1. The Discworld
Terry Pratchett needs no introduction as one of the most successful fantasy authors the UK has ever produced. He’s written science fiction, both on his own and in collaboration, children’s books, essays and popular science, but he’s best known for The Discworld.
This series of 40 books is set on a flat world that voyages through space on the back of four enormous elephants. These are in turn perched on the shell of a giant turtle (the Great A’Tuin). Believe it or not, Pratchett based his Discworld cosmology on actual ancient Hindu traditions that maintained the Earth wobbles through its existence on the back of an elephant, a turtle or both.
Despite its outlandish geology, and a cast of inhabitants that includes wizards, witches, trolls and dwarves, the Discworld has much more in common with Charles Dickens at his comic and indignant best than it has with Lord of The Rings. The books may have begun as a clever deconstruction of the clichés of fantasy fiction, but they soon became something better: satisfying and witty moral comedies about human society and its frailties. Which is why Pratchett counts among his fans the novelist of ideas par excellence A.S. Byatt.
If all of this is making Pratchett sound a bit high-minded, however, don’t worry. He is also very, very funny. Plus, there are no songs. Praise be to the God of fantasy: there are NO songs, and anyone who says ‘ere’ when they mean ‘before’ gets a good poke in the eye from the author. On the Discworld, superciliousness is the deadliest of all sins.
2. He is the King of Ridiculous Fantastical Comedy
Before he became a full-time writer, Pratchett had already had a thorough grounding in unbelievable and ridiculous situations. He was a press officer for a nuclear power station during the days of the Cold War, Chernobyl and the time the Hartlepool Power Station visitor centre was open every day apart from Christmas Day.
It was an experience that taught him the virtues of scepticism, which shines through in his writing. He said: “Eight years involved with the nuclear industry have taught me that when nothing can possibly go wrong and every avenue has been covered, then is the time to buy a house on the next continent.”
3. You don’t have to start at the beginning.
In fact I recommend you don’t. One of the intimidating things about a long series is the fear that it won’t make sense unless you start at the beginning. With the Discworld books, don’t worry. They’re all intended to make sense read as standalone novels,
The first book in the Discworld series is The Colour of Magic and it is nothing like the others. It’s less of a series opener than a lengthy preamble. Treat it like The Silmarillion – one for completists. If you want to read in sequence start with the second book, The Light Fantastic, which is where Pratchett starts to establish the tone, humour and storytelling style that made him so popular.
4. You have several different series to choose from
While you don’t have to read sequentially, there are distinct strands or mini-series within the Discworld books. For example, there is a series of books about the Witches of Lancre; another about The Watch, or the police force of Ankh Morpork (the Discworld’s biggest city); another that concerns the wizards of the world’s seat of magical learning, The Unseen University, and so on.
With these individual series you do get more out of them if you read them in sequence, but it’s not necessary. The best thing to do is to pick the one nearest to hand and see if you like it. Everyone tends to have a favourite, which brings me to….
5. But Granny Weatherwax is Everything!
Every Discworld reader will have the character they see as theirs. Some would fight to the death for The Watch’s Commander Vimes; others have a special place in their hearts for Rincewind, the Discworld’s most inept and cowardly wizard. But they’re all wrong, because Granny Weatherwax is the best Discworld character. End of.
Granny Weatherwax is the senior witch of the tiny mountain kingdom of Lancre – a place which comes across like Summerisle from The Wicker Man re-written by John Updike. She first appears as a solitary character with an unusual apprentice in the third Discworld book, Equal Rites, before acquiring a coven in Wyrd Sisters, where the witch series really gets going.
Granny Weatherwax is basically amazing. She can possess the bodies of animals (a practice called ‘borrowing), dig her own privies and magic a whole kingdom twenty years into its own future. Over the course of several books she faces down mad duchesses, evil elves, vampires, a fairy godmother gone to the bad and a Phantom of the Opera without once cracking a smile. It’s a crime of the highest order that Maggie Smith has never played her – though having seen Diana Rigg in Game of Thrones she’d make a good fist of the role as well.
6. Let’s talk about DEATH
The only character to appear in every Discworld novel is Death. A skeletal presence robed in black and carrying a scythe, he looks like he’s stepped straight onto the pages from a Medieval engraving. This is where the similarity ends, because Death is by far the cuddliest, sweetest and most downright decent of all Pratchett’s characters.
