With its first instalment — The Colour of Magic, published in November 1983 — Sir ‘Terry’ David John Pratchett, OBE introduced one of the most beloved worlds in the fantasy genre (albeit a flat one).
In 2005 I met a lovely girl who would later become my wife. The introduction came through a dear friend, who happened to be a huge Discworld fan. He lent me the first book from the series that I ever read: Guards! Guards!
“Why don’t you let me read the first one?” I asked, although I had already seen the cover art and was keen to get started. “This is a first one,” he replied. “Discworld has many storylines, and I’m sure you will enjoy reading about Sam Vimes and the Watch.”
The lovely woman who became my wife decided to buy me, slowly, the entire collection. Now I own those 41 novels, as well as several other works by Terry Pratchett. She also became a fan, more so than I. We have a lot of love for this series — so if you’re unfamiliar, let me share it with you.
What is the Discworld?
Discworld is a disc-shaped world. It exists because of magic. It is held up by four gigantic elephants which stand on top of a huge, ancient turtle that travels through space (and yes, we know where it’s going). This world has cities, mountains, magic, politics, science, guilds… But the best thing? It is one of the best critiques on humanity and modern society you will read. Some of its characters even seem to know this. In it you can find Ankh-Morpork, a city where magic and industry clash in disruptive ways. In 2002, Wincanton in Somerset became the first city to be twinned to a fictional one. That’s how magical the Discworld is. That’s how magical Sir Terry Pratchett was.
Why should I read it?
Because it is way more than the sum of its parts. Discworld relates to most of the current themes in the world as we experience it today, even inside a magic-fueled, politically-intricate, culturally-mixed fantasy setting. It is extremely well written, the stories are excellent, and Terry was a wonderful human being who deserves every bit of praise you can find. Have I mentioned the amazing humour? The books are very, very funny.
Although I have read all the novels, I have to admit that the only story arc that I read sequentially is the one introduced in Guards! Guards! and it is that of the Watch. In it you will find not only interesting background information on Ankh-Morpork and its many residents (and particularly nauseating river), but also extremely funny crime stories. Ahh, the high blood pressure, the drinking, and the pilfering! It’s urban crime fantasy at its best.
If police procedurals don’t tickle your fancy, maybe witches or wizards interest you. Witches have that down-to-earth, no-nonsense, natural kind of powerful magic; wizards, on the other hand, have a tendency to be academically uptight, yet powerful too. But if something in between those poles appeals more, you’re in luck — Rincewind, a very inept wizard, is introduced in the first novel, and his story will allow you to understand a bit more about every other single book in the series. The first books in the canon are part of the wizards’ storyline.
I could just tell you to start with the story arc that is, in my opinion, the best: Death. In Discworld, Death is a character. Not just something that happens. And he has a daughter. Oh, the suffering.
Maybe you’re more interested in the ancient civilizations of Discworld history; there are a couple of books that deal with these. If you’re interested in industrial revolution, or ‘revoltion’ as the official Harper’s reading guide to Discworld puts it, then the monkey business going on around Mr. Moist von Lipwig would probably make you laugh. Or perhaps cry a little.
I won’t attempt to make a suggestion as to the reading order, because this isn’t just a matter of timelines. It is such a huge universe, and some stories might feel a bit re-used — but that is most certainly part of its charm. The books hold a mirror to our contemporary society and force us to recognise our past, too. I will venture that starting at the beginning (the Rincewind arc) might not be the best idea — the series is better approached arc by arc. I made that mistake with my firstborn; I should have insisted on him reading about the witches or the Watch.
Once you have chosen a story arc, I do recommend that you read it chronologically.
Terry Pratchett loved language, and that is apparent in every single book in the series. The sheer page-inches of footnotes will most certainly distract you from the actual story, until you notice the effect it has on the actual storytelling: there is more than one story. Pratchett practically reads next to you; he is felt as a constant presence, who interacts with the characters. It might make you feel like you are part of the story.
The different arcs deal with a number of important topics, such as: gender identity, learning disabilities, socio-economic issues, and strong cultural conflicts (to name just a few). It is testament to the calibre of Pratchett as a writer that these are mostly discussed with sensitivity as well as biting humour. The books juxtaposition technology alongside magic, sociology next to ignorance. You can’t say this about many books, but: they might just help you grow as a human being, if my experience is anything to go by.