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Discovering Discworld

Discworld Map by Stephen PlayerSome of the earliest fantasy I remember reading were books from the Discworld series. This isn’t the usual route into fantasy, and is a little odd because Discworld is something that engages with fantasy as a genre, lovingly poking fun at it while exploring some of its more common tropes. It’s meant for the fantasy fan, not really as an introduction to fantasy, and yet that’s exactly what it was for me.

The Discworld series helped cement me as a fantasy fan, for which I’ll always be grateful. It also taught me about how people perceive genre (the good and the bad), and the ways that fantasy identifies itself. It was Discworld that showed me that it is possible to criticise, laugh at, and adore something at the same time, and that magic is made when tropes are examined or turned on their head rather than simply repeated.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is arguably one of the biggest and most important series in fantasy, both in terms of how it influences and reflects the genre, and due to its massive popularity and success. However, it is one of those dauntingly long series (the longest series in fantasy, surely?) that often seems a little inaccessible or confusing to new readers, and with what can sometimes appear to be a rather intimidating fanbase. It’s a fantasy institution, almost, akin to Doctor Who, and equally perplexing for the ‘uninitiated’.

So what is Discworld all about, why do people rave about it so much, and where, amongst its thirty-nine novels, do you begin?

Discworld by nicolscheWhat is Discworld, anyway?

The Discworld is a disc-shaped world perched on the back of four giant elephants, which in turn are standing on the shell of an enormous turtle, the Great A’Tuin, which swims through space. The Discworld is a fantasy world, with its own cultures, magic, gods and science, though the science tends to mirror that of our world, and the cultures and societies found on the Discworld strongly reflect our world too.

Comedy and Satire

The Discworld series is comic fantasy. Most of the humour in the books comes from parodying other fantasy works, or using fantasy to satirise issues and events in our own world. So, a power struggle between witches and wizards comments on feminist issues, wars between nations reflect real life conflicts, and music, technology and religion on the Disc might parallel such developments in our world. The Discworld books are as much about our world as they are about a fantasy world, and a large part of the fun and ingenuity of the stories comes from this aspect.

A Non-Static World

There are some games, referred to as ‘persistent worlds’, which continue to exist and to change even when the player has logged off. The world will never be the same place when you re-enter the game, giving the fantasy world a sense of life and reality.

The Truth by Josh KirbyDiscworld could be seen as a ‘persistent world’ of fantasy books. The series does not have a long-running story, as many other fantasy series do, but rather a long-running world. Important characters and technology do not remain static while new books follow other people and other adventures. When each story or ‘arc’ is complete, the world continues, society and people change, and the Discworld is a different place by the next book.

Discworld begins as a fairly standard fantasy world, but then modernises and develops with each new book. And there are two very interesting things about this approach. First is that magic and technology exist alongside each other naturally. Second is that the author doesn’t explore the ‘flashy’ inventions, but focuses on those that have a huge cultural impact. We see the invention of the printing press and banking, even stamps, and, astonishingly, the stories of these innovations are utterly fascinating.

Rincewind and the Wizards

Rincewind and Luggage on the run by puggdoggThe most natural place to begin the Discworld series is with book one, The Colour of Magic. This is the book that establishes the world and its geography, its science, its gods and its magic. It also introduces the character of the wizard Rincewind, and the Librarian and the Luggage, two firm fan favourites. The Colour of Magic actually has a very interesting storyline, though it is much more haphazard and not as tightly plotted as the later books. It has shorter jokes and more obvious punch lines, and is a less subtle parody of fantasy in general. This leads to moments of genius – Cohen the Barbarian – but also some misses.

Pratchett’s writing certainly improves with later books, but the energy and sense of fun of the first books is something special and worth reading. There is also much to be said for simply reading all the Discworld books in order. There are certain ‘mini-series’ following specific characters, and some standalone novels within the Discworld set, but these ‘mini-series’ do sometimes intersect, and characters from one book do often appear in others. This means that for the best possible experience, you perhaps can’t beat going through in the order they were written.

