Maskerade by Terry Pratchett
Marion and I both read Maskerade around the same time. I listened to Nigel Planer narrate the audio version (he’s so good) while Marion read the book in print format. She joins me here as we discuss this DISCWORLD story featuring the witches of Lancre.
Kat: After Magrat Garlick married the king in Lord and Ladies, there were only two real witches in Lancre: Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. This isn’t right; everyone knows you need three witches. Granny realizes that their best prospect for a replacement for Magrat is Agnes, a girl who is known for having a nice personality (which means she’s unattractive). Agnes is full-bodied (to put it nicely), but she knows there’s a skinny girl inside. Unfortunately, that skinny girl has a name (it’s Perdita X. Dream) and a personality all her own. Tired of living the pastoral (i.e., boring) life in Lancre, Agnes and Perdita move to Anhk Morpork and join the opera. Agnes is upstaged by a beautiful skinny girl named Christine who can’t sing. Agnes has to sing Christine’s parts from off-stage.
Even more troubling than how Agnes is being treated is that the opera house is haunted by a ghost who is issuing orders to the opera owner and has recently, it seems, begun killing members of the cast and crew (but “the show must go on!”). When Granny, Nanny and Greebo (Nanny’s shape-shifting cat) arrive to fetch Agnes, they get caught up in the mystery and the untangling of it is, of course, hilarious.
You might recognize from my plot summary or (if you’re very clever) from the title of my review, that Maskerade is Terry Pratchett’s salute to (or parody of) Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera. Many of the Phantom elements are here — Christine the lovely soprano, the ugly but beautifully singing opera ghost, the underground lake with candles, and (my favorite part, but I won’t tell you why) the famous crystal chandelier. To enjoy Maskerade most thoroughly, it would help to first see a recording of The Phantom of the Opera.
Marion: Greebo was one of my favorite parts. I had forgotten about the shape-changing spell, and Greebo at Opening Night made me laugh out loud.
I don’t know if this was included in the audiobook, but Pratchett’s acknowledgment reads, “My thanks to the people who showed me that opera was stranger than I could imagine. I can best repay their kindness by not mentioning their names here.” I thought he got everything exactly right, down to that wonderful, operatic death scene! At the same time, the way he often does, he catches the magic of it as well… even Nanny and Granny are touched by it, at the end, I think.
Kat: Yes, the acknowledgment was read in the audio version. I thought it was amusing. Maskerade makes merciless fun of opera, which is not hard to do, but is especially funny when handled by Terry Pratchett. I’m not sure if all readers will enjoy it as much as I did, but Maskerade pushed all the right buttons for me. I have a particular interest in opera because I attended grad school at Indiana University, which is famous for its top-ranked music school and is especially known for vocal performance. I have at least a dozen friends who are involved in opera — including composing, performing, and singing — and I had season tickets and attended dozens of operas when I lived in Bloomington. While I loved that experience, I recognized at the same time that some of it is pretty ridiculous. Pratchett catches all of it, poking fun at the silly plots, the ridiculous superstitions of the cast, the personalities of the performers, and the snooty attitudes of the patrons. There are plenty of allusions to famous operas and Broadway musicals (which I would not put in the same category, but that’s because I’m a snooty opera patron but, hey, I did see The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, and Westside Story when they toured the U.S.).
I would have enjoyed Maskerade if that was all there was to it, but fortunately, there’s more. Pratchett uses the symbol of the mask to show us that everyone wears one. Most of the characters are, in some way, hiding behind a metaphorical mask and pretending to be someone they’re not. In some scenes a real mask is physically there and its presence changes the character’s behavior. I won’t give you any examples because it’s fun to catch those things for yourself. I found this aspect of the novel thought-provoking and even occasionally touching.
Marion: Pratchett manages to slip in thought-provoking ideas, usually smoothly, without disrupting the flow or the story or the gales of laughter (I’m thinking of a certain luncheon, where one of Nanny’s desserts is served). I thought this one had a lot to say about identity, the things we keep from ourselves, and also about desires and fantasy – all kinds of fantasies.
Here’s one of my favorite passages, about fantasy and magic:
Nanny rather liked the theatrical world. That was why Esme [Granny] disliked it, she reckoned. It was magic of illusions and misdirection and foolery, and that was fine with Nanny Ogg, because you couldn’t be married three times without a little fooling.
Kat: Here are some other highlights: Granny plays poker with Death, Granny pretends to be a lady, Nanny Ogg’s moonshine is used as a weapon, Death tries to get a swan to deliver its song, the Watch come to investigate the murders, and Nanny gets her aphrodisiacal recipes published and has to deal with some slimy publishers. Pratchett is pretty ruthless with the publishers. I can’t resist one quote:
Granny and Nanny strolled through the city toward the area known as the Isle of Gods… It was where the city kept all those things it occasionally needed but was uneasy about, like the Watchhouse, the theatres, the prison, and the publishers.
Discworld — (1983-2015) Discworld is a satirical fantasy world created by Terry Pratchett to poke fun at 1980s fantasy novels. Since then, they’ve evolved so that they now make fun of everything. Mr. Pratchett explains Discworld: “The world rides through space on the back of a turtle. This is one of the great ancient world myths, found wherever men and turtles are gathered together; the four elephants were an indo-European sophistication. The idea has been lying in the lumber room of legend for centuries. All I had to do was grab it and run away before the alarms went off… There are no maps. You can’t map a sense of humor. Anyway, what is a fantasy map but a space beyond which There Be Dragons? On the Discworld we know There Be Dragons Everywhere. They might not all have scales and forked tongues, but they Be Here all right, grinning and jostling and trying to sell you souvenirs.” The Discworld novels are presented here in publication order. To read more about the Discworld “arcs” and reading order, see this Wikipedia article.
Discworld for Kids: