In the fifth part of Equal Rites, Esk and Granny begin their journey to Unseen University. Zero people are surprised by it getting off track. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
Esk’s eyes were sparkling. The square was a jigsaw of noise and color and smell. On one side of it were the temples of the Disc’s more demanding deities, and weird perfumes drifted out to join with the reeks of commerce in a complex ragrug of fragrances. There were stalls filled with enticing curiosities that she itched to investigate.
The first time I came to San Francisco, I knew I wanted to live in the Bay.
I was 17, and I had just ran away from home the month before. I was enjoying the freedom I had from my parents and from curfews and from rules, and I did so by doing everything. I often struggled to be responsible those first few months, despite being raised to be the perfect model student, because I had never known the taste of true freedom of choice before. So when a couple friends asked if I wanted to ditch school for a few days to go see AFI play a trio of shows around Halloween, I merely found a way to make an excuse.
It was a risky endeavor, since I wasn’t an adult yet legally and I was estranged from my parents. I lied to a lot of people about that week, and I’m sure I must have come up with a number of conflicting stories about where I was and what I was doing, all in the hopes that no one would ever compare stories and realize what I’d done. But I needed to do it. I had a desire to see San Francisco, to escape my tiny conservative town, to see the Golden Gate Bridge, to see people like me who were free to hold hands and kiss whomever they wanted to, and to watch AFI play a show in the Bay Area. I had a lot of reasons for going, and I knew they’d be worth the trouble.
We left early that Tuesday morning. The drive up California from the Inland Empire to the Bay is one that is only exciting the first time you do it, when you know you’re playing hookie, when you’re with friends who are singing along to Veruca Salt and Weezer and Dance Hall Crashers. After you reach the bottom of the Grapevine, it’s an endless stretch of nothing. There are a few hills, but in late October in California, you’re often still in the period of the year where everything is a blurred shade of beige. It’s boring. You can see mountains miles away to the east, maybe a few ranges to the west, and then you pass by that huge dairy farm that always smells terrible, even if you’ve got the windows rolled up. We decided to take the 152 west that day so that we could cut up the Bay on the 101 freeway, and the hills and the reservoir were a welcome relief from the repetitive stretches of farmland and fields that populated the 5 in Central California.
There’s a point, however, when the view is unlike anything else in the world.
You have to get past the farms and fruit and nut stands in Hollister, past Morgan Hill, past the sprawling, tree-lined streets in Palo Alto and Woodside. It’s beyond the Crystal Springs Reservoir off the 280, if you happen to take that way, which often looks so still that you completely understand its name. You have to go past SFO and the stunning views of Brisbane Lagoon to your left and the San Francisco Bay to your right. It’s not far from there, just after the exit for Candlestick Park, where you crest a hill, and downtown San Francisco looms so majestically in the distance that it doesn’t look real. I have never forgotten the sheer glory of that moment when my friends and I cheered at the sight, and then immediately fell silent at the cityscape’s grandeur. On a clear day (much like that day), you could see the tops of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s such a formidable memory for me that I always go silent every time the 101 snakes over that hill and I see the city. Every time.
I’ve spoken of my love for big cities both in these reviews and some of the recent Tortall reviews, too. But good lord, this hit me so hard in the best way possible. I understand Eskarina’s infectious joy because I knew it so well. It wasn’t just that paragraph, though, that excited. This entire section celebrates the joy of discovery for Eskarina. As Granny prepares for the worst to come from every angle at every second, Esk is readily taking in the chaos and excitement of Ohulan. And it’s not like Ohulan is Ankh-Morpork! OH GODS, ESKARINA IS GOING TO FREAK OUT WHEN SHE GETS THERE. It’ll be like nothing she’s ever seen!
We’re introduced to Hilta Goatfounder, which made me intensely jealous of both of the fabulous names that the witches have been give in Equal Rites. I just sound so dull when stacked up against them! She’s actually a fascinating character for a number of reasons. She’s the first witch we meet aside from Granny, and through her, we get a sense of how all witches are taught the same philosophy. Their knack for headology manifests in different ways, of course, so Hilta’s got that hilarious dark stall that is dark just to convince people that she does… dark things. Even when Granny reveals Esk’s destiny as a witch, Hilta has largely the same thoughts on it: women can’t be wizards, but if Esk is going to contradict that, then they’d better prepare her as best as they can.
But she’s not similar as a person when compared to Granny. She’s more easily frightened than Granny is, and you can see that as she panics about losing Esk in Ohulan. So, through Hilta, I could read Granny’s characterization better. She’s not one to lose her calm, even over something that, frankly, is totally worth freaking out over, especially given what we learn of Esk’s powers here.
I loved the way that Esk’s magic flowed out of the staff without her intention because it’s a fantastic way to highlight the unpredictability of wizard magic. Pratchett describes her as a “good catalyst” because that’s all that she does: she exists here to set things in motion regardless of any other factors. It’s not that she wills things to happen and then they happen. She’s this furious little ball of intense probability, and that probability spills out from her wherever she goes. Visually, it’s absurdist humor at its best. Knee-high pile of legumes! Vengeful monkeys! MARZIPAN DUCKS.
And then a bar full of goat milk. Again, I think it’s important to note that Esk is becoming more and more aware of the power she possesses, and she’s not afraid to use it. Cautious? Certainly. You can see that in the scene where she’s reluctant to heat the bed she’s in because she’s worried of setting it all on fire. But when she confronts Skiller at The Fiddler’s Riddle, there’s a deliberate element to her use of magic wrapped in with that adorable politeness and innocence. She says:
“I didn’t turn it into milk, I just knew it would be milk because I wanted milk.”
That isn’t an innocent accident, and it touches on that sense of entitlement I spoke of before. It’s not a horrible thing, at least not yet, but if Esk doesn’t learn control… well, I can see why Granny is so worried. Plus, Skiller tries to steal Esk’s staff in this section! I’m sure Granny is worried about that, too, you know? People are soon going to be aware of the uniqueness of Esk’s power, and she’s going to unknowingly attract the kind of person like Skiller, who sees power and schemes to control it.
At least Esk understands that people like this doesn’t deserve good fortune. I do wonder what “something nasty” actually was.
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