book, humanism, retrospective, review
Sometime around 1995, my dad brought a book called Light Fantastic home. As he was reading it he was roaring with laughter. My mum picked it up shortly after as did their friends and soon our household was rife with lines quoted from the books.
Discworld has a history to me. It’s a series of books that’s been with me and my family for pretty much as long as I remember. I’d fallen out a few times, but always picked it up. It’s been an important part of my life.
Two years ago (July 2018) I started reading them all in order. I had missed a lot of the more recent books — partly because they were coming out too fast and I was struggling to keep up. So with the passing of Terry Pratchett I thought this would be a good time to do it. Tragic as it was, it did mean I could catch up once and for all.
The full series (counting the actual novels, not any of the supplementary works) contains 41 books about 20 of which I’d never read before. It spans a little over three decades of Earth time, the first book (The Colour of Magic) having come out in 1983 and the last one (The Shepherd’s Crown) in 2015.
It is a daunting affair. Yet, I think it’s worth the investment and I’ll tell you what to do if you (sensibly!) don’t want to commit to the entire series.
(source: Vladimír Elexa aka moscito1 at pixabay)
The eponymous Discworld is a flat "planet" — a world with oceans overflowing at the edge. It sits on the backs of four huge elephants who stand on top of the shell of a giant turtle, slowly moving through space.
There is a tall mountain in the middle where the gods live and play dice with the fates of people. Humans, dwarfs, trolls, goblins, vampires, werewolves. Witches, Wizards and Politicians. It is a world full of magic.
The stories often take on the basic structure of your traditional heroes' journeys and tropes. The dwarfs are small and have beards, love gold and quaffing beer. The trolls are huge, lumbering, stupid and eat people.
But this is not your standard low-effort fantasy even though the book covers and blurbs would absolutely give you that impression. I don’t know how much it’s been an explicit goal, but subversion is the name of the game here.
Rincewind, the main hero of the first two books is not a hero — in fact he’s the biggest coward there is. He’s a wizard who’s not able to cast a single spell. Or rather, the one spell he is able to cast he dares not. The witches indeed tend to be old and scheming, but they care for their people. They serve their communities. And even the book’s greatest tyrant is a much more interesting and humane character than his title would suggest.
One of the most interesting characters in the entire series, in fact.
The books are absolutely packed with footnotes, references to the real world, throwbacks and so much stuff that honestly, the only person to fully appreciate it all is Terry Pratchett.
But it’s not pretentious about it. If you’re looking for a nice pulp ride, Discworld has you covered. It’s not snooty.
However, if you are versed in history, politics, philosophy, physics, computer science, Conan The Barbarian or any of the million other things it references and you do notice them… Well, you’re in for a treat!
For example, Quantum Mechanics (my favourite subject) is referenced on many occasions. And the mentions span the whole gambit: from the apparent difference between the small and the big, to the apparent collapse of the wavefunction and the importance of looking at something, to parallel worlds all the way through to quacks explaining whatever nonsense they want to peddle as being true "because of quantum".
And it can all be absolutely, incredibly funny. Roaring with laughter funny. That for me was the initial draw. My teenage years were filled with mum and dad and all their friends quoting the jokes to one another.
Here similarly to the way it treats its references and plot, the books don’t discriminate. You’ll get your puns, the lowest-brow crass jokes as well as the highest-brow sophisticated humour and everything in-between. I keep being fascinated by how deep and wide Pratchett’s treatments go.
Especially as I’m growing older, the messages of emancipation, anti-discrimination, solidarity, caring for one another and doing the right thing, are landing much, much more than the jokes. None of this is forced, but it works so well.
Where it delved into philosophy, it got me really thinking as well.
There are few books that I could point to and genuinely say they changed the way I think and behave, but Discworld is absolutely up there.
"You do the job that’s in front of you."
This is a thing that two of my favourite characters say throughout the novels and it’s something that’s absolutely made an impact.
If what you want to achieve is too daunting, or too far out of reach, you do the thing you can do now and take a small step forward. And then you do the next thing. And the next one. And the next.
