Postal Reading group
November 2021
Notes on the book Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

Lords and ladies is only the fourth book by Terry Pratchett that I have read. For such a prolific and well-known author this is, perhaps, not a very good record, so I welcomed this opportunity to try something else by the author.

The previous Terry Pratchett books which I have read are The Truth and Snuff from the Discworld series, and Wintersmith from the Tiffany Aching series. Assuming that these form a representative sample, then Lords and ladies is very typical of the author. Therein, of course, lies one of the difficulties which I have experienced with Terry Pratchett’s books: although I have enjoyed the ones which I have read, they all seem quite similar. Similarly, while the individual books are often absolutely hilarious, I find that I am not always in the mood for his humour. If I were to read the whole series, perhaps I would find some kind of progression or longer story, but on the other hand, like many successful series, I wonder if its simply a case of the author’s fans and publisher alike simply saying “Can we have more like this?”

With this in mind, true devotees of Pratchett’s work will be happy to have another installment in the Discworld and Witches series. Indeed, most of the reviews of this book which I can find online are unanimous in their praise, with the only negative comment being that this particular one is a little slow in building up to the final action. From my point of view, as an occasional reader of his books, many of the usual features of Discworld are present, as is the pervasive but cleverly done humour. In short, while I can’t see anything which really sets this one apart from other Discworld novels, I did enjoy it once I got into it.

The basic story in this novel is that Magrat Garlick is due to be married to the King of Lancre. Meanwhile, the boundary between the ‘everyday’ happenings of Discworld and the realm of magic becomes thinner at the Summer solstice. While the Lancre All-comers Morris Dancing Team are lying drunk on a fairy mound, the elves break through into Lancre causing all sorts of chaos in a society which has forgotten all about them. The witches have their work cut out to restore order, although it does at least provide some distraction from wedding day nerves for Magrat.

Throughout the novel the reader is exposed to all of the familiar features of Discworld with its strange mixture of primitive technology and advanced magic, plus an unlikely cast of supporting characters: dwarves, wizards, Morris dancers and even an orangutan. While some of the examples of Discworld ‘technology’ (often based on the ideas throughout history which have been tried and found to be impractical) are absent from this book, readers are instead amused by the blacksmith shoeing a unicorn, or even more bizarrely an ant! Similarly, I was taken with the idea of the librarian at the Unseen University being an orangutan, even if I don’t quite understand the significance of this. Another interesting point is the nature of Partchett’s elves. Although a common feature of many fantasy series, I don’t usually remember elves being portrayed as violent and evil.

While Discworld largely relies on primitive technology and the time honoured principles of magic, Pratchett’s real skill lies in making it seem so real and believable. This must partly be due to the way in which similar themes keep coming up throughout the Discworld series. Similarly, the slightly oblique references to some of the celebrated ideas of modern physics, adapted to fit in with Discworld and given a humerous slant, do help. In this book, we learn of the High-Energy Magic department at the Unseen University with references to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics and string theory.

While Pratchett is clearly familiar with some aspects of modern physics, it is only fair to say that Discworld is pure fantasy, and any references to these ideas should not be taken too seriously, except, perhaps, as a reminder that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. However, behind the obvious humour of Pratchett’s books there is often a serious point. This book is no exception to that, and touches on topics such as belief and existence. The idea that everything must happen somewhere, and it happens here because people believe in it touches on deep questions in philosophy concerning the nature of beliefs and how they are formed.

Also of interest is the role played by the witches in Pratchett’s novels. Far from the wicked beings casting spells which I remember from children’s books, Pratchett’s witches fulfil a much more useful role: delivering babies, treating warts and keeping troublesome kings in check. This would be more in keeping the tasks performed by ‘witches’ in history. The ability to treat common ailments with concoctions of herbs must have been useful and frightening in equal measures when medicine was otherwise limited to the equivalent of dried frog pills!

Ultimately, Lords and ladies is typical of Terry Pratchett’s writing. It falls into both the Discworld and Witches series, although, of course, it can easily be read on its own. The writing is pure fantasy and often hilarious, although the occasional allusions to modern physics and philosophical questions mean there is a serious point behind it. Although I generally enjoy Pratchett’s books when I read them, I have not usually sought them out. I therefore thank you for the opportunity to read another.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler