Tag Archives: pratchett’s women

An August of Tansy

KaleidoscopeCover-679x1024Some bits and pieces of news to catch you all up to date before I leave for London.

My short story “Cookie Cutter Superhero” was just released in Kaleidoscope, a YA anthology of diverse teenage stories. I’m really delighted that so many people have been enjoying this story and the world – even if it does mean I am getting daily requests to turn it into a novel! There’s a lovely review of my story here at Brewing Tea and Books, and Eugene Myers wrote a nice review of the whole anthology at League of Extraordinary Writers.

Pozible supporters should have their copy of Kaleidoscope already; if you didn’t support the campaign, you can buy it right now in most countries though the official Australian release date is not until 1 October.

UPDATE: My story “The Raven and her Victory” has just been reprinted in Heiresses of Russ 2014! This is my Edgar Allen Poe story, and I’m very pleased that it’s the final piece in this reprint anthology of lesbian-themed SFF.

Meanwhile, another book release! Tehani at Fablecroft has released an e-collection of my Pratchett’s Women essays, following the development of female characters across the Discworld novels. The book contains all nine Pratchett’s Women essays that have appeared here on the blog, starting with the original “The Boobs, the Bad and the Broomsticks” which remains by far the most viewed page ever published on this blog, at over 13,000 hits. All essays have been revised for this edition.

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Pratchett’s Women IX: The Truth Has Got Her Boots On

The Truth, by Terry Pratchett

I almost wasn’t going to write a Pratchett’s Women post for The Truth. Like Night Watch, it’s a marvellous book, one of Pratchett’s absolute best, and happens to be almost entirely about male characters and their issues. Considering that gender imbalance is no longer the case for every Discworld novel or even almost every Discworld novel, (as could be argued that it was the case in his earlier days) it feels churlish to criticise it on those grounds. It is a love letter to moveable type, and a fun take on the history of the printing press, with the usual layers of humour and cleverness, and a rich cast of characters, so I am going to forgive it for being a mostly male cast. This was actually the book that brought me back to the Discworld after a period of what felt at the time to be lacklustre releases but may well have been my own loss of interest in the series, and its many repetitions.

But I wasn’t alone in that. The Truth was a huge success for Pratchett, and one of the books which really helped to cement his ‘legend’ status. While he had previously written other novels with a similar formula (standalone male character faces the Discworld’s version of a particular historical industry and chaos ensues) there was something about this book, and its maturity, and perhaps the solid link to the history it was replicating that made it popular among non-fantasy readers. In fact, apart from the vampire, Death and the other side effects of a Discworld setting, this is largely not a story about magic gone wrong and trying to kill you, which sets it apart from almost every previous Discworld novel. This is instead a story of PEOPLE gone wrong and trying to kill you, and how a new industry can be every bit as terrifying and confrontational and dangerous as anything from the Dungeon Dimensions.

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Pratchett’s Women VIII: Has Scythe, Will Teach School

Many spoilers abound for the plots & endings of Soul Music, Hogfather, Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett

Rereading all three of the Susan Sto Helit (or Susan Death) books was something I had been greatly looking forward to. I’ve always enjoyed Susan as a character even when I didn’t especially love the books she featured in – Soul Music, for instance, was never a favourite of mine, though the animated version of it is dear to my heart (funnily enough it DOES work better with a soundtrack of relevant examples of the music that the story is about), Hogfather is one I’ve often found bewildering with moments of occasional joy, and I never remember anything about Thief of Time at all.

This time around, I enjoyed all three rather better than I had in the past, but in reading them specifically for this blogging series, I couldn’t help noticing that, well. Considering what a popular and beloved character Susan is, it’s interesting what a small space she takes up in each of the books.

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Pratchett’s Women VII: A Wonderful Personality and Good Hair

Agnes, fan art by Vic Hill

MASKERADE and CARPE JUGULUM, by Terry Pratchett

Even though Maskerade made me cranky that Magrat’s marriage had written her out of the narrative of the Lancre witches, it’s hard not to be delighted about Agnes “Perdita” Nitt. She’s a fantastic character, one of Pratchett’s most interesting and nuanced portrayals of a younger female protagonist.

Agnes is fat. And while Pratchett’s comic touch is very much in evidence, he brings such empathy to his depiction of Agnes that, even when fat jokes are being made, she herself is never treated like a joke. This is an incredibly rare thing in fantasy fiction, where fat women are rarely seen (unless they are villains or jolly service industry professionals) and young fat women are most definitely an endangered species.

There are so many things to like about Agnes and the portrayal of her character this book. For a start, we don’t get the cliched emphasis on how she eats, or an ingrained narrative assumption that she is the size she is purely through over-eating or laziness. I also liked very much that while the reader is often confronted with the quite awful social ramifications of being a fat girl, it’s never entirely clear cut how much the various perceptions surrounding Agnes reflect reality.