However, starting at The Colour of Magic needs to come with a caution. General opinion is that this is not a great place to enter the Discworld. The tone of these early books is very different to the later ones, and many people prefer other characters to Rincewind. If you begin here and find that the humour or style is not doing it for you, then put the book down and perhaps skip ahead to the City Watch books instead.

The Witches

Wyrd Sisters by Paul Kidby

Wyrd Sisters by Paul Kidby

There are four main witch characters in Discworld – Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Magrat, and Tiffany Aching. They are all very well written, stubborn, intelligent, and determined. Whereas the wizards tend to be a bit flighty and scatterbrained, the witches are always in control (or at least very good at pretending to be). The interaction between the witches is a lot of fun, and the witch stories tend to be used to examine and twist common fantasy tropes. They’re also more about magic and magical creatures than some other Discworld books. The witch books officially begin with Equal Rites, but Wyrd Sisters, based on Hamlet and Macbeth, is just as good a place to start.

Tiffany Aching is the star of her own mini-series, still within the Discworld setting, but aimed at young adult readers. These are some of my favourite books in the Discworld, as Tiffany is a wonderful character, and the storylines of her books are always thoughtful and deep as well as funny. These books, being written to stand alone from the series if needed, are also another potential starting point. The first one is The Wee Free Men.

The City Watch

Guard! Guards! by Paul Kidby

Guard! Guards! by Paul Kidby

If there’s a clear favourite amongst Discworld fans, it’s the City Watch books. It’s the characters that make these stories so fantastic: the long-suffering and cynical Sam Vimes, a working class man propelled into the upper classes, Carrot, the honest and cheerful guy who is possibly the heir to the throne, two very inept guards, a werewolf, a troll, a zombie, and Cheery Littlebottom, the first female dwarf to openly declare her gender and sexuality.

The City Watch books are urban-fantasy-police-procedural-mystery-stories, with plenty of magic and fantasy elements thrown in. They are the best books for getting to know Ankh-Morpork, the most important city in the Discworld series, and so are also a wonderful starting point. They are also probably the best representation of Terry Pratchett’s style and the kind of humour a reader can expect from the Discworld books.

Begin the City Watch books with Guards! Guards!. This is also the most common suggestion for beginning the Discworld books in general. Note – the City Watch books really are best read in order.

Death

Death with Kitten II by Paul Kidby

Death with Kitten II by Paul Kidby

Death is a big fan favourite, and there are several books in which he is the main character. He is the Grim Reaper of legend, but has a surprising amount of humanity as well as a desire to connect with the world. I don’t believe Death’s main books are necessarily great places to enter into the Discworld from, however, and would suggest Hogfather as a better starting point. This book follows Susan, Death’s granddaughter, and is more of a standalone story. It features Death enough to satisfy those who are more interested in this part of the Discworld.

Others and Standalones

There are plenty of standalone novels in the Discworld series, as well as the Moist Von Lipwig novels, which have not developed into a long mini-series yet. In my opinion, some of the best Discworld novels can be found amongst this category.

A reader can really begin the Discworld series at any point (except The Light Fantastic, which is part two of The Colour of Magic), but certain nuances may be lost by jumping into standalones that come very late in the series. For example, interactions between Moist Von Lipwig and the City Watch are better if one has read the City Watch books and know those characters. If you do want to try a standalone before committing to a series about specific characters, then Small Gods might be a good place to begin, and is a very good book.

Have you read the Discworld books? What book would you recommend to others to begin with? Leave advice and suggestions in the comments!

Title image by nicolsche.

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14 Comments

  1. There is a flowchart in Uncle Hugo’s bookstore here in Minneapolis that tries to map out in detail how the books connect and how the various lines all run.Its complicated!

  2. Just found this flow chart for reading order, via @Loerwyn, which looks very useful. Thanks Kathryn! 🙂

    That comes from this site, which has more about potential reading orders: http://www.lspace.org/books/reading-order-guides/

  3. Nicholas S. says:

    I honestly have not started the Discworld books yet but they’ve always been something that has been nudging me in the side when I’m thinking of a book to read. This article pretty much guaranteed not only that I’ll finally be entering the Discworld but where I’ll be entering. Thank you!

