So where do you start reading Terry Pratchett? As described last week, the Discworld novels are numbering nearly 40, and while there’s a loose chronology, and some recurring characters and narratives, there is no real beginning point like other long-running series.
Terry Pratchett is known for saying the first step to writing a fantasy story is work out where the river goes. Once you have the river you have drinking water, you have a sewage system, you have irrigation, and the beginnings of a civilisation. From there it’s just a case of building the city upwards. The important thing, to Pratchett, is that it all works. It’s a highly detailed, developed and functioning – sometimes disfunctioning – world that he sets his stories in, and this can sometimes be quite daunting to the new reader.
So, as a rough guide for the prospective reader after last week’s exploration into possible Discworld movies, I’m offering up a few different methods of navigating your way into the Discworld:
Not the most advisable, though this is how I got there. Strictly for the anal-retentive reader, it does present a rather organic entry into the books, and would allow a gradual indoctrination to the world and Pratchett’s style, which does develop rapidly as the series progresses.
First three reads: The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites
2. The Wizard Books
Rincewind the hapless wizard is one of the first major characters introduced in the Discworld, and by reading the books he features in can give you an excellent idea into many of Pratchett’s main themes and obsessions, particularly his early explorations of the clashes between tradition and belief on one hand, and science and reason on the other. The wizards, despite being wizards, are effectively the Discworld’s scientists, it’s just that when things go bang in their laboratories, they really go bang.
First three reads: (other than those above) Sourcery, Eric, Interesting Times
3. The Witches Books
Otherwise centred on the character of Granny Weatherwax. These take place in the rural habitats of the Discworld, and focus on a coven of witches and their adventures with the local inhabitants and the variety of magical and supernatural Discworld citizens that plot and scheme grand plans of agrarian mayhem and domination.
Pratchett delves into myths, legends and folk tales here, running gleefully amok with all of our collective cultural histories. There’s also some of the best Shakespeare jokes you can throw a figgin at.
First three reads: Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Maskerade
4. The City Watch Books
My personal favourite, for many reasons but largely because they’re set in the shining jewel of Pratchett’s Discworld – Ankh Morpork, which is his London, Manhattan, Istanbul and Prague all rolled into one. They also deliver Pratchett’s strongest protagonist, Sam Vimes, who contains no fantasy properties whatsoever, except for being a damn good copper despite being constantly knurd*.
These books are also the most morally fascinating and complex, and despite many beginning as murder-mysteries or police procedurals, the Watch books have evolved in later years to highly sophisticated evaluations of modern society, and how it manages to contain humanity’s primal urges.
First three reads: Guards! Guards!, Men At Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Thud!, Snuff
(It’s impossible to stop at three with those. They’re just great.)
5. The Other Books
And then in amongst the recurring strands of the series, Pratchett occasionally delivers standalone stories that expand and explore otherwise blurry edges of the Discworld map. Sometimes these characters pop up in other books, just in the background or having a drink in a pub, but these books are magnificent as a one-off introduction into the Discworld itself.
Sometimes they explore concepts like religion, music, cinema or politics, or otherwise just deliver brilliant adventure stories that just happen to be set on a flat world that rests on the back of four elephants, who in turn rest on the shell of a giant turtle, that was at one point floating through space in search of a mate. For mating with. In space. Giant space turtle mating.
First three reads: Small Gods, Pyramids, Monstrous Regiment
6. The Death Books
So good. Because Death is such a great character. Who sometimes has a midlife crisis (mid-Death crisis?) or just needs a holiday, or has a few too many curries. Either way, the Death books are some of the funniest and most poignant entries in the series, developing all the way to Death’s adopted daughter’s daughter’s own stories. Who is a great character in her own right, especially as she likes to scare the crap out of monstrous creatures by mimicking Death’s voice.
First three reads: Mort, Reaper Man, Hogfather
And then there’s Going Postal and The Truth and Making Money, which further expand the experience of reading Ankh Morpork as a living and breathing city (and has more Vimes in them), Moving Pictures which explores the monstrous underbelly of cinema magic, and the Tiffany Aching books, which are Pratchett’s forays into the YA genre.
So many to read, and so many different ways. These are some options, there are many more. Easiest solution? Dive in wherever you like, and you’ll find your own direction from there.
*Knurd: ‘The opposite of being drunk, it’s as sober as you can ever be. It strips away all the illusion, all the comforting pink fog in which people normally spend their lives, and lets them see and think clearly for the first time ever. Then, after they’ve screamed a bit, they make sure they never get knurd again.’