Wyrd Sisters is one of Terry Pratchett’s earlier Discworld novels, focusing on his cast of witches: Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick. The three, at Magrat’s prodding, have formed something of a coven, and meet every so often to do what Magrat considers are witchy things (like chanting over a cauldron).
Witches in the Discworld universe are generally solitary (except for when they are apprentices to a more experienced witch), and shirk structure, unlike the wizards at Unseen University. Overall, Pratchett’s witches tend to lead quiet lives and don’t have a designated leader.
Among them, Granny Weatherwax was “the most highly-regarded of the leaders they didn’t have.” She’s also disinclined to admit when she’s wrong, bears a grudge like a cat (although she hates cats), and has a habit for shelling peas at inopportune times. Nanny, on the other hand, has had five husbands, more children than she can count, and an inclination for getting hammered and singing inappropriate songs about hedgehogs and wizards’ staffs. Magrat, plain and unworldly, wants only to be a proper witch, with all the occult accoutrement that comes with it, whether her fellow witches like it or not.
If it weren’t for events outside of their control, Granny, Nanny, and Magrat would likely have continued along quietly, with the occasional arguments about whose turn it was to make the tea. When they find themselves unwittingly responsible for Lancre’s infant heir to the throne, Granny realizes that fate has aimed its beady eye at them.
As it turns out, there is something rotten in the state of Lancre. The king has woken up to find himself murdered by his duke. To make matters worse, the king is unable to cross over until he rights this wrong. How can he oust this usurper? By enlisting the witches, of course. But it won’t be easy for any of them.
First, the witches must stash the heir in a safe place (until he’s old enough to storm the castle and take back the throne), brave a local theatre production, incense the duke into hunting witches, escape the duke’s dungeon, and manipulate time itself.
But the best laid plans tend of have a mind of their own, and it will take all the witches’ wiles to dethrone the duke and crown Lancre’s rightful heir.
On the surface, Wyrd Sisters is a comic sendup of Macbeth (in which individual choice and fate have a go at one another), as well as Hamlet (in which usurpers get what’s coming to them, but not before the main character gazes at his navel for a while).
Pratchett does a masterful job of both preserving and parodying Shakespeare’s dialogue. Who wouldn’t recognize these lines as those of the witches from Macbeth?
As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: “When shall we three meet again?”
There was a pause.
Finally another voice said, in far more ordinary tones: “Well, I can do next Tuesday.”
A big part of the fun of Wyrd Sisters is being able to spot Pratchett’s references to Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Readers will also recognize parodies of As You Like It (called Please Yourself) and The Merchant of Venice (A Troll of Ankh).
An added bonus is Granny’s and Nanny’s reactions to the plays. Granny herself does not seem to understand how the theatre works. At one point, frustrated that the audience is unable to see what she sees, Granny leaps upon the stage and yells, “He done it! We all seed ‘im!” Nanny, on the other hand, is given to chewing loudly and overanalyzing everything:
“I reckon it’s all just pretendin’. Look he’s still breathing. . . . And look at his boots, too. . . .A real king’d be ashamed of boots like that.”
At its heart, Wyrd Sisters is more than just a parody. It’s about the relationship between life and art, and how the two hold up a mirror to each other, just as how Wyrd Sisters holds up a mirror to Shakespeare. The truth can be far more malleable than one would think. In many ways, art can seem more real than life itself. As Granny says, “Things that try to look like things often do look more than things than things.”
Art is indeed so powerful it can rewrite history (and, as we know, history is written by the victors). The duke, understanding this principle, commissions a play to do just that and convince the populate that he and the duchess are the rightful heirs of Lancre. Still, the truth tends to come out at inopportune times and fate has an inconvenient way of catching up to you.
Overall, Wyrd Sisters is great fun. You don’t have to be familiar with Shakespeare to keep up with the plot. The characters themselves are richly drawn and distinct (Granny being my favorite) and while the plot is complex, it’s never convoluted.
I would recommend the paperback edition over the Kindle edition. The Kindle version contains several OCR errors and plainly missing sections. That was the only thing that annoyed me about the book and I wish HarperCollins had taken the time to properly proof it before tossing it up on the Internet.
If you’ve never read a Discworld novel before or you just want to read a rollicking, fast-talking fantasy, Wyrd Sisters is a good place to start.