  4. quillet says:

    I adore the Discworld books, and I think your advice about possible reading orders is spot-on. Personal note: I first read them totally out of order, pretty much as I could get my hands on them. Later I re-read them in the order in which they were written. Both ways worked great for me. The first time around, I loved books about the witches and Death the best. Second time around, I found myself loving the City Watch books best. Sam Vimes is now my favourite character of all!

  5. Faith says:

    I’d also recommend “The Truth” as an excellent standalone to start with. I’ve managed to create several new Discworld fans that way. 🙂

  6. A.E. Marling says:

    Hogfather is my favorite Discworld book for the amazing premise, Death substituting for the equivalent of Santa Claus. That said, between the whirlwind of tooth fairies and assassins, I feel the book is less intuitive than the others and I hesitate to recommend it as a start. Monstrous Regiment is nearly a stand-alone and quite entertaining. Going Postal is a later book but very robust in story and humor.

    To younger readers (and those less familiar with the fantasy genre), I’d without hesitation recommend Equal Rites. It’s reminiscent of Harry Potter: a young girl battling her way against discrimination to gain entrance to a magic school. It also features the salt and wit of Granny Weatherwax.

  7. Alexandra says:

    The last continent was the first one I read. It’s still one of my favourites along with Hogsfather. I fell in love with DEATH, but you have to be an adult to fully appreciate it.

    My kids like The amazing Maurice and his educated rodents, and so do I. Love cats, you know.

  8. Sinnerman says:

    Hey. I’d just like to say thanks for this. It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for. I have been intimidated by the sheer size of the Discworld series and have been wondering where to start with it. And I think its going to be from the start for what its worth!! lol. groundbreaking decision making i know.

  9. Eimarmeni says:

    “Small Gods”. The whole concept of religion, broken down to a turtle and a novice monk, was hilarious. Also I love the Witches series. Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax are probably my favorite characters. Especially in “Lords and Ladies”.

  10. Paul Kidby says:

    Artist credits alongside artwork would be nice to include please.

    • Autumn2May Autumn2May says:

      I would be happy to include a caption with your work. We do our best to credit all the art we use. While we don’t normally include a captions, we do add hover text (alt text) and a click-throughs to the site where the artist is based. Thank you for visit our site and I’ll get that fixed for you right now. 🙂

  11. Jennifer Meade says:

    Thanks so much for this.It’s an excellent post and one I will be sharing with others. I was never one who really flocked to fantasy all by myself. I fell into a deep and abiding love with The Discworld in the very strangest of ways…you see, there was This Guy…., and I really really really liked him, and we had just started dating, and he was a huge Discworld fan, and he was funny, and charming, and handsome, and brilliant, and best of all he had a really really snarky sense of humor just like me. And one day as we were laughing over the comic bunglings of some politicians, he suggested that I might just be interested in borrowing a book of his. And with that he passed over a copy of Wyrd Sisters, ….and I tried to politely explain that I wasn’t really a fantasy girl. And he said to just try it, and if I didnt love it then he’d never bring it up again. And like I said, I really really really liked him…..So I tried it. And I ended up staying up ALL night reading it. And then I borrowed Mort. And then Equal Rites.(And then, i even branched out to try Good Omens).I knew I was hooked, and that my boyfriend had become my Discworld Dealer. And then, it became quickly apparent that I needed to start my own collection, bc I knew these would be books to read over and over that would never get old. In a very short time, I became a Total Terry Pratchett fan, and began to share my newfound joy with others. I am so grateful to have been introduced to this wonderful series.And in opening my mind to Terry Pratchett, I also found Neil Gaiman and others without whom life would be far less enjoyable. The Discworld really is a bridge into the genre for those who would otherwise not even venture to that section of the library. I am so very very glad I did, because I have found nothing but sheer delight ever since crossing that bridge and traveling past the border beyond which “There Be Dragons” (who incidentally have so far been charming hosts, and very good company).

  12. […] three witches (L-R) Magrat, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. Image taken from http://fantasy-faction.com/2013/discovering-discworld. Original drawing by Paul […]

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