My Top Ten Authors…

…oh dear.

I was tempted to jump temporarily onto that ‘Top Ten Tuesday’ meme, because today’s meme asks for our Top Ten Authors, and that seemed like a big enough question to be interesting.

 

Unfortunately… it turns out I don’t have ten top authors.

 

The problem is, most of my high-volume reading was done as a teenager, when my taste in books was… generous. So if I look at my GR ‘most read authors’ list, it’s dominated by people like Weiss, Eddings, McCaffrey, Feist, Salvatore, Gemmell, Cunningham, Jordan, Niles, Kirchoff, Charrette…

Now, I’m past my post-teenage “ugh, all that stuff was shit!” phase. I’d like to think I’ve come to realise (again) that a fun story can make for a good book even when its writing is not Nobel-level and its plot is not entirely original. But that just means that some of these writers might be “not bad”, or even “good”. It doesn’t mean any of them deserve ‘favourite’ status – and if they do, I just haven’t re-read them recently enough to know that.

On the other hand, the writers who impress me now – well, I don’t know too many of them, and I just haven’t read enough of their books. I can’t call Christopher Priest one of my top ten favourite authors, because good gods I’ve only read two of his books! Sure, they were both seriously good books, but… well, not only have I not read his other works, I’m not sure I’ve developed the emotional attachment to him yet to call him a favourite. My favourite authors when I was young – I bought their books in hardback the moment they came out because I loved those writers. I don’t buy anyone’s books in hardback now.

Terry Pratchett and Robin Hobb both deserve to go on my top ten list. Maybe Martin, because although I have reservations about his work I am going to buy his next book in hardback when it comes out (ditto Hobb and Pratchett). And I guess Tolkien needs to be there, because… well, that’s a part of me that mere time can’t wrest out of me. But beyond that? I’ve pretty much just got lists of people I used to like and I ought to go back and see how much I still like them but it probably will be ‘not much’, and lists of people I ought to read more of to see whether I’m going to like them or not.

This feels a bit sad to me, come to think of it. I miss having favourite authors.

So anyway, is this just me being weird, or does anybody else not have ten favourites they can name?

Where to start Discworld: suggestions and explanations

So you want to read the Discworld* novels. Congratulations on making an excellent decision!**

But there’s one big problem. There are 41 Discworld novels***. Where do you begin? ‘At the beginning’ is not necessarily the best answer in this case.

I don’t have a best answer for you – that would probably be against the spirit of Pratchett, having just one best answer for everybody, on something as subjective as reading orders. But hopefully I can outline a few very good answers, some not bad answers, and maybe if I have the time some really awful answers just to warn you off.

Before we get there, however, I should probably say a few words about why ‘begin at the beginning’ isn’t as obviously correct an answer as it might at first seem, and a few words about reading order for the series in general. So:

Part One: The Paragraphs of Going Forth Without Realising You May Need a Map

It is conventional, when coming to a story, to begin at the beginning and then read continuously through to the end. This enables you to know what is going on, and lets you understand easily the decisions of the characters, who in the case of most stories will, like the disciplined reader, know most of what has happened in the past but nothing of what will happen in the future. This also allows both reader and character to share the position of the author, who, likewise, will usually remember what they have already written, but have only a hazy view of what they might write in the future. So, always start at the beginning. Right?

Not necessarily! There are four, perhaps five, big reasons why that approach isn’t necessarily best with Discworld:

