Sunday Series: Discworld

Warning: highly opinionated post follows. Friendly disagreement more than welcome.

It’s been a couple of years since an entirely gratuitous Terry Pratchett thread, and a Twitter discussion asked about favourite Pratchett novels, with a focus on readers new to Pratchett. What think you?

My overall favourite is Night Watch, but I think it would be a terrible place to start reading: you need the context of the earlier Night Watch sub-series for background. Night Watch follows Guards! Guards!, Men At Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo and The Fifth Elephant. You could possibly skip Feet of Clay and Jingo and have most of the background, but that’s still a fair commitment. You want The Fifth Elephant because it introduces the major characters in an ongoing multinational inter-species political struggle (Monstrous Regiment, Thud!, Unseen Academicals, Snuff), but it’s also probably not strictly necessary as background to Night Watch.

The Night Watch sub-series is also interesting technically, as Pratchett has created two absurdly powerful political characters in this series (Vimes, the head of police, and Vetinari, the ruler of Ankh-Morpork), and has to come up with increasingly aggressive scenarios to actually challenge them. He has written elsewhere about finding this annoying when he wants to write interesting stories in Ankh-Morpork without Vimes sticking his nose into them.

It’s worth warning that Night Watch is one of the darker novels, with offscreen torture and onscreen immediate-aftermath-of-torture. Small Gods has similar warnings (religiously inspired torture), if you’re OK with that it is good and very self-contained, and has also served as an entry point for a number of people.

The first Discworld I ever read was Hogfather and I think it’s actually not a bad starting point, since it’s a fairly self-contained story and contains a bunch of core Discworld themes concerning how magic and divinity work. It also has a great heroine who unfortunately, in my opinion, otherwise appears in pretty mediocre Discworld novels.

Probably for most Hoyden readers I’d recommend starting with Equal Rites or Wyrd Sisters and reading through the Witches novels, which is where I went after Hogfather. The Tiffany Aching books didn’t exist at the time, but they’re very much in the spirit of the Witches novels, except that the Witches seem much more organised in them: Pratchett can’t leave well enough alone when it comes to creating power structures. See tigtog’s post about the Witches for more.

I find the Rincewind/wizards sub-series pretty unworthwhile, and still haven’t actually read all of it, so I can’t speak to that fairly.

Edited to add: there is a well-known reading order guide, which lays out the various sub-series in a flowchart style, but I cannot find an accessible version. Hence this post refers directly to the sub-series wiki pages.

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12 replies

  1. Good stuff. The first I read was Wyrd Sisters, on, I think, tigtog’s recommendation, and borrowed from Mimbles. I tried The Colour of Magic next but couldn’t get into it. Hogfather I just read and liked as much as Wyrd Sisters. So this is a good guide as to where to go next. 🙂
    ETA: I hear The Last Continent is about a faux-Australia? Recommended?

    • The Last Continent is a Rincewind story, which for some is enough to put them off. It’s not the strongest in the Unseen University collection, but it has its moments.

      • P.S. One shouldn’t read The Last Continent as one’s first Rincewind story, methinks. Needs The Light Fantastic as a prequel at the very least.

  2. To understand The Last Continent it helps to have read The Light Fantastic to get a sense of Rincewind as a character (ignore The Colour of Magic – Pterry doesn’t start to get into his rather distinctive style until about ten pages before the end of the book), Sourcery to get an idea of the sort of crap Rincewind’s been pushed through, Eric to see some of the ways that Pterry gets him out of it, and Interesting Times to understand how he wound up where he is now in the most immediate sense.
    Personally, as the most interesting Rincewind book I’d recommend Interesting Times, because that’s the one which really brings him back into the series again, and it shows Rincewind for a large part coming to terms with the way his life works (to the point where in The Last Hero, he’s pretty much able to predict his own involvement in things, and at least intervene with events in such a way as to control it). Plus it has Cohen the Barbarian, who’s a favourite of mine. The Last Continent, to me, wasn’t all that interesting. Yes, there were some fascinating bits early on with the wizards, but mostly it was just a way of being able to string together a whole heap of Australian-themed jokes. About the only one which sticks in the memory after multiple years for me is the variation on Waltzing Matilda.

  3. I got on board with Discworld right from the beginning so I always find it very hard to suggest where people should start reading, I kind of love them all (though there are some I reread less often than others). With my kids I began by reading Guards Guards to David when he was about 8 years old I think, and I read Wee Free Men aloud in the car on a trip to Dubbo a few years back and that was a huge hit.
    I’ve been enjoying Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Pratchett’s Women series of posts on her blog, I think they’ve been linked here before, well worth a read!

  4. Ironically, Night Watch was my first Vimes novel and it really pulled me in! I felt like I learned enough about the man and his world in that book to get why he was who he was, and why the modern Watch was special. Admittedly, going back and reading the sub-series from the beginning helped a lot.

  5. The Discworld Reading Order Guide has been updated to version 2.1 for 2012 and can be found on the Discworld Fanatics website here:

    Chris Kietzman (I made the thing 🙂

    • Thanks for dropping by, Chris – sorry that the spaminator took a dislike to your comment!
      (I raised a Sybiline eyebrow in its direction )

  6. Let’s be fair — Susan Sto Helit is even more awesome in ‘Thief of Time’ than in ‘Hogfather’. I agree that the other ‘Death’ books aren’t quite as much fun, though. Death was always better as a side character.

  7. I like Susan in Thief of Time, I just don’t like ToT itself, largely due to the other characters. I find Lu-Tze insufferable, and Lobsang Ludd is a non-entity, a wisp of smoke of a character (I also find Imp y Celyn rather like this, Susan has many fine characteristics but her taste in men doesn’t impress me). I wish there’d been a lot more Susan and Nanny Ogg and a lot less History Monks. And while I don’t think Jeremy Clockson could withstand much more screentime, I quite like him in what he has.
    I realise that Lu-Tze then goes on to play another important minor role in Night Watch, but he’s much less annoying when he bloody well tells people what he knows and suspects, or at least they mutually agree that he probably shouldn’t tell them what he knows and suspects, which means his interactions with Vimes (and, in ToT, the Abbot) are way way less throw-book-at-wall annoying than his interactions with Lobsang Ludd.
    I think I am a relatively unusual Pratchett fan, in that I only like about half the Discworld novels.

  8. mimbles, thanks for the link to Tansy RR’s series, her writeup of Night Watch is really great, and analysed several things I’d noticed to some extent too. (Especially, what is with Pratchett’s anti-midwife agenda at the end?)

  9. Feet of Clay and Hogfather are my favourites. I’m not a tremendous fan of the series as a whole, though that’s more because comedy takes on genres aren’t really a thing I’m into. His character-building is excellent.

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