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Book cover art by Ben Perrini (left).
Review © 2001 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Equal Rites is a briskly funny and spot-on satire of gender roles and institutionalized idiocy, set in the only locale in which you could reasonably expect that sort of thing to be done without lapsing into politically correct pontificating: the fractured fairy-tale universe of Terry Pratchett's Discworld. The story begins one evening when a wizard, just prior to his death, bestows his magical staff upon the newborn babe of a simple blacksmith in the town of Bad Ass. Too late it is discovered that this presumed son is a daughter. Horrors! Women simply can't become wizards; why, it just isn't done!

Eskarina grows into a headstrong child who simply cannot see what all the fuss is about concerning the "proper" livelihoods for women versus men. Ignoring the imputations of Granny Weatherwax, Bad Ass's resident witch (whose magic seems only to consist of quaint little harmless potions and spells that work principally because people expect them to, a little bit of psychology Pratchett calls "headology"), Eskarina takes her staff and makes her way to Discworld's capital of Ankh-Morpork to gain entry to the Unseen University of wizards. Apart from popularizing the concept of a school for wizards a full decade before J. K. Rowling, Pratchett spices his story with his hallmarks, chief among which is a talent for playing with the English language in subtle little ways so that the simplest sentence ("The conversation wandered away like a couple of puppies.") can evoke a fit of the chuckles. Whereas Piers Anthony slaps you right upside the head with his limp puns, Pratchett employs his so carefully that you don't realize you've slipped on one of these verbal banana peels until your butt's hit the floor.

Pratchett sometimes allows his story to race along at such a brisk speed it threatens to run away from you. But on the whole, Pratchett deftly uses his homespun blend of comedy and fantasy as a funhouse mirror in which we find ourselves looking at ourselves in shapes we'd heretofore never imagined. His satire works because he has love, and not scorn, for his subject — to wit, human nature and all its foolishness and foibles. And of course, what would a Discworld story be without homages to the genre; here, in a climactic flood scene, we get a spectacular riff on Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast.

As always, a trip to Terry Pratchett's Discworld provides a reliably silly holiday from mundane reality, by way of pure reading magic. See you there.