Terry Pratchett's Discworld Series: A Reading Guide
Terry Pratchett's Discworld is one of the most famous, best-loved - and largest! - series of novels in the English language. The first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic, was published in 1983. The most recent, Unseen Academicals, is the 37th Discworld novel. (Yes, you read that right!)
So what is it about Discworld that has captured the imaginations of so many readers around the world and reputedly made Terry Pratchett both the most popular fantasy author AND the most shoplifted author in the UK during the 1990s?
For a start, Discworld is not quite like anything else. It's fantasy, but comic fantasy rather than epic sword and sorcery. The Discworld is flat and round and sits on the backs of four giant elephants, which in turn stand on the back of the giant space turtle, the Great A'Tuin. The Discworld contains a variety of continents, countries and cities, many of which may seem eerily familiar.
Terry Pratchett's great talent is in the complex, amusing and so very human characters he creates and the ways in which he uses their adventures to poke gentle and not so gentle fun at the real world. You'll find send-ups of everything from stamp collecting to the communications revolution to The Phantom of the Opera in the Discworld novels, as well as more serious points being made about issues including race relations, democracy and personal freedom - to name just a few.
So, where to begin? I'd recommend NOT starting at the beginning. This is partly because Pratchett is clearly still feeling his way early on and so the first few novels in the series are less polished than those that come later. The other reason not to start at the beginning is, well, thanks to the way the series is structured, you don't have to! Different novels in the series focus on different sets of characters. Each book has a specific, self-contained plot but some are "stand alone" novels with only passing references to characters and events from other books, while others follow the continuing adventures of particular characters and form sub-series within the main series.
The Ankh-Morpork City Watch
This is an excellent sub-series to start your acquaintance with Discworld. It follows the development of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch from a joke into an effective police force for the Disc's largest city, and in particular follows the personal journey of Sam Vimes, the Watch commander. The later books in this story arc, particularly 'Night Watch', display Terry Pratchett's writing talents at their very best. Members of the City Watch also make cameo appearances in a number of the other Discworld novels.
The City Watch books are (in publication order):
- Guards! Guards!
- Men At Arms
- Feet of Clay
- The Fifth Elephant
- Night Watch
- Where's My Cow (children's picture book which ties in with Thud!)
Moist von Lipwig
Moist von Lipwig, con artist extraordinaire is plucked from a life of crime (and, incidentally, from his own execution) and appointed postmaster-general of Ankh-Morpork, charged with getting the moribund post office up and running again. An honest man (well, sort of) with a fine criminal mind, Moist later moves on from the post office to reform the city's banking system. Lord Vetinari, ruler of Ankh-Morpork, may yet have more uses for Moist's unique talents. The next Moist von Lipwig book is rumoured to be titled 'Raising Taxes'. Should be fun…
The Moist von Lipwig books are:
- Going Postal
- Making Money
- Raising Taxes (forthcoming)
Death and his Grand-daughter
The anthropomorphic personification of Death turns up in almost every novel in the series. He appears to humans as a seven foot high skeleton in a dark cowled robe, holding a scythe and with two glowing blue points of light for eyes. He always speaks LIKE THIS. His trusty steed is called… Binky. Death's grand-daughter, Susan, also stars in several of the novels in this sequence.
Mort is the first book in which Death plays a central role, but it's one of the weaker books in the series and doesn't contribute much to the continuing storyline, apart from the reader needing to know that Mort himself was at one time Death's apprentice. If you want to follow Death's story arc, I'd start with Reaper Man and come back to Mort later if you're curious.
The Death novels are (in publication order):
- Reaper Man
- Soul Music
- Thief of Time
The witches live in the mountainous kingdom of Lancre, some distance from Ankh-Morpork. Unlike wizards, witches don't believe in formal ranks. As is noted early on in Wyrd Sisters, "Granny Weatherwax was the most highly-regarded of the leaders they didn't have." Other members of Granny's tiny coven include the pleasure-loving Nanny Ogg, Magrat Garlick, and Agnes Nitt, a young witch with a "great personality" - two of them, in fact.
The first Witches book is Equal Rites, but since it's one of those early "less polished" books, and since the events of Equal Rites have no bearing on virtually anything that follows and are never referred to again in the series (at least so far) I'd be inclined to skip it and start with Wyrd Sisters. The witches also appear in several other Discworld books, most notably the later Tiffany Aching books.
The Witches books are (in publication order):
- Equal Rites
- Wyrd Sisters
- Witches Abroad
- Lords and Ladies
- Carpe Jugulum
Tiffany Aching is a trainee witch, aged thirteen in her most recent appearance in Wintersmith. She's the main character of a sequence of Young Adult novels, which also feature the Nac Mac Feegle, or Pictsies, a band of war-like, blue-painted magical "wee free men" approximately six inches high. Granny Weatherwax and other characters from the Witches novels also appear in some of the Tiffany Aching novels. A new Tiffany Aching novel is due to be published later in 2010.
The Tiffany Aching novels are (in publication order):
- The Wee Free Men
- A Hat Full of Sky
- I Shall Wear Midnight (forthcoming)
Rincewind is the most hopeless and cowardly of wizards, and yet somehow he's managed to save the world numerous times. Accompanied by The Luggage - a sentient being that runs around on hundreds of little legs - Rincewind is the star of several books, including the first few books in the entire series. He is also mentioned or appears fleetingly in several other novels.
The Rincewind books are (in publication order):
- The Colour of Magic
- The Light Fantastic
- (Faust) Eric
- Interesting Times
- The Last Continent
- The Last Hero
The wizards of Unseen University aren't the stars of a specific sub-series, but they do have a continuing story arc of their own and appear in many of the novels, particularly the Rincewind novels but also in most of the other novels set in Ankh-Morpork. Prominent wizards include Arch Chancellor Mustrum Ridcully, Dr Hicks, head of Post-mortem Communications (NOT necromancy), the youthful and enthusiastic Ponder Stibbons, the only member of the faculty who actually gets things done, and the Librarian, who was accidentally turned into an orang-utan and now prefers to stay that way.
Some of the books in which the Wizards play a major part include:
- Equal Rites
- Reaper Man
- Unseen Academicals
Several Discworld novels do not belong to any particular grouping, though characters from the other novels make appearances in them. Read some of the other books in the series to get a feel for the Discworld universe before trying these.
The stand alone novels are:
- Moving Pictures
- Small Gods
- The Truth
- The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (young adult novel)
- Monstrous Regiment
- Unseen Academicals