Once a month, I pick something from my bookshelves and talk about it. There’s no better choice to kick off this series than the work of my favourite author of all time, Sir Terry Pratchett. This post is going to be insanely long because there’s just so much to talk about – no future spotlight is even going to get close.
Mostly I’ll be focusing on the Discworld series, easily his best-known books – 36 adult novels and 5 young-adult novels (broken down into character arcs), plus 4 science-based novellas, TV adaptations, animated adaptations, plays, music, computer games, diaries… you can see why this is going to be a long post. Before jumping into that, I’m going to talk briefly about his non-Discworld books, under the cut.
[Mitchell here. I don’t have a lot to add, as I unfortunately haven’t read a lot of Pratchett’s work. He was a thoroughly admirable human being and brilliant writer, and I’ve appreciated what I did read of his. I have issues with depression and I’ve found that interferes with my enjoyment of the humour: I tended to notice in the abstract that it was clever and I should be laughing without actually reacting, so I’ve been putting them off until I’m in a better mental place to experience them. That’s not going to stop me from seconding the recommendation, though, his books are great.]
We’re going to start with the books I’m not very familiar with or don’t have much to say about – I have read everything he’s ever written, but some were more years ago than I care to remember, and some just don’t hold the same appeal for me personally.
(Not included are various short stories found in anthologies, essay collections, or floating loose around the internet. There are too many and I’d rather leave them all out than risk missing one.)
The Dark Side of the Sun and Strata: I’ve read them both but I don’t remember anything about them whatsoever, I was only around eight or nine at the time and apparently wasn’t much impressed, which isn’t surprising since they’re not children’s books. They’re sci-fi, but I can’t tell you anything else. I need to re-read these at some point.
The Carpet People was the first book he ever had published – a revised edition was released in the 90s. It’s a children’s story about a race of tiny people who live in a carpet that appears to them like a gigantic forest, complete with caves in the underlay that go right down to The Floor. They have to find a new settlement elsewhere in the carpet after their village is destroyed by some vast terrifying force (probably a vacuum cleaner). I don’t remember much about it, but it was fun to child-me.
In a similar vein, the Nome trilogy or the Bromeliad trilogy (likewise written for children) also deals with very small people, though slightly larger. Comprising Truckers, Diggers and Wings, it deals with similar concepts – the group’s under threat and has to journey to a new place, learning things along the way. I don’t remember much of the overall plot, but I do remember a lot of specific scenes, particularly a memorable sequence of a bunch of four-inch-high gnomes (sorry, Nomes) trying to drive a truck. There are film adaptation rights, but it’s unlikely anything’s going to come of it.
Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb: The Johnny Maxwell trilogy are probably the best-known non-Discworld works apart from Good Omens (see below). Sadly they also come under the heading of ‘I read them when I was a kid and can’t remember much about them.’ They were pretty fun, full of computer games and ghosts and time travel and all sorts of weirdness, and I really need to look again at all the stuff I read when I was way too young to do so. There were also two separate TV adaptations, though neither were particularly successful.
The Unadulterated Cat is required reading for anyone owned by a cat, casually acquainted with a cat or just liking cats. I don’t have a lot to say about it because it’s very short, but it’s a funny and accurate book of cat anecdotes and ‘facts’.
Dodger is another children’s/young adult story, set in Victorian London. Despite the name, it’s not directly Dickensian, though there are a lot of nods to that in the setting. There is an associated ‘guide’, Jack Dodger’s Guide to London, which I have yet to read.
Sir Terry began his writing career doing children’s stories for his local newspaper. There are three collections of short stories now – Dragons at Crumbling Castle, The Witch’s Vacuum Cleaner and Father Christmas’s Fake Beard. While having plenty of Pratchett humour, they’re aimed at young children; it’s good to expose them to Pratchett nice and early, but their appeal for adult readers is limited. (I must remember to gift my copies to my brother in a year or two, my nephew needs to be indoctrinated as soon as possible.)
