This is the third published Discworld novel. It is a quick read, set in the fantastic land of Discworld, set upon the backs of four elephants, who’re standing on the back of the great cosmic turtle: A’Tuin. Mixed in with light subversion of gender tropes, the venerable humorist’s prose will make you think while you laugh.
The book begins a new plot, which is independent of Rincewind’s from the first two books.
We’re introduced to Granny Weathermax, a powerful witch from the village of Bad Ass, situated in the Ramtop mountains.
Her newest granddaughter, dubbed “Eskarina”, is the eighth
son daughter of an eighth son.
Not knowing that it is a male, a dying wizard passes down his magical staff to the newborn.
We soon find out that a female Wizard is unprecedented!
According to Weathermax, this is a disgrace!
All women who deal in magic are respectable Witches, while men are Wizards.
It is unthinkable for a woman to own a magic staff, let alone be a Wizard.
We soon find that raising Eskarina as a Witch is a tough job, even for a witch as powerful as Granny. The lethal fireballs and inadvertent turning of annoying siblings into swine becomes too much to deal with. Weathermax takes an executive decision to deliver Esk to the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork to study magic among other wizards.
On reaching the university, Esk and Granny find out that the university refuses to accept women as wizards, simply because of the male chauvinism prevalent there. Granny manages to get Esk a covert job as a housekeeper inside the University, so that Esk can discreetly hang around and learn more about magic. This continues for a time, until we see the appearance of dark beings around powerful users of magic. Esk and her new friend Simon, who is a self-taught prodigy at the university, are particularly attractive targets for these beings. In a well-timed mishap, these dark creatures take control of Simon while Esk barely manages to escape their grasp. In order to rescue Simon from these beings, Esk decides to also enter the “dungeon dimension”. Meanwhile, Granny gets involved in an all-out mage battle with the University’s Arch-Chancellor and finally manages to convince him that the girl has true powers. Eventually, Esk and Simon figure out the unconventional mechanism of “knowing but not using magic” to defeat the creatures and return back to their world.
The book concludes by having Granny receive an honorary chair, the university opening its doors to women and Eskarina becoming the first female wizard to be qualified by the university.
Obviously, the central theme of the book is the idea of women empowerment and fighting discrimination based on sex. The title “Equal Rites” is also wordplay in that direction, but in the context of witchcraft.
He tried hinting that she should obey the unwritten rules … she was already learning that if you ignore the rules people will, half the time, quietly rewrite them so that they don’t apply to you. – Page 89, Equal Rites - Terry Pratchett
Granny Weathermax’s character is a force to be reckoned with. Her berating stare and attitude towards any and all discrimination is depiction of a strong and empowered woman. For young Eskarina, she is a role-model and repeatedly drives home the idea that all sexist rules are meant to be broken. All this effort results in a significant payoff towards the end for women wizards around the Disc.
Now while the subtext is equal rights for women, the final showdown between the dungeon beings and our young wizards is about something completely unrelated. The idea of “not using magic when you do know it” sounds particularly hand-wavy and is introduced as a matter of convenience. There seems to be very little causation between Eskarina being a female wizard and her defeating the “dungeon beings”. There is also nothing to indicate that Eskarina actually follows up on her newly discovered importance of reading, or that she tries to understand the jommetry that the University so heavily puts to use. This leaves a slightly confusing message as Eskarina’s role is still reserved to be the daredevil one, while the “learned” male wizards deal with all the theory as is the status quo.
The fantastical setting, standalone plot and goofy yet thought-provoking ideas make this book a highly recommended candidate for gifting to young adults. You also have the added benefit of introducing them to Discworld.