Terry Pratchett is astonishingly prolific, to the point where new readers can be intimidated by the number of books he’s written – especially when the majority of those books make up a single series.
The books that made Pratchett’s name were his Discworld novels, set on a world shaped like a pizza, spinning on the backs of four mighty elephants, themselves standing on the back of a gigantic turtle swimming through space. I first encountered Pratchett’s work on the recommendation of a book reviewer: Dave Langford, who used to write a review column in the gaming magazine White Dwarf (back in the days when it was a general publication rather than dedicated to Games Workshop’s own products). So I started reading Pratchett when there were only two or three books to read.
The Discworld has always been a satire. It began as a satire on fantasy of the time, subverting the standard tropes of fantasy novels and poking fun at fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons to boot. As Sir Terry’s writing matured, the stories became much broader satire. These days, although the books are still set on the Disc where magic exists along with the usual cast of fantasy characters (including an especially nasty variety of elf), the characters and situations are as real and recognisable as any novel set in a modern city.
Rather than pick specific books, I am going to talk about related books within the series.
These are the most overtly magical stories, the ones concerning the wizards of Unseen University and particularly Rincewind, the worst wizard in the world. The first Discworld novel The Colour of Magic is the first of these wizard books also, but they start getting really good with Interesting Times.
I am especially fascinated with Rincewind’s development over the books because he was clearly a character conceived as a joke who has grown into a fully realised person with skills as well as frailties.
Where there are wizards there must be witches, although on the Disc they don’t exactly see eye to eye. Equal Rites is strictly the first, although the story really starts with the Shakespearian Wyrd Sisters.
More recently, the YA books concerning the adventures of Tiffany Aching have done much to round out the nature of witches, and to close a circle that was opened at the beginning.
The Death of the DIscworld is a very tall skeleton with a very sharp scythe who collects the souls of the dead. He’s a great character who pops up in almost all the books, but the stories about him and his family (!) start with Mort, where Death takes an apprentice.
The greatest city on the Disc is Ankh Morpork, a bustling hive of a million people which squats upon the river Ankh much as a drunk squats on a toilet. It is the site of Unseen University, and ruled over by the Patrician. Most of the books feature Ankh Morpork at some point, but there are some that relate the stories of the city and its denizens specifically.
For example, the Watch novels capture the growth of the Night Watch and its commander Samuel Vimes from a desperate collection of losers into an effective public service. This series starts with Guards! Guards!
On the Disc, gods exist because of their worshippers’ belief. This idea is explored in three novels which cover some of the same thematic ground as Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The books are Pyramids, Small Gods, and Hogfather.
Pratchett has written other books too, but one I particularly want to mention is Nation. This is a story about a slightly alternate Earth where two young people meet, survivors of a terrible disaster, and their efforts to survive and lead a tiny band of lost people. It’s brilliant stuff, well-turned storytelling that even those who don’t enjoy fantasy can appreciate.
I would also recommend the Bromeliad trilogy (Truckers, Diggers, and Wings) which concerns nomes – tiny people that live their lives ten times faster than we do. Funny and poignant.
Do you have a favourite Pratchett? Have you read him at all?