DEATH (who by the way was talking only in capital letters nearly twenty before Caitlin Moran uttered her first SCREAM on Twitter) is a walk-on in every book but takes centre stage in his own series, beginning with Mort. The Death books tend to concern themselves with him stepping outside his role as an anthromorphic figure to protect the Discworld against the indifferent forces that rule the universe. But if Death’s principles are worthy, his actions are always funny. Perhaps the best example of this is Hogfather, where Death takes over from the Discworld’s pig-obsessed version of Santa Claus in a bid to save the concept of childhood from destruction.
7. And Ankh Morporkh
Ankh Morpork is Terry Pratchett’s Gormenghast: a labour of detail-freak love. The Discworld’s largest metropolis, Ankh Morpork bestrides the evil-smelling Ankh river whose waters have the consistency of a blancmange made of raw sewage. It’s a twin. The posher Ankh is home to the Discworld’s one per-cent, such as the Machiavellian city Patrician Lord Vetinari (and his toothless dog Wuffles). Meanwhile rougher, raucous Morpork is a city of whores and taverns which don’t so much sell beer as rent it to drinkers for the evening.
Obviously influenced by the London literature of Mayhew and Dickens, Ankh Morpork pervades the Discworld series like a cabbagy fart. It’s pungent and stays with you long after it’s finished.
8. And Religion
Pratchett is my kind of atheist, in that he won’t preach where he can gently mock instead. Richard Dawkins take note. Religion plays a prominent role in the Discworld series, where the world’s major Gods live in the mountaintop kingdom of Dunmanifestin. Pratchett’s are an unsophisticated lot who tackle the problem of atheism by smashing philosophers’ windows. So in most of his books, Pratchett employs the Gods mainly for comic effect.
There is one exception, however: Small Gods. This book, set in the theocratic state of Omnia, is remarkable for the seriousness of the themes underneath the jokes. It deals with religious fundamentalism, the relationship between man and God and the question of whether the con trick of religion is worth it if it makes people be more humane to one another.
Reading this book it’s not hard to see how Pratchett, or Wodehouse with witches, could go on to be a convincing advocate for assisted dying after learning of his Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis. Put it on your reading list.
9. A note on the Dungeon Dimensions
Every genre novelist needs his stock ‘end of the world’ scenario, and for Pratchett this was the Dungeon Dimensions. These parallel universes, filled with creatures that would give H R Geiger a headache, exist beyond the edge of reality. However, as a world forever on the cusp of unreality itself, the Discworld is always one major magical event away from the Dungeon Dimensions breaking through and wreaking havoc.
No early Discworld book is spared the threat of an invasion of these monsters, which can feel a little wearing if you’re binge reading the series. Thankfully though, Pratchett learned to vary his peril as the series went on. If you’re keen to see a Dungeon Dimension breakthrough especially well-handled though, consider his spoof of the movie business, Moving Pictures.
10. Josh Kirby’s Covers
When they were first published, the cover designs (by American artist Josh Kirby) were a big part of what made Discworld books stand out in bookshops. Their weird, slightly fruity aesthetic (think Monty Python’s Flying Circus crossed with Flesh Gordon with a pinch of Iron Maiden LP sleeves) were a witty and vivid prompt as to what readers should expect when they opened the books.
Readers who download the series to read electronically will, however, be bitterly disappointed by the 50 Shades of Grey-influenced drabness of the eBooks covers. Please don’t judge the books by those covers as they’re pish.
Many comic writers can match Pratchett in terms of situational humour, but he has few equals when it comes to the bon mot. Each Discworld book contains at least two passages of such world-weary wit and wisdom that you will at least want to underline them and at most consider putting them in a t-shirt.
But don’t just take my word for it: read this
12. And finally, he keeps boys reading for pleasure through the dark, lonely days of adolescence
We worry a great deal at the moment about men and boys not reading. Some of it has to do with a mistaken cultural assumption that reading novels is something girls and women do. Some of it has to do with the fact that authors and publishers aren’t writing and publishing what 13 year old boys like to read. And some of it has to do with the fact that many books published for adolescents are a bit… well, adolescent.
Thankfully, Pratchett perfected the tricky balance between the fantastical and the world-weary early in his career. Reading him feels like talking to the smart and funny older brother or best friend that you feel you deserve aged 12 but don’t have. Thus he is perfect reading for the ‘I know it all and I hate it all’ phase that starts when your voice breaks and ends around the same time as your first co-habiting relationship.
If there is an teenage boy in your life – and if you’re worried he doesn’t read – buy him a Discworld book. It may see him through.
Pre-order A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Non-Fiction by Terry Pratchett (25.9) here