  1. Discworld is a single ‘world’, and theoretically anybody in that world could bump into anybody else… but in practice they mostly don’t. There is no overarching narrative linking all these novels. The closest we really get are sequences of novels sharing some or all of the same characters: traditionally, we talk about there being five or six ‘Witches’ novels, four (to become five) more ‘Tiffany’ novels (which have some shared characters with the ‘Witches’) novels, three ‘Moist’ novels, seven (perhaps eight) ‘Rincewind’ novels, five ‘Death’ novels (although that’s a bit more arguable), eight ‘Watch’ novels, and a bunch of other books that don’t really form any series but that overzealous fans like to group together in various ways. These ‘subseries’ aren’t unconnected – sometimes there are characters who pop up across several subseries, or other links established. Indeed, the big subseries nobody ever talks about is the ‘Faculty’ series of at least nine novels and maybe more – not ‘traditionally’ considered a series because most of these books can more easily be ascribed to the ‘Rincewind’, ‘Death’ or ‘Witches’ series. However, generally the subseries progress with their own internal continuity and only tangential or cameo interference from other subseries. Even these subseries, though, aren’t anything like a conventional epic fantasy series – while character development may progress through these series, there are very few actual plot threads linking books, which instead stand as (mostly) independent and self-contained stories. This is common in other genres (detective novels, for instance, may have character development across books with shared protagonists, but are typically self-contained stories in their own right).
    Because of the high degree of independence and variety among the Discworld books, reading order is much less important than normal.
  1. Discworld changed considerably in worldbuilding and in authorial style over its 32-year publishing history. Early books are much more anarchic in worldbuilding, and more prone to silliness in tone. They are more influenced by parodies of classic fantasy (particularly Sword and Sorcery), and they depict a much more high-magic world, and a world that is socially more primitive. As the series develops, Pratchett gradually becomes more serious, more heartfelt (and less prone to showing off his literary knowledge and intellect), and his world becomes more mundane, more lifelike, and more modern. It is generally agreed that his best work occurs somewhere in the middle of this process, when the mundane and the magical can mix productively together. The Colour of Magic not only represents Early Pratchett, but is chronologically closer to his pre-Discworld novel Strata than it is to its own sequel. The Light Fantastic is in many ways an attempt to replicate the success of The Colour of Magic, but as early as the third novel, Equal Rites, there is a sharp break away in style and interests. Therefore, beginning with The Colour of Magic is likely to give a misleading impression of what the rest of the series will be like, both in the nature of the world and in the nature of the writing. To a lesser extent, the same is true of many of the early novels.
  1. The Colour of Magic is not essential. It is the beginning of the ‘Rincewind’ series, but while many people have affection for Rincewind as a character, often with a nostalgic element, it is generally considered that the novels featuring him are among the worst of the cycle, at least in terms of the Early and Middle works (though they do often have some of the best comedic passages). In addition, the Rincewind novels are relatively free of significant character development – indeed, for his later books it is probably more useful to read other Faculty books than to read all the previous Rincewind books. So skipping The Colour of Magic causes no problems.
  1. Pratchett’s continuity eventually becomes very solid. Ankh-Morpork became a city so detailed that there’s an entire A-to-Z of its streets available. But earlier on, the worldbuilding was more… ad libbed. There are several continuity issues provoked by the early novels, particularly The Colour of Magic. Continuity fans can work around them (and this may be fun), but it helps to reiterate the skippability of these books – reading them isn’t just unnecessary, it may even, in minor ways, provoke confusion.
  1. Many fans feel that the early books are not very good, by Pratchett’s standards. Personally, I think this is overstated, and is more a matter of readers retrospectively disliking books that were very different from what the series later became in its heyday. The Light Fantastic really isn’t all that good… but I do believe that The Colour of Magic is a good book in its own right. However, it’s certainly true that it isn’t as good in the ways that on average will matter most to people – it’s more of an acquired taste.

These five factors together mean that most fans of the cycle do not recommend The Colour of Magic as the ideal place for newcomers to get into the cycle.

And that raises the question: so where should you start?

But before we get to that, there’s a little business to sort out first…

Part Two: The Paragraphs of Controversy

Where you should begin depends to some extent, as philosophers are wont to remark, on where you hope to be going.

And if fans have come to consensus on not necessarily beginning at the beginning, we have also often been tempted to assert (sometimes quite forcefully) that ‘reading books one by one in order’ isn’t the best way to continue once you’ve started.

There are three commonly-proposed methods of reading Discworld… and one that isn’t commonly proposed.

Briefly, these options are:

  1. Publication Order. This approach has you read every book in the order it was published. Of course, if you don’t begin with the first book, you’ll have to either skip it entirely or come back and read it out of order… but it’s perfectly possible to pick a starting point and at least read from that point on in publication order. This approach lets you fully appreciate in-jokes and allusions, lets you experience the progression of style and content in a slower and more natural way, and gives you experience of as many characters as possible as quickly as possible.
  2. Chronological Order. The normal second approach to a big series is to read in the order of the chronological order of events described in the books. In the case of Discworld, the exact order is in many cases not fully specified, but it does seem as though each book is more or less meant to follow on from the preceding one (ignoring flashbacks, flashforwards, occasional time travel and so on). This order is therefore almost identical to Publication Order, except that Small Gods probably comes first, and Night Watch comes either after Small Gods or directly after Thief of Time. There may be one or two other slight alterations too. This reading order is pedantic and has no clear advantages of any kind, so it is never proposed. However, it’s not entirely insane, since Small Gods is both a standalone and generally recognised as the stand-out classic of the cycle, the book most likely to impress new readers.
  3. Series by Series. This is probably the most popular approach among fans: read the books of one ‘series’ and then move on to another (publication vs chronology doesn’t matter here, since I don’t think the individual series are ever non-chronological, with the arguable exception of Night Watch). Most often people start with the Watch books, then move on to the Witches. This approach has the advantage of helping readers keep the main characters clear in their heads, and have as much of a sense of overarching arcs as possible. However, it has the disadvantage of ripping things out of their original context, making cross-series connexions more obscure, emphasising the degree to which there is sometimes a degree of repetition within the individual series, and confronting the reader with some fairly abrupt changes in style and worldbuilding.
  4. Random Chance. A better option than you might think, and the one that many fans originally followed themselves. There is relatively little vital continuity information needed to appreciate most of the books, and even those books that are terrible places to start can lure in readers through their quality, encouraging them to read more of the cycle. This approach has the advantage of surprise and freshness, and easiness in places where availability is poor, but obviously plays hell with what elements of continuity and character development there are.

