The comments on my previous post suggest to me that there is unmet demand among this blog’s readership for my opinions on the late, great Terry Pratchett‘s work. Which is fine by me, because (i) I love Terry Pratchett’s stuff and grab any excuse to talk about it with both hands, and (ii) I just got my first Covid-19 vaccination so I’m feeling happy and self-indulgent. Terry Pratchett’s work is funny, smart, and wise, you should totally check him out.
But if you aren’t sure where to start, because boy howdy was Pratchett ever prolific, well, I’m here to help! I’ve read almost everything Terry Pratchett wrote*, and read some of them several times. I’ve also read several of them to my 10 year old son. So for one day only, this blog’s motto is changing from “Multa Novit Vulpes” to “De Chelonian Mobile“.
Overview of Terry Pratchett’s work
Terry Pratchett is best known for the Discworld series–40 fantasy novels set on The Disc, a flat world carried through space on the backs of four giant elephants riding on a giant turtle. Calling them “fantasy” novels really sells them short, because they’re much richer and more distinctive than the term “fantasy” might suggest.
You can read the Discworld books in order, and there are some reasons to do so. Many characters recur in several books, developing over time as they do so. And later books build on and refer back to events in earlier books in ways large and small. But you definitely don’t have to read them in order. The Discworld books fall into subseries depending on who the protagonist is. Each subseries is mostly independent of the other subseries. So if you want to get into the Discworld, one good way to do it is to start at or near the beginning of one of the subseries. There are also a few one-off Discworld books that don’t fall into any of the subseries.
The other thing to know about the Discworld books is that they started out as jokey parodies of other fantasy books, and of various other things (e.g., the movie industry). Over the years, they gradually got less jokey and stopped being parodies (with a few exceptions). All Discworld books have their strengths. But the best Discworld books are from the middle of the series, because you get ideas, themes, tight plotting, and well-drawn characters in addition to jokes. (Towards the end, Pratchett’s writing went downhill due to early onset Alzheimer’s.)
Pratchett also wrote a bunch of non-Discworld books, some of which are aimed at children or teenagers.
Recommended Pratchett entry points for kids (and kids at heart)
If you want a Pratchett book to give to, or read to, kids from ages, oh, 9-10 and up, here are my suggestions:
The Bromeliad trilogy (aka the Nomes trilogy). Not Discworld books. About a society of gnomes (well, “nomes”) that lives in a department store. They think The Store (as they call it) is the entire world, that it’s a paradise created for them. Then the store goes out of business. The nomes question everything they thought they knew, and set off on an adventure to find a new place to live. The first book is Truckers; the action then splits into two parallel tracks and so the last two books, Diggers and Wings, could be read in either order. Anyone who likes the Toy Story movies will like the Bromeliad trilogy. The nomes don’t know anything about humans, thinking of them as big dumb slow animals that wander around the Store during the day. Imagine Toy Story if all the toys were initially in the position of Buzz Lightyear (who doesn’t realize he’s a toy at first), and you’ll have a good sense of the Bromeliad trilogy. As in the Toy Story movies, kids will enjoy them as a fun adventure; adults will also appreciate the big theme of how individuals and societies deal with massive upheaval.
The Tiffany Aching books. This is a subseries of Discworld books, aimed at younger readers. Tiffany Aching is a precocious nine year old farm girl, who grows up to become a powerful witch over the course of five books. A couple of the witches from the grownup Discworld books appear in supporting roles as Tiffany’s mentors. Witchery in the Discworld is mostly about learning how not to do magic. So although there’s definitely magic and adventure in the Tiffany Aching books, there’s also a lot of Tiffany growing up and learning to deal with fantasy versions of the sorts of problems many people her age have to deal with. She has to become the best version of herself, and learn that most problems can’t be magicked away. Tiffany’s a fabulous character. The humor comes from Tiffany’s sidekicks, the Nac Mac Feegle (aka “the Wee Free Men”), a clan of fairies who were kicked out of fairyland for being drunk and disorderly. They’re a hilarious parody of Mel Gibson in Braveheart. They’re blue, they wear kilts, they speak in Scottish accents, they’re combative–and they’re six inches tall. My 10 year old son loved the Nac Mac Feegle.
Recommended Pratchett entry points for teenagers and grownups
For teenagers and grownups who want to get into Pratchett, here are the entry points I’d recommend. Read the footnote if you care why I say “teenagers and grownups”.**
The Colour of Magic. If you insist on starting Discworld at the beginning, this is the book you’ll start with. It’s pure slapstick parody–a spoof of other fantasy series that were popular at the time (Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja, Dragonriders of Pern, H. P. Lovecraft…). You can enjoy it as a parody of fantasy books in general, even if you haven’t read the specific books it’s making fun of (which I haven’t). But there’s no plot–just a sequence of random events–and almost no characterization. It’s basically a series of Monty Python sketches. If you like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you’ll probably like The Colour of Magic. But if you want, you know, a proper novel, pick one of the other entry points below. Also, just FYI, The Colour of Magic is the first book in the subseries focused on incompetent wizard Rincewind and the Disc’s other wizards. It’s the weakest Discworld subseries, I think. It’s the jokiest subseries, but the trouble is Rincewind is a one-joke character (he’s a coward who always runs from danger, but yet keeps saving the world by accident). The other wizards are a parody of the senior faculty at Oxford or Cambridge, so academic readers will definitely appreciate them. But they have cameos in many Discworld books, so you don’t need to read the wizards subseries to get a taste of the wizards.