Words literally to live by.
I adore the world Pratchett has built here. It is fantastical, dark and bright, horrible and beautiful and mainly — full of hope.
It’s also a world that keeps changing and evolving. The Diskworld of The Colour of Magic is very different from the one in The Shepherd’s Crown. Changes big and small happen and have lasting effect. In contrast to our world, mostly for the better.
The books give me hope and show a way forward.
Before embarking on this journey, I worried that the series would fizzle out. That it would become worse over time. Surely you can’t keep it going strong for so long.
The opposite happened. When I read the first few books again, they felt much less gripping, less intriguing. They’re still excellent, but the later books are just so much better! And many of the last books are among my absolute favourites.
The series itself changed. While it never dropped humour entirely, there are fewer laugh-out-loud instances later on. But the other factors: characters, stories, worlds, situations, dialog all absolutely outweigh it.
And I was still laughing with every book in the series up to and including the last one.
The audiobooks — narrated by Nigel Planer, Celia Imrie and Stephen Briggs are also wonderful. That’s how I’ve consumed the whole series in this most recent re-read and they’re delightful.
Nigel Planer read roughly the first half and Stephen Briggs did the rest. The shift was painful, but they’re both excellent narrators and while it meant some of my favourite character’s voices and accents changed midway through they’re both excellent.
If you decide to pick Discworld up, note that reading it start to finish is not the best way to experience the books.
Instead, there are subseries (the City Watch, the Witches, Rincewind, the Wizards, Tiffany Aching, the Industrial Revolution, Moist von Lipwig, etc.). Select one of those and read that.
This Discworld Reading Order Guide (and v3) by Krzysztof Kietzman et al. can give you a good overview:
(credits inside the image)
Personally, the City Watch books (starting with Guards! Guards!) are the absolute highlight for me. I don’t think I’ll ever go and re-read the entire Discworld series again, but I know I’ll be returning to City Watch. Indeed, when I did this last read and got to the end of Guards! Guards!, I went ahead and just read all the other Watch books before continuing with the rest.
The character of Samuel Vimes speaks to me at a deep level and all the other characters there are wonderful as well. And I’m an absolute sucker for urban environments.
The Industrial Revolution (especially once Moist Von Lipwig starts appearing) and Tiffany Aching books were among my favourites too.
If you want a more traditional fantasy "hero’s journey" kind of thing, Rincewind is a great place to start.
My mum absolutely loves the Witches. It’s quite different from what you might expect of witches — they’re being the people holding their communities together — helping people out, healing, cleaning and mostly doing anything they can to avoid using magic (but they are powerful beings in their own right).
I like them a little less, but Granny Weatherwax (one of the main witches in the series) is also one of my absolute favourites in all of Discworld.
And if a prospect of 5-7 books in a series feels like too much, a lot of the books are either not part of any series at all or they’re so loosely connected that you can just read them as standalone!
- Amazing Maurice (my review)
- Moving Pictures (my review)
- Thief of Time (my review)
- Monstrous Regiment (my review)
If you try a book and don’t engage with it, don’t write the whole Discworld off. Try going with something else first! Their character tends to differ a lot.
I’ve been writing down thoughts on each book as I’ve been reading them. They’re often put together hastily with little editing, but might prove useful.
- Wyrd Sisters
- Guards! Guards!
- Men at Arms
- Feet of Clay
- The Fifth Elephant
- Night Watch
- Moving Pictures
- Witches Abroad
- Reaper Man
- Soul Music
- Interesting Times
- The Last Continent
- Carpe Jugulum
- The Truth
- Thief of Time
- The Last Hero
- The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
- The Wee Free Men
- Monstrous Regiment
- A Hat Full of Sky
- Going Postal
- Making Money
- Unseen Academicals
- I Shall Wear Midnight
- Raising Steam
- The Shepherd's Crown
I’ve read a good portion of the books during the one of the darkest periods of my life and they can provide a great escapism if that’s something you could use.
Terry Pratchett has given us a huge, wonderful gift. I am so grateful these books exist and that I got to read them.