Finally, he collaborated with an author named Stephen Baxter to produce a sci-fi series about parallel Earths: The Long Earth, The Long War, The Long Mars, The Long Utopia and The Long Cosmos. I read the first one and liked the overall concept, but as stated before, I’m not a fan of sci-fi – my science needs dragons in it.
Other noteworthy mentions: A Blink of the Screen is a miscellaneous collection of short fiction (in some cases extremely miscellaneous). In the same vein, A Slip of the Keyboard is a collection of non-fiction, from short essays to idle musings – one or two of these had a similar effect on me as Nation did, see below. And if you can find it, Once More* With Footnotes has managed to put together a lot of near-forgotten scraps described as “an assortment of short stories, articles, introductions, and ephemera“.
Now let’s talk about Nation. It’s a bit of an odd one. On the surface, it’s a story about two young people from very different backgrounds who are stranded and have to figure out how to make the best of things, with a lot of Pratchett’s usual humour, and it’s fun enough if not as laugh-out-loud as some. It’s classed as a children’s book, though aimed at an older audience than most of those mentioned above, but there’s plenty for adults to appreciate as well.
I can’t speak for other long-term fans but I personally found it rather uncomfortable, though not in a bad way – it was published in 2008, the year after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and there’s a lot of anger in the writing. I don’t want this to sound like a criticism, because it absolutely isn’t; the characters in the story deal with loss and injustice, and the personal, raw anger in it makes it very powerful and gives it a stronger impact than it would have had otherwise. I don’t know how much of that would be noticeable to someone who isn’t as familiar with his ‘usual’ work. I enjoyed it and would recommend it, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever read it again.
My favourite non-Discworld work is without question Good Omens, co-written with Neil Gaiman, which almost got a full post to itself. Whilst I do enjoy Mr Gaiman’s works, he’s probably not going to feature here again, but Good Omens is a work of genius. I can’t really talk about it too much without giving away the plot, but the short version is that an angel and a demon team up to try and stop the Apocalypse because they quite like Earth. Featuring the Antichrist, the Four Horsemen, dire prophecies and all the old classics, and I guarantee none of them are what you’d expect.
A television series is currently in development, hopefully coming out on Amazon later this year. I am very excited about this. There’s also a very good BBC radio adaptation.
Now we’re on to the meat of the post – the Discworld series. It’s hard to recommend them to new readers because there’s just so many of them; forty-odd books is pretty daunting. As I mentioned in the introduction, the series can be broken down into arcs following specific characters. Or you can read the whole lot in chronological order. You can read them out of order as well – there will be minor spoilers about certain characters and a couple of running jokes that might pass you by, but the plot of each one stands alone and is perfectly understandable.
As a series, it’s hard to define. Comic fantasy, yes – you will laugh out loud, often, even if you’re not usually that type of reader. You’ll want to quote bits to passing strangers. If you meet another fan you will have lengthy conversations consisting almost entirely of quotes. Parody, as well – certain books are direct parodies of other works, others are merely crammed full of references to such an extent that many years and a dozen re-reads later you’re still noticing new things.
The more observant amongst you will note that I’ve tagged this post ‘philosophy’, and that’s for good reason – there’s a lot of often subtle and thoughtful commentary on a wide variety of topics. Some of it is a little dated, which is inevitable in a series that’s been running since the early 80s, but almost all of it is still very relevant. Politics and religion feature a lot, but also exploration of the power of stories and what makes us human.
You’ll also pick up a ridiculous amount of trivia that will stand you in good stead in any general knowledge quiz.
