This is the 3rd book in the Discworld series. I've read a few others that I enjoyed, including Going Postal and Mort, but unfortunately this one was pretty underwhelming.
It centres on Eskarina, or Esk, an 8-year-old girl, and Granny Weatherwax, the village witch. A dying wizard wants to pass on his powerful wizard's staff before he dies, so he comes to the village of Bad Ass to give it to the 8th son of an 8th son - only that son turns out to be a daughter, Esk, and now suddenly there's a female wizard. Granny tries to bring her up as a witch but the wizardness keeps coming through and causing havoc, and eventually they decide they need to take her to Unseen University, to which women are not allowed to be admitted. So now there's a witch-wizard hybrid and she's determined to get in.
It's a nice concept - why are witches always shown as women and wizards always shown as men? Why can't that change?
And as usual, Terry Pratchett is very funny moment-to-moment and very unafraid of breaking the fourth wall (at one point he says something like the kind of lighting that would make Steven Spielberg reach for his copyright lawyers).
Other funny bits (a very non-exhaustive list; he has some kind of funny or self-aware bit basically every few lines):
- Someone asks Esk 'Why are you here?' and she says something like 'I don't know, Granny won't tell me. Something to do with men and women I think.'
- 'It must be quite interesting, reading books,' said Esk. 'Sort of. Can't you read, Esk?' The astonishment in his voice stung her. 'I expect so,' she said defiantly. 'I've never tried.'
- 'She was opposed to books on strict moral grounds, since she had heard that many of them were written by dead people and therefore it stood to reason reading them would be as bad as necromancy.'
- 'The lodgings were on the top floor next to the well-guarded premises of a respectable dealer in stolen property because, as Granny had heard, good fences make good neighbours.'
And many, many more funn(ier) bits besides. It's also very amenable to reading aloud because it's largely dialogue.
Granny is a funny character; when she's training Esk to be a witch, she likes to teach her 'practical magic', so she learns about herbs but also about washing the dishes. And the idea of 'Borrowing', that witches can 'borrow' the mind of animals so for example Granny will read through an owl's eyes when it's dark, or borrow the mind of a different bird to travel far, was cool. It was interesting to read about the principles of witching, about how you don't try to manhandle the animals etc but you just want to gently sway their wills, and that's also how you convince people. Esk had issues with that because she naturally had powerful magic and didn't always have the patience to do it patiently in the witching way.
Unfortunately, the book was very underwhelming because there doesn't seem to be any overarching plot, or stakes, or tension. Towards the end of the book she wants to go to Unseen University and tries to convince them to let her in and they don't. Then something weird happens with shadows from another universe and she has to go save a wizard and so they make her one - but the rules aren't made clear at all and so I've no idea what counts as success, and things are very hand-wavey. Maybe I've just been spoiled by Brandon Sanderson's 'hard magic' but things just felt awfully wishy-washy and there was no structure to the story so I wasn't very attached to it or gripped by it, and I didn't even feel that close to the characters, possibly because of the two main characters one is an 8-year-old girl and the other is an old witch. I hear other Discworld books are better though, and apparently Pratchett was just finding his feet.