Pyramids. A one-off Discworld book from fairly early on, not part of any subseries and not featuring any characters from any other Discworld book. Set in the Discworld’s parody version of ancient Egypt. Teenager Pteppic unexpectedly has to become the new Pharaoh, and has to deal with problems both socio-political and magical. He wants to modernize the country but the high priest opposes him. And the magical pyramid being built for the last Pharaoh might be too magical…One of the first Discworld books that’s not just a parody; there are big themes here about personal religious faith vs. organized religion, and about tradition vs. modernity. There are a lot of science and math jokes too, which I’m guessing will be up the alley of many readers of this blog. For instance, the Disc’s most brilliant mathematician is a camel…It’s not a perfect book, though. The last third drags. And the handmaiden Traci is a one-note character and doesn’t get much to do (Pratchett got much better at writing women as he went along). Pratchett later returned to the same themes and handled them even better in Small Gods, another one-off Discworld book that’s not part of any subseries. Small Gods is great, it’s many people’s pick for best Discworld novel, but I wouldn’t start with it.
Wyrd Sisters. The second book in the Discworld subseries focused on witches–specifically, the witches Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and (in the earlier books in the subseries) Magrat Garlick. The first book in the subseries, Equal Rites, introduces Granny, but I recommend skipping it and going back to it later if you really want. Granny Weatherwax is one of the Disc’s two greatest characters, but the version of Granny in Equal Rites is version 1.0. She doesn’t fully cohere with the version of Granny we get from Wyrd Sisters onward.*** You definitely don’t need to read Equal Rites to understand Wyrd Sisters. Wyrd Sisters is a Shakespeare parody (mostly Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear), that puts the witches at the center of the action. The king of Lancre is murdered by the duke; the witches try to restore the true heir to the throne. Wyrd Sisters is funny. It’s got three distinctive protagonists who play well off one another. And it’s one of the first Discworld books to take up one of Pratchett’s big running themes: “narrative causality”. It’s all about the power of the stories we tell each other (and ourselves) to change the world, not merely describe it.
Guards! Guards! The first Discworld book in the City Watch subseries. The City Watch books are set in Ankh-Morpork (the Disc’s biggest city; a parody of Victorian London). When we first meet our hero, Sam Vimes, Captain of the Night Watch, he’s passed out drunk in the gutter. Guards! Guards! follows Sam Vimes and the other motley members of the Night Watch as they rise to the occasion and save the city from a dragon. Along with Granny Weatherwax, Sam Vimes is one of the Disc’s two greatest characters, a flawed man who develops over the course of the City Watch books into a fantasy version of the ideal policeman.**** Guards! Guards!, together with its sequel Men At Arms, introduces a slew of the Disc’s best supporting characters. Guards! Guards! also is a prescient political allegory of the Trump years. (Aside: note that the recent tv series The Watch is based loosely on the City Watch books. Emphasis on “loosely”. I haven’t seen it, but it seems to have gotten only mixed reviews at best. It’s clearly not much like the City Watch books. So if you saw the series and didn’t like it, don’t let that steer you away from the City Watch books.)
Reaper Man. The second book in the Discworld subseries focused on Death. That is, the incarnation of death–the Grim Reaper, the skeleton with the black cloak and the scythe, whose job it is to collect the souls of the dead and send them on their journey into the afterlife. Death has very funny cameos in most Discworld books, but there’s also a subseries with Death as the protagonist. You could start the Death subseries with Mort, the first book in the subseries. But personally I think Mort is one of the weaker Discworld books, and nothing in it is essential for understanding Reaper Man. So why not start with Reaper Man, the main plot of which is one of the best things Pratchett ever wrote? In Reaper Man, Death is relieved of his duties, and sent to live among humans until the new Death comes to claim his soul. Death gets a job as a reaper (after all, he already has his own scythe), hangs around with humans, and learns to face, well, himself. It’s a fish-out-of-water comedy; Death has no emotions and so makes hilarious mistakes when he tries to act human. But it’s also a profound meditation on what makes life worth living, and has the most perfect (and tear-jerking) ending of any Discworld book. Unfortunately, the rest of the book isn’t nearly as good as the main plot. There are a couple of subplots that take place elsewhere, about all the wacky consequences that ensue when Death stops collecting souls. One of the subplots turns into a now-dated parody of…shopping malls. The subplots have nothing to do with the main plot, and they’re such a jarring contrast with the main plot that they come off more as a weird interruption than as needed comic relief. Pratchett later got better at comic relief, and at subplots that reflected and enriched the main plot rather than getting in the way.