The Rincewind/Unseen University series:
- The Colour of Magic
- The Light Fantastic
- Moving Pictures
- Interesting Times
- The Last Continent
- The Last Hero
- Unseen Academicals
Rincewind (and his Luggage) is probably the most iconic Discworld character. That said, these are probably the weakest books of the series, though that’s much like saying 9 carat gold is less valuable than 18 carat gold. It’s true, but they’re both still gold. Rincewind is the worst wizzard (not a typo) in the world – he’s so bad at magic that the occult ability of the human race will go up when he dies, though so much weird stuff has happened to him that it’s not certain if he ever will die. He tends to have adventures while trying desperately to get away from them. He’s part of the Unseen University, the Discworld’s school for wizards, and many of the other books in this arc follow various faculty members, though there’s no single narrative thread tying any of them together.
The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic are the first two Discworld books chronologically, and it shows. If you start with these, don’t be put off; Sir Terry was finding his feet with the setting and developing as a writer and the series only goes up from here.
There’s a certain amount of crossover; some of the Unseen University faculty feature in some of the Death/Susan books (see below), and some of the City Watch characters (see below) show up in The Last Hero and Unseen Academicals. The latter is my least favourite of the series, falling in that unlucky and unpleasant period after Sir Terry had developed Alzheimer’s but before his treatment was having an effect. I’ve only read it once and my strongest memory of it is being very sad on seeing that he had lost the ability to write certain characters.
The Last Hero and Eric are both fully illustrated novellas.
It should also be noted that Interesting Times is set in a clear parody of ancient China, so there are a few stereotypes. I personally don’t think there’s anything deserving of a potential trigger warning, and to my knowledge there’s never been any backlash over it nor have I found anyone who was particularly offended, but I mention it for completion’s sake.
Also within this arc, though not part of canon, are the four The Science of Discworld books – The Science of Discworld, The Science of Discworld II: The Globe, The Science of Discworld III: Darwin’s Watch, and The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day. Co-written with Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, the books are structured with alternating chapters: there’s a chapter of a novella featuring the Unseen University wizards, having accidentally stumbled onto our world, poking at things and shouting a lot, followed by a chapter explaining the science behind all the things they’re noticing. Given the speed of science, some of the things mentioned are obsolete now and have different explanations, and some of the things named as mysteries in the books have since been explained, but overall they’re fascinating.
The Lancre Witches series:
- Equal Rites
- Wyrd Sisters
- Witches Abroad
- Lords and Ladies
- Carpe Jugulum
My second favourite story arc overall, this contains several good starting points for newcomers to the series and is probably the one I’d recommend new readers begin with. Wyrd Sisters is mainly a parody of Hamlet, Witches Abroad is a parody of every fairy tale you’ve ever heard of, and Maskerade is mainly a parody of The Phantom of the Opera.
Lancre is a small, intensely magical kingdom in the mountains. There are a lot of witches. The one who would be the leader if witches had leaders is Esmerelda ‘Granny’ Weatherwax; everyone who’s ever heard of her is terrified of her, regardless of species, and she will take no shit from anyone. The books also follow her best friend Gytha ‘Nanny’ Ogg, who she really can’t be doing with (mostly for songs about hedgehogs) and their rather reluctant junior witches Magrat Garlick and Agnes ‘Perdita’ Nitt.
Think badass ladies who casually save the world repeatedly while endlessly bickering with one another. Readers of my fics will almost certainly recognise a few references and quotes from these ones (for a start there’s a lot of mental magic).
Equal Rites is the third overall Discworld book, and suffers somewhat as a result. From book four onwards, the series managed to find its feet and promptly took off running.
Granny and Nanny move out of their arc after Carpe Jugulum to occasionally show up in the Tiffany Aching books, see below, the last one of which will make you cry. I’m fine, shut up.
The City Watch series:
- Guards! Guards!
- Men at Arms
- Feet of Clay
- The Fifth Elephant
- The Truth
- Night Watch
These ones are my absolute favourites, though it’s close, and I suspect also the ones Sir Terry most enjoyed writing. You really ought to read these in order if you can just to appreciate the character development; Guards! Guards! is another good starting point for the Discworld as a whole.