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Pratchett’s Women VI: Pole Dancers, Goblin Girls, and the Family Man

Thud, by Terry Pratchett
Snuff, by Terry Pratchett
(spoilers for both abound below)

I know I read Thud when it came out. But this was the early days of motherhood when my memory retention was out the window, and the days of re-reading were gone forever… I know I read this book, but I’m pretty sure it was a speedy, uninvolved reading. It had to be. Because there is no other excuse for me not realising before now that this is SO GOOD.

For a start, this is the best Angua novel since Feet of Clay – and I think it might actually be better, in the attention given to her character. I like that she and Carrot have been allowed now to settle into a comfortable relationship without any stupid plotty dramas being thrown in to artificially shake it up. I also like that her main plotline for this novel revolves around a relationship/wary dislike/friendship with another female character.

But Sybil also gets to shine in this book, despite her new motherhood which can often cause a female character to disappear into the background, or lose all characteristics apart from those to do with her child (as, for instance, happens to Magrat in the Witches novels).

Then there’s Cheery, who doesn’t get a subplot or even a subplotlet to herself, but remains awesome, cute and gets to play with the other girls.

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Pratchett’s Women V: The Seamstress Redemption

Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett (audiobook read by Stephen Briggs)

Deriders of the Bechdel Test tend to gravitate immediately towards what I like to call The Shawshank Redemption Clause. They cite as many works as possible which are completely awesome, and have no ladies in them, as evidence that the test is stupid.

Me, I see that as evidence that their faces are stupid. And that they have entirely missed the point of the Bechdel Test.

No one would ever deny that it’s possible to create a masterpiece that has no women in it. However… there are few true masterpieces in the world, and there are very few stories in the world that are so VERY good that having more than one interesting female character in them is something that wouldn’t improve the narrative.

I had this in my head upon revisiting Night Watch, because I remembered very clearly that a) this is primarily a story about men and b) this is one of my favourite Discworld novels of all time. And I say this as someone who is meh about Small Gods and Reaper Man, two of the most celebrated of the Discworld novels, precisely because the overwhelming focus on male characters and point of view left those books, in my opinion, lacking something.

Mostly, I was scared that my focus on female characters would spoil this book. It’s not like it would be the first thing that my developing feminist perspective has utterly ruined for me.

But it turned out okay. Because (spoilers, sweetie!) Night Watch is still awesome. It’s mostly a male narrative, AND it’s awesome.

(But, as it happens, it passes the Bechdel Test. Just.)

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Pratchett’s Women IV: His Henpecked Voice

Jingo (some spoilers)
The Fifth Elephant (ALL THE SPOILERS)

Both Jingo and The Fifth Elephant missed their mark entirely with me, when I first read them on first release. Which meant that on my recent reread, I at least had fairly low expectations for them.

Jingo on the whole fared much better than the first time around, at least as far as a Vimes and City Watch novel is concerned. The prose is clever and tight, and there are many crunchy themes surrounding war, patriotism, etc. It’s one of those Discworld books that transcends the comedy to have a deeper philosophical meaning, plus as many Leonardo Da Vinci jokes as any sane person would ever want in one place.

However, the thing it doesn’t have is much in the way of… you guessed it, women.

Sybil appears in a few scenes, and is largely reduced to the role of nagging wife. I do love the bit where she chides Vimes for treating her as if she is nagging him and points out how unfair it is, but that’s Sybil for you, grasping any attempt to be awesome, in the face of difficult circumstance. She very much there to point out how awkwardly Vimes is assimilating into the upper classes, and in some cases how well he is assimilating, and to wave a few warning flags that his current workaholic lifestyle is unsustainable. This at least will be followed up in later books.

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Pratchett’s Women III: Werewolf Glamour & the Sexing of Dwarves

Guards, Guards
Men at Arms
Feet of Clay

I always loved the City Watch books of the Discworld series almost as much if not equally to those of the Lancre Witches. Vimes is a wonderful character, someone who has been utterly broken down by life when we first meet him, and gradually pulls himself up by his bootstraps, though he never loses his deep cynicism about the world. The books are packed with lovable, memorable characters: Nobby Nobbs who is basically a big mass of personality quirks mushed together into a smelly vest, cautious Sergeant Colon with a quip for every occasion, and the utterly adorable Carrot, a man so damned GOOD that bluebirds sing whenever he walks down the street. We also get some of the best appearances in the Discworld of the Patrician, one of the most compellingly pragmatic evil overlords ever to exist in fiction, and some of the best stories centred around the city of Ankh-Morpork. All this and some clever, airtight plots, mostly based around police procedural or murder mystery structures. All up, pretty good stuff.

But what about the women?

