Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Terry Pratchett's Discworld 18- Maskerade

 Terry Pratchett

“Well, basically there are two sorts of opera," said Nanny, who also had the true witch's ability to be confidently expert on the basis of no experience whatsoever. "There's your heavy opera, where basically people sing foreign and it goes like "Oh oh oh, I am dyin', oh I am dyin', oh oh oh, that's what I'm doin'", and there's your light opera, where they sing in foreign and it basically goes "Beer! Beer! Beer! Beer! I like to drink lots of beer!", although sometimes they drink champagne instead. That's basically all of opera, reely.”

Eighteen books in to this mammoth fantasy series, I get the strange, nostalgic, but now incorrect sensation of moving forward into the later stages of Terry Pratchett's career. This is, of course, ridiculous, as, since Raising Steam became the fortieth Discworld book late last year (and now the only one I am yet to read), meaning my Herculean attempts to chronologically review them haven't yet reached the half-way mark. The biggest reason for this feeling is quite probably just because we're only two books away from the point where I first started, all those years ago, but there's another reason; if you count Equal Rites then this is the fifth book starring the ever-popular witches of Lancre; one of the core, strongest franchise-within-a-franchise of this fantastic universe. After confidently tackling mad wannabe monarchs, an evil fairy godmother, the cold brutality of elves, and steering the course of the crown, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick were somewhat at risk of running out of steam.

This was clearly something Pratchett was aware of, as Maskerade brought in some notable changes from the previous four witches books. Firstly, for the first time as a group, the witches were headed to Ankh-Morpork, Pratchett's favourite, most popular and most populated Discworld stomping ground. Yes, Granny had visited with the girl wizard Esk in Equal Rites, but her character there was undeniably under-developed and raw compared to the definitive witch she became, and the appeal of all three of Granny's coven loudly trampling in to Ankh-Morpork was undeniable for the ever-growing legion of Pratchett fans; especially when they absolutely needed to take a break from the rather limited caricature of old regional Britain that comprised their home. The next, and biggest effort of Maskerade was to introduce a fresh lead character; a new, different witch designed with the purpose of allowing the classic trio to step out of the singular spotlight formerly glaring down upon them while at the same time somewhat presenting them as the well-established authority to be somewhat resented, at least from one point of view.

The set-up for Maskerade follows on from the last witches book Lords and Ladies, where Magrat was married to the court-jester-cum-King Verence II and thus became Queen of Lancre and has not the time to app ear in this book. Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax note quite rightly that a coven of witches needs three members to balance itself correctly, especially as Granny (by now easily established by Pratchett as clearly the wisest, most powerful, and most potentially dangerous of all magic users on the Disc) shows signs of cracking a little within this new alignment. This, along with a side-mission to address the (perhaps meta) issue of an unscrupulous book publisher taking advantage of Nanny Ogg's previously-unknown talent for writing somewhat saucy recipes, leads Nanny and Granny to Ankh-Morpork, where they go to persuade the reluctant Agnes Nitt, potential witch and suitable candidate, to fulfill the missing role in the time-old tradition of maiden, mother and... the other one. The only trouble is she's really not that interested, and she's in Ankh-Morpork to seek fame and fortune at the opera house.

Let's wind down this ever-growing plot summary before it gets going to establish one important fact in relation to my overall enjoyment of this book; my knowledge of opera, its traditions, favourites, and even cliches is incredibly limited. Though I can often pretend to be interested in aspects of high art, classics, and popular culture in order to make myself seem more intelligent than I really am, I would never pretend to have any interest in opera. I'm even less interested and in fact am downright hostile towards it's more contemporary and, some would say ridiculous alternative in musical theatre, and Pratchett smartly entwines the two by focusing on creating a pastiche of Gaston Leroux's famous early twentieth-century French novel The Phantom of the Opera. Now, my perhaps total lack of knowledge regarding the subject matter probably automatically limits my enjoyment of the novel, because after all the key to successful satire is context. While I did enjoy Pratchett's rich descriptions of an environment both new to the Discworld but also one that seamlessly fits in with its ever-growing tapestry,  there was no humour in the parodies for me (most of which I could only find explained through the handy L-Space Web's Annotated Pratchett Files).

Underneath the thematic dressing lies a character study revolving around Agnes Nitt, her relationship with the witches and her apparent destiny, and a battle of style verses substance. Unlike the considerably eccentric figures of Granny, Nanny, and even Magrat, Agnes is a much more well-rounded, normal, and relatable character; something which both benefits and handicaps the novel. Pratchett describes Agnes as overweight, unattractive, and somewhat withdrawn, in such a manner as to invite sympathy from the reader. She does, however, have an amazing operatic singing voice, blowing away the viewers of her tryout at the opera house, but her non-showbiz looks make them reluctant to make her a central figure. Instead, Agnes is positioned as a backing singer and told to use her amazing talents to slyly provide the main voice for the sake of cliched beauty Christine (thus becoming a suitably altered center for the Phantom of the Opera storyline). Pratchett's positioning of the two main conflicts of the story is superb; in one respect she's perfect for the role in the witches coven, but the apparent lack of choice and definite lack of glamour pushes her further towards the opera house, where she finds out that she can't be in control either way. 

For Agnes, this is somewhat of a coming-of-age story- a genre Pratchett had been very fond of in his earlier Discworld installments- that results in an ending with a more mature (if somewhat predictable) conclusion to her troubles. It's also paralleled by a similar mental dilemma faced by Granny Weatherwax, who fears the temptation of darkness that comes with her ever-growing power and wisdom, and as such the two stories thematically entwine in such a way as to resolve everybody's problems at the end. While I don't want to criticise the way Pratchett leaves the characters from a technical standpoint, I do feel that his choice of resolution could've been more interesting; particularly compared to Equal Rites or Small Gods.

So overall then (as I attempt to reign this ever-growing review into check), I leave this look at Maskerade with mixed thoughts. The first, unequivocally and unfortunately negatively, is that the opera theme didn't click with me. It was well written and somewhat evocative, but not to any extent that I could fully embrace the satire, like in Soul Music, for example. The character work is deeper than first apparent, and worthy of more thought, though Agnes Nitt despite (or because of) her complexity and realism isn't much of a hook, especially when overshadowed so greatly by her elderly contemporaries. However underneath all that is a much more recognisable story about young people's aspirations in the face of reality that should echo with a great number of readers; maybe not quite young adult, thanks to the mixed messages of the conclusion, but for slightly older readers to compare with their own progression from youth into eventual careers and such. Definitely a far more interesting book for me than it was upon first glance.