Sam Vimes is the main protagonist, commander of what passes for a police force. When we first meet him he’s a depressed drunk detective-noir character who really wants to do good and fight for justice except he can’t see the point. Over the series he sobers up and starts developing the City Watch from a standing joke into, more or less, CSI. He’s great fun to read, I like the way he thinks about the world; a good balance between cynicism and practicality.
His second in command, Carrot, who strays across arcs into The Last Hero (see above) towards the end of the series, is also worth mentioning. He’s basically a Gary Stu who doesn’t want to be – mysterious orphan, birthmark, inherited sword, supernatural charisma that compels everyone to like him and want to obey him, and he is completely and utterly opposed to doing what Destiny wants because he likes just being a policeman. Very naive on the surface with a mind like a buzz saw behind it.
Other notable characters include various police stereotypes (no, not the racist ones who attack people) and a refreshingly non-emo practical kickass werewolf who’s my favourite character.
The Truth is only loosely a Watch book – they feature heavily, but the actual protagonist is a new character who ends up becoming the journalist who bugs the hell out of the police while they try and do their jobs.
Night Watch deals with time travel and looks at Vimes’ past. Lilacs will become very meaningful once you finish it; my next tattoo will be a lilac.
Snuff is, like Unseen Academicals (see above) a product of unfortunate timing, written when the author was a long way from his best. One of the weakest books of the lot, sadly, but the rest more than make up for it.
There are rumours of a City Watch police procedural TV series. Words cannot express how much I need this to happen.
The Death/Susan series:
- Reaper Man
- Soul Music
- Thief of Time
Death appears as a character in almost every Discworld book (all but two, in fact). He’s one of, if not the, most popular figures in the series. In this universe, the Grim Reaper isn’t very grim – he likes people, even if he doesn’t understand them, and many of his story arcs deal with multiple attempts to figure out how humanity works from the perspective of the ultimate outsider. His horse is named Binky.
Susan sto Helit is his granddaughter. It’s complicated. She has reluctantly inherited some of his powers and keeps getting tangled up in the fallout despite all her attempts to be normal. She’s also ended up with a couple of wacky sidekicks – the Death of Rats (the Grim Squeaker) and a talking raven with an eyeball fixation.
This arc is another good starting point. Mort is the fourth book of the whole series, and marks the point where Sir Terry moved to writing full-time and the point where the Discworld really started to come into its own. Soul Music will drive you insane for years because every time you re-read it you’ll spot yet another classic rock reference. And Hogfather should be required reading for everyone every December for their entire lives.
The Moist von Lipwig series:
- Going Postal
- Making Money
- Raising Steam
Moist is the last ‘main character’ to be introduced. The Watch feature fairly heavily in his stories, but he stands alone and was planned to get at least one more novel to his name before the series finished.
His books deal with the Discworld’s equivalent of the Industrial Revolution. Along with The Truth (see above) they mark a slow shift towards increasing modernisation and technology; in particular these three deal with the revitalisation of the postal service and the banking system, including the invention of stamps and bank notes, and the development of the steam engine (often hinted at in earlier books but never successful until now) as well as competing with other industries such as the growing semaphore-message system.
Going Postal talks about semaphore workers paying tribute to fallen colleagues and keeping their names alive by sending them up and down the message lines. After Sir Terry passed, many fans added his name to the coding of any website they had access to in that spirit, and a group created a browser extention to detect such sites so other fans would know. I may have teared up a little when I learned of this. For details, see here: http://www.gnuterrypratchett.com/
Moist himself is a conman, a grifter and a thief. Naturally, this made him the perfect choice to be in charge of various growing industries, according to the current ruler of the Discworld’s greatest city. He’s charming and amoral, with an unfortunate tendency towards occasional acts of genuine heroism that he finds rather embarrassing. It’s my own personal headcanon that should the series have continued long enough he would eventually have ended up becoming the city’s ruler in turn, though I freely admit I haven’t got a shred of proof.
