Equal Rites is the third Discworld novel, and in it Pratchett begins to reveal just how diverse a place it is. The inept wizard Rincewind is not to be found in these pages, nor are Twoflower the Tourist and his Luggage. Discworld is home to an incredible number of fascinating characters, and in this novel we are introduced to one of the most remarkable and unforgettable ones--the witch Granny Weatherwax. We also get a closer look at Unseen University and the wizards who call it home. The eighth son of an eighth son is always a wizard, as everyone knows. Unfortunately, the novel's eighth son of an eighth son turns out to be a girl, which is a fact Granny Weatherwax points out immediately. Granny is a traditional witch; she doesn't hold with living in towns and selling love potions and other sundry matters. She teaches young Esk witchcraft, but it eventually becomes apparent that the child is a born wizard. Getting the child to Ankh-Morpork and Unseen University is not easy, but the hardest part of the mission is getting her accepted as a female. There's also a small matter of the terrible beings from Beyond trying to break through to this side.
I enjoyed this novel, but it didn't seem to have the magical aura of most Pratchett books. Young Esk was too willful and erratic, and I never understood why she kept wandering away from Granny Weatherwax on the journey to Ankh-Morpork since Granny was trying to fulfill her dream of becoming a wizard. I also thought the character of Simon, a stuttering but brilliant young wizard, should have been developed more fully; he formed an important part of the story, but I never knew him well enough to strongly like him or dislike him. Esk's frustration and anger at being rejected as a girl are understandable, but some of her reactions seemed a little too childish to me. Toward the end, I sometimes got the impression that I was reading a piece of juvenile fiction--there's nothing wrong with that, and Pratchett has written some excellent novels for a younger audience, but it left me feeling a little empty and let-down. Even Granny Weatherwax, one of my favorite Discworld characters, seemed only a shadow of the Granny I have come to know in later novels. This novel also has some sexual innuendo material in the background, which is something I found a little disconcerting and atypical of Pratchett. It does add to some of the humor, though, especially in the scenes featuring Granny and ArchChancellor Cutangle. Weirdest of all was a direct reference to Steven Spielberg--when I read Pratchett, I am in his world, and I felt as if he kicked me out of his universe momentarily for no good reason.
The humor is the real strength of this novel. Pratchett's ever-present comical metaphors are particularly strong in places, and he is able to exploit cliches in ways no other author can. The descriptions of Granny having to get long running starts in order to get her broom off the ground and of the head wizards getting all excited about increasing their knowledge by increasing their ignorance of brand new concepts are especially hilarious. Comedy saves this particular novel. I would have liked to see much more character development; as it is, Esk and Simon are pretty forgettable characters, and the charm of Granny Weatherwax is really not realized here. I did enjoy getting a closer view inside Unseen University, but the wizards in the book seemed shallow and sort of stereotypical. I saw a lot, but I didn't learn a lot. In the end, though, this is a Discworld novel, so it is definitely better than most anything else you can find on the shelves, but I think it is one of Pratchett's weakest efforts.