Equal Rites is the story of Eskarina Smith, Discworld's first female wizard. She's the first one because the wizard Drum Billet, on the eve of his death, hands over his staff to the eighth son of an eighth son -- except that Esk turns out to be a daughter, not a son. The staff's sure it hasn't made a mistake, but everyone else is sure it has. Esk's lucky, because the midwife who delivered her happens to be the redoubtable witch Granny Weatherwax -- and Granny's not about to let some wizard magic (suitable only for men, she believes, and lesser for that) mess the poor girl up. But even Granny's best laid plans can't keep the wizard magic away from Esk, and something's going to have to be done, and there's certain to be adventure on the way.
Compared to The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites is a little more refined, a little less madcap (it can't help it -- there's no Rincewind), and more subtle in some ways. It's a quieter story and it's also a book about Issues, in a very unsubtle way. It never pretends to be about anything else, and the story is such a good one that I can forgive it being about Issues when I'm often turned off by that. Pratchett handles the subject of women's rights deftly. Part of what I like so much about this story is that he's very sympathetic to his characters, but only when they're not being stupid or hypocritical; hypocrisy is laid bare for everyone to see, and it's mocked mercilessly, as it should be. I guess the big difference between this book and other books about Issues is that the way women's rights are dealt with grows out of the story organically. There's nothing forced about it.
As I'm growing to expect, the characters are vividly painted, and not necessarily two-dimensional (although some of them are -- this is forgiven because the main characters eclipse the minor characters). Granny Weatherwax, especially, is remarkable and I love her. She's such a legend to me, having met her in the smattering of other Discworld books I've read -- it was fun to read her "beginnings" (when she's already comparatively elderly -- I love that she's treated so well). She's the sort of character I love to read, but would probably be scared to death of if I actually met her. Especially if she wasn't on my side. I don't imagine her to be a comfortable person to talk to. But to read about her talking to others is a joy.
The storyline itself is a good adventure, a somewhat traditional coming-of-age. There were a few episodes that seemed a little... thrown in for the heck of it, maybe? It's not as tightly crafted as it could have been, but I think I'm spoiled by other Pratchett I've read. And I didn't think some of the description was as rich as I'd expected, although still miles ahead of many other writers.
What I do love is that I'm starting to get a feel for the shape of the Discworld novels, which was my whole intention with reading these books in order of publication. In some ways, Pratchett is still clearly feeling his way through things, still growing the world. I would rather, in my case of reading the books for the first time, have the shape of the world grow in the right order for me. I don't know if that makes any sense at all to anyone but me.
And because Pratchett's quotability factor remains high in this novel, here's one of several I really liked:
The barges stopped at some of the towns. By tradition only the men went ashore, and only Amschat, wearing his ceremonial Lying hat, spoke to non-Zoons. Esk usually went with him. He tried hinting that she should obey the unwritten rules of Zoon life and stay afloat, but a hint was to Esk what a mosquito bite was to the average rhino because 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.
And once I've worked my way through some of the coming-due library books on the TBR pile, to Mort, where we get to hang out with another of my favourite Discworld characters: DEATH.
P.S. Today is Canada Day! Happy Canada Day, everyone, especially my fellow Canadian readers. A classic treat from the National Film Board for you, that has nothing to do with books in general or Terry Pratchett in particular: The Log Driver's Waltz.