There are a few novels within the series that don’t feature a known character and are true standalones.
Pyramids takes a society based on Ancient Egypt, gives its very confused crown prince a modern education abroad, and leaves him trying to figure out how his own country works. Features pyramids, assassins, camels, quantum, and the origin of the author being nicknamed Pterry by his fans.
Small Gods is one of my favourites of the whole lot, and one of the ones I’d most recommend a new reader start with. The short version is that it mocks religion, but it manages to do so gently, without offence or malice, with knowledge, and with a very clear divide between faith and extremism that frankly a lot of people on both sides of the atheistic fence could do with learning about. It’s a story about the nature of religion and what it does to people. And about tortoises. (And the black desert, which featured in the tweet announcing Sir Terry’s passing.) [Small Gods is my favourite of the ones I read also. I can’t recommend it enough.]
The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents is the first Discworld ‘young adult’ novel. Loosely based on the Pied Piper, if the Piper was called Keith and was working for a talking cat. One of the books that will now never be written was a planned sequel.
Monstrous Regiment is also technically a standalone, though a couple of Watchmen sneak in near the end. Another favourite you all really need to read, though I can’t say much about it without giving away the plot… you know the story trope of the girl who disguises herself as a boy to join the army and search for someone? You’d be amazed at the number of twists you can put in that and still make it work.
The arc with the honour of ending the series concerns an apprentice witch named Tiffany Aching. There’s a small amount of crossover with the Lancre Witches, but Tiffany has her own life in her own home territory and her own adventures, generally accompanied by drunk Scottish pixies.
- The Wee Free Men
- A Hat Full of Sky
- I Shall Wear Midnight
- The Shepherd’s Crown
These ones are classified as young adult. One day someone’s really going to have to define what exactly that means, because I certainly don’t know. They’re a little lighter and less serious than some of the ‘adult’ novels, perhaps. Before the series ended I would have ranked these just above the Rincewind/Unseen University books; they’re not my favourites because I’m less interested in the characters, but still fun to read.
And then I read The Shepherd’s Crown.
I don’t remember any book before or since that upset me that much. Not because of the book in itself, it is as ever a great story, but because it was the last one. More than that, there’s a lot in both the writing and the direction of the story that strongly suggests Sir Terry knew it would be the last one he would ever publish. It reads as though he was saying goodbye. I know other fans who feel the same; I also know a lot of fans who refuse to ever read it, because if they don’t finish the series then it’s not over. I won’t spoil why but remember when I said earlier that it would make you cry? I wasn’t joking.
There will not ever be any more Discworld novels. All the rights to the series were passed to Sir Terry’s daughter Rhianna, who has stated that she will not continue or let anyone else do so. In accordance with Sir Terry’s last wishes, his hard drives and other storage were all destroyed very emphatically by being run over with a steam roller (yes, really; this is the man whose response to receiving a knighthood was to learn how to forge his own sword, after all) and there are no remains of his unpublished work anywhere. I’m sad that I’ll never know where he intended many characters to end up, but I’m also pleased nobody else will spoil things – this is one series where it would be sacrilege for anyone else to touch it.
Finally, let’s talk about some of the many, many Discworld adaptations, spinoffs and associated media. I’m almost certainly going to forget some, but I’ll do my best. I won’t be going into details, because almost without exception these are for existing fans to appreciate rather than for new readers.
Hogfather, The Colour of Magic and Going Postal have all had recent live-action adaptations, after I don’t know how many years of failed attempts. Sir Terry was one of those totally unreasonable authors who flat-out refused to give up the rights to his own work and wouldn’t co-operate with all the countless studios who wanted to utterly butcher it beyond recognition (he used to tell a story of an American company who wanted to adapt Mort but without Death; I would love to know what they thought they could do with the single chapter or so they’d be left with), and it took a very long time before an actual fan who could afford it worked with him to create these. He was involved heavily in the scripts and every step of production, and has cameos in all three. I don’t know if more will happen without him. I recommend all three for fans and non-fans alike, though The Colour of Magic is the weaker of the three.
