impressive because so many of his characters, on the face of it, are archetypes – but he always gives them depth and interest and dimension. For example, the central character of Lords and Ladies is Granny Weatherwax, the oldest witch in the Lancre coven. She ought to be a ridiculous caricature – she’s a hard-as-nails grizzled old spinster, hiding a heart of gold (or, at least, slightly yellow-looking steel) under many layers of impervious granite. She’s extraordinarily competent, and a lot of her success comes from knowing when she should not be a witch and instead just be a woman with a lot of common sense. This is a character that is in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of works of fiction – she ought to seem trite and tired. And yet this novel is really an exploration of Granny Weatherwax – of how she feels about ageing and dying, about leaving a legacy, about the decisions she made as a much younger woman and the impact those have had. I’m currently reading The Japanese Lover, which is billed as a literary character study of an older woman thinking back on her life, and it doesn’t do it half as well as this preposterous novel about elves, dried frog pills, and a Librarian who’s also an orangutan. Sorry, Isabel Allende, but it’s true.

I suppose that brings me onto the plot. Pratchett’s plots are generally convoluted and ridiculous, but in a PG Wodehouse kind of way – more and more keeps getting chucked in, but it almost always comes together at the last minute in an impressive climactic scene. It certainly did here, and I enjoyed seeing several different character arcs brought together in both expected and unexpected ways. Sometimes Pratchett gets into the weeds in his conclusions, with his assumption that everyone knows as much about early folklore and modern paganism as him (the conclusions almost always draw on both). This time, though, it was perfect – I’m sure there were references that I missed, but because the storytelling itself was narratively satisfying I didn’t even notice. When fantasy – actually, any speculative fiction – is at its best, you aren’t choosing to suspend your disbelief because you don’t notice that what you’re reading is unbelievable. Because Pratchett’s characters are so real, you feel like the completely surreal storyline makes perfect sense. I loved Lords and Ladies enormously and it is going to be a strong contender for my end of year favourites.

*One of my favourite – hopefully not apocryphal – stories about any author is that Terry Pratchett was made an honorary Brownie because he had written a proper girl character in a book (Tiffany Aching, whom I personally find unbearable but I’m glad the Brownies liked her). I think it’s true, as it seems to have emerged from an interview by Neil Gaiman and I seem to recall reading the original article once. The original’s now disappeared from the internet – but the delightful details, including rubber chicken involvement, are reported in a blog here. http://eolake.blogspot.com/2013/07/pratchett-virtuoso.html