What do I recommend? Personally, I think Publication Order is best: it lets you read the books as the author intended. That said, skipping the odd book or reading a few in the wrong order is rarely a problem. An awareness of the different ‘series’ can be helpful in letting readers know what to skip – a reader who hates the Witches can know they can safely skip any of the Witches novels – and giving a little guidance to those who are coming by their books semi-randomly. However, I don’t see any real advantage to reading by series… unless you are someone who is only reading slowly or occasionally. Then it might be helpful to read series one by one, to remember the characters and settings better. Series-by-series may also shine a new light on some books for veteran readers coming to the series a second time. Random order is also appealing for veterans – once the reader has a full grasp of the cycle, it’s perfectly reasonable to just pick a random book off the shelf and read it. However, I think that the first-time reader will miss out by doing this.

In any case, please, don’t go around believing that the cycle has to be read in publication order, or that it ought to be read series-by-series. Both sides of the online dispute seem prone to assuming that theirs is the only permissable, or even sane, way of enjoying Discworld, and both sides are wrong. You may see, for example, illustrated diagrams proclaiming to show you the “Proper Reading Order”; don’t let those people intimidate you. That ‘proper’ reading order, aside from being arguable on its merits, is only the invention of internet fans, not something ‘official’ or something that Pratchett himself endorsed (I believe Pratchett once expressed a preference for publication order, but I can’t cite that right now). Even the classification by ‘series’ at all is an invention of fans – the books do not come labelled in this way.

So, we’ve covered why we might not want to start at the beginning, and why we may or may not want to read on from there in order. Leaving us with nothing more to address except:

Part Three: The Paragraphs of Recommendation

I’m going to break this into two groups: the first group are in my opinion the best places to start, in order of preference; the second group are some alternative sensible starting points, in publication order. After that, a third group will suggest some starting places that would make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Tier One – the best places to start:

  • Guards! Guards!
    ‘GG’ is the eighth novel in the cycle. It has several things going for it as a starting point. First, it’s fun. It has a fun plot, and a ton of jokes. Second, it’s approachable – the plot and the jokes have a heavy parodic element, but the references are mostly to modern tropes of cops and private eyes, not just to obscure fantasy novels of former decades (although there are some fantasy jokes too). In terms of tropes, Pratchett here sets up somewhere fairly comfortable and familiar, and then has fun with it. It’s certainly not the best of his books – it could be accused of being a little shallow, for instance – but most people like it. It is the first book in the ‘Watch’ series, as it introduces the four men who currently comprise the night shift of the City Watch of the great (stinking, mercenary) city of Ankh-Morpork (a city highly redolent of the myth of London, but with elements of Italian city-states and fantasy entrepots): alcoholic veteran Captain Vimes, lazy timeserver Sergeant Colon, barely-human siddling Corporal Nobbs, and fresh-faced iron-muscled naïve newcomer Carrot, who may or may not be destined for greater things. The Watch novels are one of the longest series in the cycle, and because Ankh-Morpork is the most important location on the Disc many other novels also feature cameos from these characters. In fact, about half of the novels feature at least a cameo from one of these four men (or in one case from Sergeant Doppelpunkt, who technically is not Sergeant Colon, but might as well be). It therefore makes sense to get acquainted with these guys early on. What’s more, GG is positioned right at the beginning of Pratchett’s classic period – while it may arguably be slightly before his prime, it’s close enough that style and worldbuilding are recognisable (albeit not identical) making GG a good intro into that following era.
    There are two downsides to GG as your first Pratchett. First, because this is just before ‘prime’ Pratchett, it’s a little to the silly side, and not wonderfully deep by his standards, although it’s certainly not a mindless farce either. That’s not a huge problem with the book (although I did find the shear frequency of jokes got a bit tiring by the end), but some readers might not like it, and it doesn’t reflect the solidity of something like Small Gods – or even of later entries in the Watch series. Second, this is a book about the Watch, and you may not like that. You may be completely uninterested in cops/soldiers/detectives. You may want something bigger or more magical. Guards! Guards! is a book a lot of people love as a fun read, but it’s probably not a book that’s changed many people’s lives.
    Those issues notwithstanding, I think Guards! Guards! is probably the most sensible place to begin the series.
  • Mort
    Mort
    is Pratchett’s most commercially succesful book precisely because it’s an easy one to start off with. It’s written in a very approachable way, with a slant toward younger readers (although it’s also (decorously and non-explicitly) sex-obsessed), it’s funny, it’s a great concept, and it’s got some great dramatic scenes. It’s a good book that a very broad cross-section of people can enjoy.
    The downside is that it’s a bit peripheral – you don’t really need to read Mort to read the later ‘Death’ books, and I’m not sure it’s totally smooth in terms of continuity with later works. It’s also still a bit wobbly around the edges, and doesn’t show what Pratchett is truly capable of (nor does Guards! Guards! but it comes closer).
    On the other hand, because it’s a bit peripheral any oddness of tone or slight disagreements in continuity aren’t too big a problem. The changes between Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms actually feel more troublesome, because those books are so closely linked, whereas even Reaper Man is really only at a tangent to Mort.
    On a third hand, it’s all very well reading Mort, but the next book up is Sourcery, which isn’t great at all, and then there’s Wyrd Sisters and then there’s Pyramids and only then do you get to Guards! Guards! – starting earlier means adding more books before you get to the great stuff, so more chance of giving up too early.
    All that said, Mort does seem like a very appealing first introduction, particularly for slightly younger readers. It’s also very short!
  • Small Gods
    There’s a very good reason to start with Small Gods: it’s the book that is arguably the greatest, and certainly the most inarguably great. Very few Pratchett fans dislike Small Gods, and it’s probably the book most often listed as the best or as someone’s favourite. If you read Small Gods and can’t find anything to like about it, Pratchett probably isn’t for you. You don’t necessarily have to love it, particularly if you’re easily offended on religious or moral issues, because it is a bit opinionated. But it’s also a well-constructed and well-written book, funny and moving and meaningful, so if you’re going to like Pratchett you probably need to be able to see something here that you can get behind. If you love Small Gods you’ll want to read all the other books; if you hate it completely, you can probably just not waste your time. And, conveniently, it’s completely standalone. So isn’t this the obvious book to start off with?
    Not necessarily. For one thing, that may be a recipe for disappointment: do you really want to read a masterpiece and then go back and read the dozen novels where the author was still a journeyman? There’s a pleasure to be had in watching Pratchett get better and better, or at least develop as an author. And Small Gods may also benefit from being read in the context of the preceding run of books that share a very similar mindset.
    For that reason, I don’t normally recommend that people start with Small Gods – it’s like opening a book at the last chapter, or fastforwarding through the final gunfight before deciding whether to watch the film. On the other hand, if someone really is in an unforgiving “prove I ought to read Discworld, you’ve got one shot!” frame of mind, that might be exactly what you should recommend they do!
  • The Colour of Magic
    I know, I know, the whole first section of this essay was about how The Colour of Magic is not necessarily the best place to start. And I completely stand by all of it. But still… that doesn’t mean it necessarily isn’t the place to start. Because there is a very clear and obvious reason to start here: it’s the beginning. Starting here lets you appreciate the whole development of the series, in order. It completely does away with the tricky questions of “at what point do I go back and read such-and-such?”. If you start with Guards! Guards!, for instance, do you read the first three Rincewind books before Eric? Or skip Eric? [recommendation: skip Eric. Read the first four Rincewind books at some point before Interesting Times, but don’t let them get in the way of reading the other, better books. Or just skip Rincewind entirely!] And do you read Mort before Reaper Man? [yes, probably, but don’t worry too much if you don’t] And do you read the earlier Witches novels before you read Witches Abroad, and if so does that include Equal Rites? [yes to the first, and probably to the second]. If you start from The Colour of Magic and just read them all, the problems all go away.
    I’ve already given reasons why this might be a bad idea. And for some people, many people, it is. But on the other hand, all the novels before Pyramids are short. So if you are someone who isn’t saying “prove I should read Discworld”, but rather “OK, I’m going to read Discworld, where should I start?”, then starting at the beginning may be the best option. I’d suggest starting at the beginning and reading through until at least the end of Reaper Man before giving up. If you can commit to reading all those books before making your mind up, then sure, start at the beginning. But if you’re only going to read a couple, the first couple aren’t the couple we’d like to have the fate of the universe your future Discworld fandom riding on.

Tier Two – other sensible places to start:

  • Equal Rites
    The third book is where Pratchett begins to turn in the direction of later Discworld, though he’s not there yet. It’s an approachable book for younger readers, but still fun for older ones. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but not terrible. And it introduces one of his most important characters, Granny Weatherwax, and therefore arguable starts the ‘Witches’ series.
    On the other hand, it is a bit rough around the edges, and it isn’t essential either for its quality or for its continuity. That said, I’d probably rate this the best option other than the ones mentioned above.
  • Wyrd Sisters
    The second Witches novel, or maybe the first – other than Granny, everything else is new. Equal Rites isn’t in any way necessary for understanding Wyrd Sisters… although it’s lately been pointed out to me that Granny is perhaps more quickly understood and liked if you’re introduced through Equal Rites instead, as she’s a bit prickly in Wyrd Sisters.
  • Pyramids
    In my opinion, Pyramids is Pratchett’s masterpiece. Not in the modern colloquial sense – it isn’t his magnum opus. But I think that his good books before this can be dismissed as the thoroughly entertaining work of a talented but middling author. Pyramids, in my opinion, is clearly the work of a master of his craft. It’s much longer, deeper and more complex than any of the preceding novels, and more important in its themes. In fact, I think it’s a more nuanced and insightful book than Small Gods, which in many ways is its clear thematic heir. It’s also riotously fun, and just for good measure it gives us our first sustained look at the ‘real’ Ankh-Morpork of the later novels, while itself standing completely without the need of any prior reading. So in many respects this is the perfect starting point.
    Unfortunately, Pyramids is a divisive book. Perhaps its fun is a bit too varied and chaotic, and perhaps its intellectual heft is too nuanced and interesting… either way, a lot of people seem to come away from it a bit nonplussed.
    I think that if you love Pyramids, you’ll do well with the rest of Pratchett, but not loving Pyramids doesn’t mean you won’t find something else to love in his oeuvre. That said, given its divisive reputation, and given that it’s longer than any of the other sensible places to start, I can’t quite nudge this up into Tier One.
  • Moving Pictures
    Moving Pictures
    feels to me like the beginning of the classic Discworld – the subsequent novels feel of one piece with this setting, even if they don’t fit completely with the setting of the earlier novels. In particular, it introduces the characters of Ridcully and the Faculty, who will play an important background role in many of the best Discworld novels, and several other major background characters get their first or second appearance here. It has an effective adventure plot that also invests in character, and it has some really funny scenes. It may particularly appeal to those with an interest in film and TV.
    Unfortunately, it may particularly irritate those with a low tolerance for puns and pop culture jokes, since there are a lot of film-based jokes. And the plot arguably doesn’t completely bear the full length of the longer-than-usual novel, and although there are some interesting themes here they’re kept in the background, so this could easily come across as something light and disposable. And although it’s a sensible place to start, it’s not an essential one. I think it’s a good place to start… but some people strongly dislike it as a book. So… it depends.
  • Reaper Man
    You don’t actually need to have read Mort in order to get this one, and this one is better than Mort. It helps to have read Moving Pictures, but it isn’t necessary, and this is better than Moving Pictures. This is Pratchett near his funniest, in my opinion. It’s also Pratchett at his most emotional and moving, and if you read between the lines there’s a lot of intellectual content too.
    The problem is, the intellectual content, the emotion and the comedy all feel like they’re in different books. It’s a short book but it’s a complete mess. It has three almost entirely unrelated plots, and one of them is utterly insane.
    Personally, I think this is probably my favourite Discworld novel, and one of my favourite novels by any author. You may think this too. Or, you might read this and think that Pratchett is a lunatic, that the book is unreadable, and that the whole Discworld thing is clearly a waste of time. Or you might just go ‘meh’. It’s the ultimate in divisive Pratchett novels, so it’s probably not the best place to start… unless you’re someone who is going to love it, in which case it would be great!
  • Men at Arms
    By the time of Men at Arms, we’ve passed the probable high point of the cycle, in my opinion. But that might be a good thing. From here on, Pratchett’s world becomes more concrete, more relatable, less magical… which you might like. Men at Arms is the second Watch novel, but it would be quite feasible, I think, to begin here – the characters are adequately introduced, I think, and the setting makes sense on its own, more or less. NB. you can’t join the Watch series later than this, not sensibly. I’d suggest starting with Guards! Guards! instead, but this is still a sensible starting point, particularly if you might find GG too silly (MAA is itself sillier than following books, but more sensible than GG).
  • Soul Music
    This isn’t entirely sensible, for two reasons. On the one hand, this is a book many people hate, and that has a lot of bad rock-music-related puns. On the other hand, it’s the third novel in the Death series.
    And yet there are also two reasons to start here. On the one hand, this is a fun, silly book with a lot of bad rock-music-related puns – Pratchett was a great music fan, and there’s a real sense of love and enthusiasm here. I think it’s one of his most personal books. And on the other hand, this is effectively the first novel in a ‘Susan’ trilogy. Susan is a precocious teenage girl with some surprising powers and family connexions, and I can totally imagine this as a starter novel for someone who is, or who has to look after, a teenager. It’s shallow, yes, but it’s good fun.
    I think. Every other serious reader of the cycle seems to disagree for some reason. On the other hand, a bunch of ‘non-serious’ readers of the cycle seem to have this as their favourite, which I can understand.
  • Hogfather
    There is no good reason to start here. It’s the fourth ‘Death’ book and the second ‘Susan’ book, and the there-have-been-a-lot-by-now-th ‘Faculty’ book. And it’s sort of a mess, plot-wise. This is a silly place to start. Except… it’s (sort of) about Christmas, and it does combine Pratchett’s ability with the morbid and the menacing with his humour, and it’s one of his most overtly meaningful books. As a result, it’s frequently recommended to newcomers at Christmas time, and it’s frequently enjoyed. So although it, logically, makes no sense that this should be anyone’s starting point, in terms of its place in the series, I can’t argue that for many people it is an effective one, in terms of how it appeals to people.
  • Wee Free Men
    I haven’t read it (yet). However, it’s aimed at younger readers, allegedly, and it begins a series of five novels with the same lead character, which call back to but do not require the earlier Witches novels. And these books have the best reputation of his later works. So this has to be considered a sensible place to begin – if nothing else, it’s the only book in the cycle that was actually designed as an introduction for new readers!
  • Going Postal
    The first of Pratchett’s ‘Moist’ trilogy. Personally, I think these later works are far inferior to Pratchett’s best. However, many people do love them. In particular, these are the books ‘closest’ to reality, and therefore may be a gentler introduction for casual readers, particularly those who are uneasy with Fantasy as a genre.