Guards Guards, the first book featuring the City Watch, is pretty light on when it comes to female characters. The most central woman in the whole story is Sybil Ramkin, dragon expert, whom I love deeply, though it has to be said that she emerges as a fascinating, fully realised and complicated female character despite every attempt of the narrative. Each time she appears, she has to wade through a sea of fat jokes, aristocrat jokes, lonely spinster jokes, and in some cases, all three at once. On more than one occasion she is described vividly as something monstrous or other than human, including scenes from the point of view of the man she will marry in later books.

Every time she opens her mouth, though, Sybil proves herself to be awesome. She’s not just posh and dragon obsessed and lonely and less than slender, she’s also smart, brave, funny, generous, and a good person. I don’t know how to feel about the final scene in which Vimes capitulates to her romantic expectations – it’s gorgeously written, and terribly clever, but I did rankle at him only belatedly admitting that he finds her attractive, and the fact that she is pretty much described as a perfumed siege engine rather than a person. But I love her, I love him, and I do find their later relationship one of the best things about these books (gosh I hope it still is, better brace myself for the visit of the suck fairy) so I will forgive Pratchett for giving Sybil such a problematic debut.

The rest of the women in Guards Guards are largely invisible. We are told about Carrot’s mother, his old girlfriend Minty, his new sort-of-girlfriend Reet, and his innocent friendship with the local brothel madam Mrs Palm and her “many unmarried daughters,” all through scenes in which they don’t actually appear, through dialogue or in his letters home. Likewise Mrs Colon is referenced but we don’t meet her. The entire plot, about a man who uses another bunch of men to summon a dragon and overthrow the Patrician in favour of a fake king to rule them all, and the men who stop him, is one big cockforest. But to put it into context, this is a very early Discworld book, one which had (mostly) not yet accepted that women could play roles other than sexy love interests, funny-because-not-sexy love interests, landladies and witches.

As I discussed in the original Pratchett’s Women post, later Discworld books are far more inclusive of female characters, and that holds true for the City Watch volumes.


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Pratchett’s Women: Slash! Stab! A Lesson in Practical Queening.

Lords and Ladies, by Terry Pratchett, is the best kind of fantasy novel.

For me, the best possible thing that fantasy as a genre can do is to say something important about our world and history, ideally while also commenting in some way on the traditions of the genre itself, and being a damn good read. Add to that a whole bunch of female characters who happen to be the central drivers of the plot and…

Oh, yes. Lords and Ladies is that good.

In some ways, this book is the last third of an unofficial trilogy (with Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad) featuring the original trio of Pratchett’s witches: Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. In other ways, it’s the beginning of an unofficial trilogy (with Maskerade and Carpe Jugulum) about the mortality and power of Granny Weatherwax, with bonus Nanny Ogg at every turn (she doesn’t just steal scenes, she gets them drunk and makes them blush with dirty jokes) and the growing pains of Agnes “Perdita” Nitt.

But this is also, like so many of Pratchett’s best books, a book about stories. In this case, having taken on Shakespeare and fairy tales, he looks at the role of women in English folk songs and folklore. This is a story about cold iron and fairy glamour; of midsummer rituals and blood in the snow and dodgy jokes about morris dancers and maypoles. It’s a story about how practicality trumps romance every time, if you’re lucky.

Most of all, while it has much to say about witches and wives and mothers, this is a story about queens.

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Pratchett’s Women: The Boobs, the Bad and the Broomsticks

[SPOILER ALERT for several older Discworld novels and one key scene in recent release I Shall Wear Midnight]

Some time ago, I talked on Galactic Suburbia about how I felt Pratchett was one of those writers who you can see noticeably improving and honing his craft as he goes, and that one of the elements he hugely improved in over the years was his treatment of female characters. Someone commented that they hoped we would elaborate on that at some point, and I have always intended to, though I don’t know that Galactic Suburbia is the best place for that discussion – largely because I think I’m the only one of the three who is a huge reader of Pratchett.

I started reading the Discworld books in the early 90’s, when Small Gods was the latest release. This meant that I read all the books before that in (mostly) the wrong order, and all of the books after that in (mostly) the right order. So it took me some time to figure out what was going on with Pratchett’s women, and the chronology of those early books is still a little muddled in my head.

The first ten books of the Discworld series are quite problematic in their portrayal of female characters, particularly the younger women. I certainly don’t think this was intentional on Pratchett’s part, but an unfortunate result of the fact that in these early books he was largely writing parody of various fantasy worlds and tropes, just beginning to develop the Discworld into something more substantial and complex. I also feel that Pratchett was very much aware of some of the dreadful sexism in his source material, and the female characters he wrote were often in direct response to what he saw in the fantasy genre.

His intentions to point out the silliness of the portrayal of women in fantasy, sadly, backfired somewhat.

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