Good Omens. Not a Discworld book; a satire about the book of Revelations, written with Neil Gaiman. Hard to tell it was written with Gaiman, honestly–it all sounds like Pratchett. In Good Omens, it’s the End Times, the run-up to the final battle between God and Satan. Except that one of the angels and one of the devils are working together to stop it, because they like Earth the way it is. The tv series is the only good film or tv adaptation of Pratchett’s work. The book is very funny, and also has big themes about the blurry line between “good” and “evil”. If you liked the tv series, you’ll like the book, and vice-versa.
Nation. Not a Discworld book; a one-off YA novel set in an alternate version of our world in the 19th century. Pacific island boy Mau and white British girl Daphne end up stranded on a small island after a huge storm. They have to figure out how to survive, and how to save Mau’s tribe, while Daphne hopes for rescue. Nation was Pratchett’s own pick as his best book. A Robinson Crusoe-style adventure, that also takes on clashing worldviews and colonialism in a rich and evenhanded way. Not jokey at all, though a bit of humor does arise from the situations the characters find themselves in. Perhaps not the most representative introduction to Pratchett in terms of the writing style, but very good all the same.
Looking forward to nerding out with fellow Pratchett fans in the comments. 🙂
*I haven’t read the Johnny Maxwell trilogy for kids (it’s on my list). I haven’t read the last Discworld book for adults, Raising Steam, because I’ve heard it’s bad. If I never read it, I’ll always have the pleasure of having one more Discworld book to look forward to, without the disappointment of reading a bad one. I haven’t read the Long Earth sci-fi series. I didn’t finish Pratchett’s YA novel Dodger (just couldn’t get into it). And I haven’t read anything by Pratchett besides his novels, except for the short fiction collected in A Blink of the Screen.
**There’s no graphic violence in the Discworld, but a number of Discworld books contain bawdy jokes (I skip or edit those jokes when I’m reading them to my 10 year old son). And there are a couple of Discworld books with scenes implying that two characters are about to have sex. The bawdy jokes and very occasional implied sex mean that Discworld books are best read by teens and adults. Also, you’ll appreciate the Discworld books more if you’re old enough to get at least some of the many, many erudite references.
***Also, Equal Rites is intended as a feminist book, but I’m not sure it quite works. Esk is nominally the protagonist. She’s a young girl who becomes a wizard, previously an all-male occupation on the Disc (women who can do magic are supposed to become witches). But the book is really focused on Granny Weatherwax. Esk has basically no agency and no inner life. The book comes off as Granny, and destiny, deciding that Esk will be a wizard, without Esk herself ever having much say. Pratchett later got much better at writing women as unique individuals with agency, and at writing characters struggling to find their place in the world. I think of Tiffany Aching as basically Esk 2.0, for instance. Tiffany is what Esk could’ve and should’ve been. Indeed, in one of the Tiffany Aching books, Esk has a walk-on part that reveals what she’s been up to in the many years since Equal Rites. I think that walk-on part exists because Pratchett wanted to give Esk some of the agency and character arc she never got in Equal Rites.
****Which as an aside is why some readers with left-wing political views are suspicious of Vimes and the City Watch books. If you think the main function of idealized fictional police is to blind us to the problems with actually-existing police, the City Watch books may not be your thing (and if so, fair enough). Then again, maybe they will be your thing! I know this may seem totally random that I’m even talking about this. But recently I’ve listened to several podcasts by Pratchett fans who are quite suspicious of, or even hostile to, police–but who like the City Watch books anyway. I have no idea how representative those folks are of anyone besides themselves. But still, I found their mostly-positive reactions to Vimes and the City Watch books striking. I think those positive reactions illustrate three broader points. One is, the Discworld books are fantasy stories. They reflect and comment on our world, yes. But they’re not meant to convey all of Terry Pratchett’s own views on politics or anything else, much less take a stand on any real world political issue. For starters, there aren’t any democracies on the Disc (with the sort-of exception of Ephebe), but that doesn’t mean that Terry Pratchett disapproves of democracy! So I think most readers will be able to suspend disbelief and just enjoy the Discworld books for what they are. Second, Pratchett’s most interested in individual people. He’s interested in the choices people make and why, and how those choices affect them and those around them. He sees the good and bad sides of everybody, even if he’s more skeptical of some people than others. And he knows that people often have mixed or contradictory feelings and opinions (about politics, and everything else). I think that many readers of various political stripes will find characters they can relate to in the Discworld. Third, Pratchett was capable of writing compellingly about views he likely disagreed with. In one of the later City Watch books, Night Watch, we get Sam Vimes’ backstory through a terrific plot device. Vimes accidentally gets sent back in time and has to train his own younger self to be a policeman. Oh, and he has to keep his younger self alive, as Ankh-Morpork undergoes a violent revolution modeled on Les Miserables. In Night Watch, Pratchett seriously entertains the idea that left-wing revolutionaries might be right–that sometimes we need to burn it all down. Night Watch also asks what it means to be a policeman–a civilian dedicated to preserving the status quo–when there’s no longer any status quo to preserve, or worth preserving. And Night Watch enriches our sense of Sam Vimes as an individual. We learn to understand, if not necessarily agree with, Vimes’ own later motives and choices. Night Watch is my pick for the best Discworld book, but to appreciate it you need to read the City Watch books that come before it.