Somewhere in space there is a giant turtle, on the back of which stands four elephants. Balanced on top of these creatures is a flat disc. On that disc lives witches, wizards, werewolves, vampires, trolls, humans and other assorted oddities.
This is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. For the uninitiated, approaching this universe is a daunting task. There are 41 novels and a variety of support materials, spin offs and adaptations.
I love Pratchett. He and Stephen King dominate my shelves.
So, when a friend said she was interested in reading some of his books, I eagerly volunteered to make some recommendations. It was a silly thing to do. I’ve got my favourites, but are they the best ‘jumping on’ points?
While many of the books stand alone as independent works, a number of novels and stories can be grouped together because they feature common central characters and settings. Furthermore, some books refer to events that happened in other novels. If my favourite novel from one of these ‘sets’ is one of the latter ones, is my appreciation of it enhanced by my knowledge of how things got to this point?
It meant that, in order to make my recommendations, I needed to be more pragmatic. That’s why it has ballooned out into this blog post instead of a quick text message.
So, below you’ll find two lists. The first is short and sharp. It is my top 5 (not necessarily in order). It is what would possibly have been in that message had I been reactive instead of practical. The second is longer. It is organised under headings that represent the main character threads within the Discworld series. Under those headings is a brief introduction to that arc, and the titles of both the first book in that series and my favourite one.
Here we go:
My top 5
- Carpe Jugulum
- Moving Pictures
- The Last Continent
- The Fifth Elephant
The longer list…
Rincewind and the Wizards
The first two Discworld novels had Rincewind as their protagonist. He is a bumbling, incompetent wizard who doesn’t look for trouble but trouble seems to find him anyway. Rincewind is also linked to the wizards of the Unseen University, an institution whose librarian was turned into an orangutan (and possibly one of the most loved characters in all of Pratchett’s works).
First novel: The Colour of Magic – effectively a ‘straight’ parody of the fantasy genre.
Favourite novel: The Last Continent – Pratchett’s love for Australia is evident is this piss take that takes place in a setting that is part-fantasy, part-outback.
Is this a good jumping on point? Yes, I think so. I might be biased, however. I reckon all Aussies should give this a read. Think of the episode from The Simpsons, “Bart vs Australia”, add a cowardly wizard and his semi-sentient, multi-legged luggage and what you get is a laugh riot.
While wizards on the disc like showing off, the witches deliberately choose not to use magic on most occasions. If we think about illusionists, Pratchett’s wizards more like stage magicians while his witches are akin to mentalists. They’re intelligent, resourceful and cunning. The most prominent witch in the series is Granny Weatherwax who became a witch by choice, not by fate, and is known by the varied species throughout Discworld as the most powerful witch in the world.
First novel: Equal Rites
Favourite novel: Carpe Jugulum
Is this a good jumping on point? Maybe. There’s a bit of history between the witches from the previous books and ignorance of this might slow you down at the start. Once it gets going though… what you have is a wicked novel that answers two questions you never knew you had. 1. How do ‘young’ vampires rebel against the traditions of their people? -and- 2. What would happen in a fight between witches and vampires?
Death is pretty much everyone’s favourite Pratchett character and is the one who appears in the most books (almost all of them). He is your typical anthropomorphic incarnation of death, in that he looks like the Grim Reaper. Death speaks IN SMALL CAPITALS and, in the books devoted to his story, he explores the essence of humanity.
First novel: Eric
Favourite novel: Hogfather
Is this a good jumping on point? Possibly not. The Hogfather is a similar figure to Santa and his role is taken over one Hogswatchnight by Death. It’s an enjoyable romp but Reaper Man is probably a better novel to start with – in which Death becomes mortal for a while.
The biggest city on the disc has its laws enforced by a group that began with two hopeless street-coppers being led by their alcoholic captain and has become a fully-fledged police force containing more diversity than you’ll find anywhere else (real or otherwise). Take your urban sprawl, your technology and your businesses and add elements of traditional fantasy and this is what you get.
First novel: Guards! Guards!
Favourite novel: The Fifth Elephant
Is this a good jumping on point? No. The picture book, Where’s My Cow?, is a great introduction to the characters in this series but, because there is more growth in this particular arc than any other, here you’re better of starting at the beginning.
Tiffany Aching (the Witches but it’s YA)
In a similar way to how Harry Potter traces the growth of a young wizard as he learns to perform spells and ultimately conquers evil, the Tiffany Aching series tracks the development of a young witch learning her place in the world. Integral to her story are the hilarious Nac Mac Feegle – little, blue, Scottish picsties who love to drink, steal and fight.
First novel: The Wee Free Men
Favourite novel: The Wee Free Men
Is this a good jumping on point? Obviously! In this book, Tiffany has to rescue her little brother from the The Queen of the Fairies. Personally, I think part of the reason I like it (and Pratchett’s witch novels in general) is because of its strong, female lead.
Moist von Lipwig
On the surface, these novels look boring compared to Pratchett’s other works. The first is about the postal service, the second is concerned with the mint and the introduction of paper money, and the third revolves around the the first railway on the disc. Despite the ‘boring’ premises, Pratchett remains funny throughout.
First novel: Going Postal
Favourite novel: Going Postal
Is this a good jumping on point? Obviously! Like the Tiffany Aching series, my favourite book is the first in this character’s arc. Moist is a con-man given the choice of being the new postmaster or dying and what we see is how his cunning can be used for good.
Some of the Discworld novels don’t feature these characters and stand alone as individual tales within this shared universe. These include Pyramids, Moving Pictures, Small Gods, The Truth, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (YA), and Monstrous Regiment.
Favourite novel: Moving Pictures; in which making movies becomes detrimental to the structure of reality itself.
Anyway, I hope that helps people decide what Discworld novel they might like to pick up.