 

 

 

And finally! Here, just so you know, are the worst places to start Discworld:

  • Night Watch
    This, along with Small Gods, is often considered Pratchett’s magnum opus. But don’t start here. This is the sixth ‘Watch’ novel, and more dependant than any of the previous novels on the reader’s connexion to the protagonist. It may still be an interesting read for a newcomer, but you won’t get as much out of it as a seasoned reader. The same is true of Snuff, Thud! and probably The Fifth Elephant, but Night Watch must take the prize as most-dependent-on-what-has-gone-before.
  • Thief of Time
    The third ‘Susan’ novel and the fifth ‘Death’ novel, and it’s a weird one in its own right – the story itself may be standalone, in terms of the plot, but in terms of the context of things you will have no clue what the hell is going on or why. It’s hard enough to make sense of it when you know who all these people are…
  • Unseen Academicals
    First, this is a very late novel and far from the highest quality. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great, and it lacks the zest of earlier Pratchett. But it’s also a novel that (it came out around the time of Pratchett’s diagnosis) spends a lot of time capping things off and saying goodbye to people – Rincewind and the Faculty both return after a long, long absence, but if you don’t know who these people are you really won’t care. I’d also suggest not starting with Making Money, another later book, while Raising Steam is widely considered the worst of the cycle (I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t really comment).
  • Maskerade
    Most of the Witches novels could actually be approached in isolation – you’d miss things, but the characters feel like they make enough sense in their context that you could cope. Maskerade, though, takes those characters out of their context completely, and then has them be talked about a lot in unflattering terms by a much more appealing protagonist. I think to really approach this from the right emotional direction you probably need a run-up.
  • Interesting Times
    Benefits from returning to Rincewind and Cohen after long, long absences, and finally meets some expectations from the very first book. But it’s not a great book as it is, but I don’t think it works at all without all that… luggage.
  • The Light Fantastic
    The absolute worst place to start. It’s possibly the worst book of the cycle, it’s not representative of the later novels, and it’s a direct sequel to the first book so you won’t understand what’s going on. Seriously, don’t start here!

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Well, there you have it. Hopefully, you are now More Informed than you were before. Unfortunately, you may also be More Confused, but then those two do tend to go together…

In any case, the important think to take away from this is: don’t panic. There isn’t one way to do this, and it doesn’t matter if you do it ‘wrong’. The whole reason why there are these debates is precisely that the Discworld novels are extraordinarily forgiving to those who read them out of order. So the best answer may just be “read whichever book you find first”. And then read all the others too. Because the other thing is: Discworld isn’t just one thing. Different places, different characters, different times in the author’s life, all mean very different books. Think of Discworld not so much as a series, more as a one-author genre. Within the genre, there are books that are more like this, others more like that; there are books that fit very comfortably in the genre, and some that try to push its boundaries, and some that were written before the rules of the genre were really established. So disliking one book doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll dislike all the others. It’s not the end of the world.

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* You may perhaps also be interested in my ongoing project to reread and review all the Discworld novels in (more or less) publication order.

** Why is this an excellent decision? Perhaps you might like to read my list of ten reasons why Pratchett fans are so upset by his death.

***This is surprisingly debatable. Most listings give 41 novels, or 40 on the grounds that the final novel hasn’t been published yet. However, two of these ‘novels’ (Eric and The Last Hero) are short tales originally published in illustrated formats, and these ‘novels’ have not always been listed in the ‘main sequence’; when they have been, they’ve sometimes been listed with an additional ‘illustrated by’ credit, or even an implied co-authorship. Meanwhile, the ‘Tiffany’ novels and The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents were originally marketed separately, for children (or, euphemistically, ‘younger readers’), even though early Discworld novels like Equal Rites and Mort also feel like they are aimed at younger readers. My copy of Snuff lists these books, with a ‘for younger readers’ warning; however, my copy of Night Watch has a list that omits both Maurice and The Last Hero, though it includes Eric.