There are also two very dated animations, for Soul Music and Wyrd Sisters respectively. Both are… rather bad, but in a charming way. Both also feature Christopher Lee doing a superb job voicing Death and are worth it for that alone.
As mentioned above, a City Watch TV series is in the rumours stage of development. There are also high hopes for a film of The Wee Free Men.
Music: Dave Greenslade’s ‘From The Discworld‘ and Steeleye Span’s ‘Wintersmith‘. Not much to say about either. I like them. The soundtrack to the Soul Music cartoon (see above) was also released on CD.
Discworld, Discworld 2: Missing Presumed… and Discworld Noir are point-and-click adventure games that are very, very difficult to run on modern PCs and the folks at Good Old Games need to get their act together. The Youtuber Kikoskia has done good video Let’s Plays of the first two.
There was a mobile app a few years ago that was so short-lived I never got the chance to try it. There are one or two very elderly games for consoles that don’t exist any more, that are probably lost to the dust of history by now. If you poke around the internet you’ll also find Discworld MUD and Discworld GURPS; roleplay games, to the uninitiated.
Board games: Thud! (see above) features a board game of the same name, so naturally someone made it. And then made three more games – Guards! Guards!, Discworld: Ankh-Morpork, and The Witches, respectively. There are a lot of jigsaws out there too. And miniature figures, and a card game (Cripple Mr Onion).
Comics: The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Mort, Guards! Guards! and Small Gods have all been adapted into graphic novels.
The BBC have adapted several of the books for radio – Mort, Wyrd Sisters, Eric, Guards! Guards!, Small Gods and Night Watch.
Unabridged recordings of books 1–23, except for books 3, 6 and 9, are read by Nigel Planer. Books 3 and 6 are read by Celia Imrie. Book 9 and most of the books from 24 onward are read by Stephen Briggs (see below). Abridged versions are read by Tony Robinson.
I personally really dislike Nigel Planer’s readings. He gives a number of the characters accents that in my view do not fit them at all, and pronounces things rather strangely at times, as well as sounding a little off in his rhythm in my opinion. Nothing but praise for the rest, though the abridged versions are frustrating because they miss out so many good bits. (These books consist entirely of good bits. I don’t know who decided to abridge them but he or she should be deeply ashamed.)
Fantastic Audio also recorded two Discworld novels, Thief of Time and Night Watch, which I didn’t actually know and will have to track down at some point.
Speaking of Stephen Briggs, he has published stage adaptations of eighteen Discworld books. I’ve seen amateur productions of a lot of them. They have all been really, really good and have impressed my non-Discworld-reading relations. They’re performed all over the world, so watch for any near you.
Stephen Briggs is very busy when it comes to Discworld. He’s also responsible for four maps (The Streets of Ankh-Morpork, The Discworld Mapp, A Tourist’s Guide to Lancre, and Death’s Domain), a cookbook (Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook) and the many editions of an attempted encyclopaedia (The Discworld Companion, The New Discworld Companion, and Turtle Recall: The Discworld Companion… So Far).
There are also dozens of diaries and calendars, most frustratingly hard to get hold of now; two quiz books; three art compilations; one book of quotes; one book of folklore essays; two toddler’s picture books; several guide books; an atlas; and a partridge in a sapient pearwood tree.
The Discworld Emporium, in Somerset, England, would be my second home if I had any money whatsoever. They sell online too. I’m deliberately not linking to them because I advise you not to even look at the site if you don’t have a lot of ready cash – everything is reasonably priced, but the problem is that you will want everything.
Phew. I may have set the bar far too high by starting here, but I couldn’t do anything else. Future spotlights will be much, much shorter – some may only be a few paragraphs long.