Geek obsession: The novels of Terry Pratchett
Why it’s daunting: Pratchett is best known for his long-running Discworld series, which is 39 novels deep as of the October 2011 publication of Snuff. Wildly popular in the UK, and reasonably popular in the United States, the Discworld books combine silliness, satire, philosophy, and strong characterization to create a unique, often wonderful tone that’s more than capable of supporting a series with so many installments. But the number of installments can seem overwhelming, especially given that while the books have standalone narratives, they also have consistent sets of characters who develop over the course of the series, leading to an apparently complicated web of a few different, occasionally overlapping series-within-a-series.
The natural response might be to start at the beginning of the Discworld books and work from there, but that isn’t necessarily the best route to take. Discworld did not arrive as a finished product, and the first three novels (The Colour Of Magic, The Light Fantastic, and Equal Rites) are all lacking compared to what came after. They have much of Pratchett’s breezy writing style, his creative philosophical playfulness, and his flair for language, but they don’t have his best works’ most important feature: They aren’t laugh-out-loud funny, so much as mildly pleasant and clever. It took Pratchett a few books to get his voice right.
Possible gateway: 1987’s Mort
Why: Pratchett’s style is so accessible that there’s no bad place to start, although some entry points are better than others. The first three Discworld books may seem a bit too trifling, and later ones could lose some of their impact without previous knowledge of the characters. So it makes sense to start with the origin of one of his Discworld series-within-the-series.
Pratchett’s world can be divided into four main series, respectively built around the anthropomorphic form of Death; a coven of witches; the bumbling wizard Rincewind; and the City Watch of Discworld’s most important city. There are also a few standalones, a later young-adult series, some graphic novels, and various adaptations in other media.
This leaves four superb gateways into Discworld:
- Mort kicks off the Death series, where Pratchett tends to focus on philosophical and metaphysical concepts.
- Wyrd Sisters introduces its three witch protagonists in a kind of inverted Macbeth, and the witches books tend to focus on literature and folklore.
- Guards! Guards! looks at the City Watch of the sprawling metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, whose stories tend to be more political, urban, and cynical then the others.
- Small Gods is a superb standalone novel that somehow manages to both sympathetically examine and skewer organized religion.
Rincewind’s series, which tends to have the most slapstick, crowd-pleasing books, unfortunately starts with the weaker early book The Colour Of Magic, so there isn’t a great gateway, but they’re worth coming back to later.
Mort gets the nod here for two reasons. First, it comes earliest in the publication order: It’s the fourth Discworld book, and the first to demonstrate the series at its full potential. Second, it’s a simple, archetypal, surprisingly powerful story of a young man hired as an apprentice to Death himself.
As one of the most powerful beings in existence, but only for a single task, Death may be Pratchett’s most effective character. He shows up in most of the Discworld novels to give a pithy line or a useful bit of exposition, but in his own series, he demonstrates the occasional weakness or moment of humanity, which can lead to dire consequences. Much of this is apparent in the first book he stars in, as Death lets a boy named Mort take over the job for a while so Death can experience the pleasures of the flesh, as it were. Mort’s slow discovery of his inhuman powers and Death’s attempts to understand humanity provide easy, effective comic fodder, but as with Pratchett’s best, there’s more there. The most compelling theme of Discworld—that belief creates reality in the fantasy world, and possibly in our own—is on full display as well, helping make Mort as good an entry as any to Pratchett’s most popular works.
Next steps: Before delving into Discworld wholeheartedly, it may be worthwhile to check out Good Omens, an early collaborative work between Pratchett and fellow geek icon Neil Gaiman. It’s that rare collaboration where the best aspects of each artist are maintained, and they smooth out each other’s rough edges: Gaiman’s creativity is harnessed and his cleverness turned to comedy, and Pratchett’s occasionally overstylized tone is given more direction.
If you’re going back into Discworld, publication order is a decent way to deal with the novels, or picking a series and sticking with it: This handy chart can help sort out which book goes in the proper order, or Wikipedia’s Discworld page also has a list that groups each novel by character or theme. Sampling each main series will give a good view of the variety of different stories in Discworld.
Where not to start: The non-novel components of Discworld are problematic because of Pratchett’s active authorial voice. His omniscient, conversational “narrator” fills his novels with mockery of tropes and tradition, puns both wonderful and terrible, and a constant comic mixing of the literal and the figurative. Lose that, and you lose much of what makes Pratchett special. Which isn’t to say that the Discworld works in other media are bad. The ’90s Discworld computer adventure games are good both as games and as adaptations. On the other hand, the Sky TV productions of some books (available on Netflix Instant) are competently done, but their pacing suffers greatly in the transition from page to screen.
Pratchett’s other non-Discworld novels, like his Nome Trilogy, suffer from the same lack of comedy as his early Discworld novels. And although the Discworld books start getting good by the fourth book, they don’t do it in entirely consistent fashion. Specifically, Pyramids and Moving Pictures are among the weakest in the series. Later books are much more consistent, although they get more than a little formulaic, which leads to somewhat unconventional Gateways To Geekery advice:
Where not to continue: The sheer volume of Discworld books, combined with the ease with which Terry Pratchett’s books can be read, and their quality, can trigger the impulse to binge on them. Try to avoid that. Reading too many of Pratchett’s books in a row doesn’t necessarily expose inherent weaknesses, but it does lessen enjoyment when the rhythms of his prose and tenor of his jokes become too predictable. To avoid burnout, it’s best to stick with no more than three to five books at a time before reading something else for a little while.