On the other hand, there may be more Discworld novels than just the cannonical 40/41. Pratchett also co-wrote, for example, a four-volume ‘Science of Discworld’ series. These are primarily popular science books by a pair of academics… but they are structured around Discworld content by Pratchett (one of them is described in a blurb as a Discworld novella with very large footnotes, the footnotes being the actual chapters of the book…), and the real world described in the science sections is, within the book, considered a pocket universe existing within the Discworld setting; so are these Discworld novels too?

Pratchett also wrote a number of ‘books’ about Discworld that may not be ‘novels’, or in some cases may not even be ‘books’, even though they do contain original content and in many cases narrative elements. These include maps (with associated booklets), companions (most content comes from the novels, but some is original), diaries, a book containing a scale model of a Discworld building that you can cut out and assemble, and a number of novelty tie-in books that supposedly exist within the setting itself.

Oh, and there are some short stories too. And Good Omens takes place in the ‘real’ world, but contains a Discworld character – and if we take it from the Science of Discworld books that our real world is only a place within the Discworld, and take the presence of a Discworld character as confirming this (cf. also a passage from The Colour of Magic), then…

So if we’re being pedantic, it might be wiser just to say “there are definitely more than 30 Discworld books, and probably not many more than 50 or so”.

Today I learnt…

…getting a minor link in passing in an io9 article makes getting linked by reddit look like a normal day. Seriously: the scale is so different that on my stats chart everything up to the moment io9 linked me is now just a straight line… I had more views yesterday than in March, and March was a good month…

Not that I’m complaining or anything. Or excited, really – 90% of those views probably just saw how ridiculously long my post was and closed the window, 10% prodded a few pages and then closed the window, and maybe a handful might check back some time. Which isn’t a problem, but I’m not expecting any long-term effect of this brief public exposure. [I’m slightly curious why io9’s writer chose to link to me in the first place – I’m flattered, but it’s not like I’m well-known. I’m guessing they just googled the book to collect thoughts when they were writing the post and mind happened to come up for some reason.]

But anyway, if any of you io9 people happen to have hung around to read this: hi! Feel free to poke around, and feel freer to comment on anything.

Why we care that Terry Pratchett has died (10 reasons)

 

Sir Terry Pratchett has, as you know, died. The general reaction to this has been one of unalloyed and exceptionless dismay, tempered only by the comfort of knowing how close the nature of his death was to his stated hopes, and by the reassurance of the author’s many wise and uplifting sayings about death over the years. It feels almost rude to grieve too passionately over the death of a man who chose the Latin translation of “Don’t fear the reaper” as his heraldic motto.

So people have taken no doubt some comfort from knowing that Pterry (as his fans have long called him) died well – and, indeed, so far as the public can judge, lived well. But there has still been great distress, or at least a very deep grief, at his passing.

Why?

I guess that seems a somewhat harsh question to ask. After all, people are meant to be upset when people die. But let’s be honest here: mostly we aren’t. Our close friends and family, of course. But for ‘celebrities’, and ‘public figures’… the most people can generally muster is a weary sigh, a sad moment mentioning an old memory to a friend, perhaps a little eulogistic impulse that encourages us to say a few words about how we admired or respected the deceased, how important they were, or even just that leads us to read a little about their life and accomplishments. The few times that a celebrity death provokes more than that, it’s generally among people who are, to put it bluntly, not the most stable of folk to begin with. But the people lamenting Sir Terry now are not those obsessive, over-identifying fans; nor was his public profile or persona of the kind that would be likely to whip up that sort of celebrity fever. Yet from the adoring obituaries in the papers and on half the blogs on the web to the countless private comments here and there, the sorrow over this death is palpable. People who never met Pratchett are physically crying.

So why, some people may be asking, is everyone so upset about the death of this particular author, among so many dead authors? I was wondering this myself, about myself: why does this death matter more to me than any other celebrity demise I’ve read about third-hand?

And if I’m wondering about that, I’m sure others are too – after all, many people have not even read Pratchett’s novels. They must be wondering what all the fuss is about.

Here are some of my suggestions.

