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Four stars

Lords and Ladies may not be the biggest gut-buster in Terry Pratchett's back catalog, but it's got a cracking story. Pratchett's emphasis here is on character and real suspense, with the humor spread evenly across the mix. Following their travels in Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad, the barely-a-coven of Esme "Granny" Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick return to the pipsqueak kingdom of Lancre, where Magrat is betrothed to the erstwhile jester, now King Verence II.

Magrat is a little torn. On the one hand, she's eager to be queen but a little resentful of the way she has arrived in Lancre to find her whole life from here on pre-arranged. A petulant snit leads to a breakup with Nanny and Esme. Meanwhile, the eager Verence has sent invitations to the nuptials far and wide, one of which ends up in the hands of Ridcully, the Archchancellor of Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork. To the astonishment of faculty, Ridcully is eager to go, as Lancre holds some bittersweet nostalgia for him (the nature of which isn't really hard to figure out). Off he goes, with some hand-picked staff — including the orangutan Librarian — reluctantly in tow.

But coinciding with the ceremony is looming tragedy. The ancient standing stones near Lancre, known as the Dancers, which serve as a portal protecting Discworld from the alternate universe where dwell the sinister race of elves known as the Lords and Ladies, is weakening. The elves seduce unwary humans with their glamour before moving in for the kill, but are completely vulnerable to iron. Will Granny Weatherwax be forced to face off against her nemesis, the Queen of the Elves?

Having just come off the brilliant Small Gods, Pratchett continues firing on all six cylinders here. While Lords and Ladies never forgets to please the core fanbase (with no fewer than three classically groan-inducing puns that I counted) by keeping the comedy content strong, mostly you're going to find yourself gripped by the tension of the unfolding narrative. The elves are genuinely creepy when they turn up, and the whole sequence where Magrat is trapped in the castle alone while a horde of them menace her is by turns frightening, funny, and rousing — especially once she discovers the armory and does the chicks-in-chainmail thing. The Queen is a menacingly effective villainess, too. Couple this with some really warm and heartfelt development of the main characters, and you have a book that isn't just a simple fantasy spoof but a fully-rounded epic fantasy in its own right. I especially enjoyed the inspired way Pratchett worked his hilarious take on quantum physics into the story, which culminates in the best application of Schrödinger's Cat to a combat setting I think anyone's ever done.

Comedy, romance, suspense, action, and even horror are expertly balanced — why, it's as if by magic! — to render Lords and Ladies one of the Discworld saga's most regal entries. Followed in the Witches of Lancre sequence by Maskerade.