 

  1. Terry Pratchett was a great author.

Let’s not overlook the obvious – because we’ve overlooked it for far too long already. Terry Pratchett was a truly great author – perhaps the greatest author in English of his generation, or at least of the 1990’s. It still seems strange to say that, because he has been so completely cast aside on the basis of genre prejudice – it is hard to be considered great when you write fantasy, hard to be considered great when you write comedy, and impossible to be considered great if you write comic fantasy. Yet truly, the entire issue is a red herring. Can a writer not be great if he is fanciful, satirical, imaginative, allegorical… if he is indirect? Fantasy is not always an escape from reality – it can also be a way of approaching reality. Could a modern author write a novel as unapologetically a dissection of faith and religion and philosophy as Small Gods, and yet at the same time as wonderfully enjoyable to read as Small Gods, without resorting to fantasy? I doubt it. But to say that fantasy can be more than just entertainment seems to be conceding too much ground. Pratchett’s novels are entertaining. When did that stop being a respectable ambition? If they were as entertaining as they are, but without any of their deeper significance, they would still be thoroughly good books. As for comedy, comedy is the hardest thing to write consistently well – and in any case, most of the Discworld novels are not comedies! We have been lured into considering them as comedies, in part due to his more overtly comic early books, and in part I think because of the stigma of fantasy – commentators from outside the genre who wanted to admit a liking for his work have always had to emphasise how ‘silly’ it is, and hence how comic, how un-serious it is (Fantasy can be enjoyed, but not taken seriously!). In reality, most of the novels are not outright comedies, but serious books that happen to be leavened with incidental humour – a pun here, a caricatured background character there, a somewhat flippant tone around the edges. I find myself laughing out loud usually at least once per book, but rarely more than a handful of times – enough laughter to make the business a little more enjoyable, but if I were reading this as ‘a comedy’ I would be disappointed, I think. No, mature Pratchett is for the most part funny in the way that Dickens is funny, or that Shakespeare is funny: as evidence of a lively wit behind the page, showing itself in irony here, whimsy there.

The grandiosity of those comparisons is deliberate. I am relieved to see, finally, with his death, commentators putting Pratchett in the company of Dickens, of Shakespeare, of Austen – some papers have gone a little further back in time, to prior satirists like Swift and Rabelais. I don’t know whether Pratchett is as ‘great’ as those writers – posterity will decide that for herself – but I do know he ought to be mentioned alongside them. It’s something I first realised a few novels ago in my ongoing reread of his complete Discworld cycle: Pratchett is the Dickens of our time. He will, I firmly believe, be the writer from our era most read by future generations, or at least one of a small handful of our writers who survive, as Dickens has survived his own. How truly rare it is to find in one author such mass, popular appeal, and yet such learning, sensitivity and erudition; such entertainment, and yet such profundity.

I’m not sure most people have quite realised yet, at least in explicit, acknowledged terms, how great a writer Sir Terry was; but I think that many of us are, even before we are aware of it consciously, convinced of it on some visceral level. The literary establishment may not have told us how important he was, but his readers know that in artistic terms, his passing is momentous and significant, an epoch in modern English literature.

 

 

  1. He was able to develop a personal and authentic voice in his works

A novel is a work of art; it is created by a showman, an illusionist, an artificier. Each work is a precisely-sculpted tangle of emotional and intellectual manipulation; the author is concealed within the brilliant light of his own creation like an unnamed god, unknowable but awe-inspiring, to be worshipped from afar. Whenever we believe we have a grasp on an author, he slips the bounds of his cover, pops up again in some other work and weaves some slightly different labyrinth about himself.

Unless the author is Pratchett. It is not that Pratchett does not play games – sometimes he plays very clever games – but that he seems never to be playing games with who he is. While many modern authors have enhanced the artificiality of their ‘narrators’, turned those narrators into characters in their own right, Pratchett never seemed to be speaking to us second-hand. There was no narrator, only Pterry. Oh, sure, no doubt it was a particular side of Pterry that he showed us, some things exaggerated and others concealed. Speaking as an ignorant member of the general public, indeed, I really have no notion of how close the ‘Terry Pratchett’ who seemed to speak to me in his books was to the ‘real’, biographical Sir Terrence Pratchett (though I doubt the gulf was all that great). But that’s not the point. As I say: a novel is a work of art, and every novelist, no matter how plainspoken, is an artificier in their own way. The point is that by committing himself to a single narrative voice throughout all his novels – a narrative voice that seemed to speak to its audience in direct, uncalculating terms – Pratchett was able to give his readers a powerful sense of connection to him as an author. Other authors generally, for me, fall into one of two camps: literary sorts, where I may like or dislike the narrator of a particular book yet feel nothing regarding the author, who may as well be a randomly-allocated collective pseudonym for all I know; or popular sorts, where ‘the narrator’ does not seem to exist at all, is just an abstract concept to sum up the flow of neutered, depersonalised words and information. Pratchett was able to make his narrator both a character in his own right and a character who his readers almost cannot avoid identifying with Pratchett himself.

It is not a new trick, this. It’s what many of the writers Pratchett grew up with did – Chesterton, Wodehouse, or in fantasy White, Lewis and Tolkien, all spoke in distinctive, personal voices (some very close to their natural speech – Chesterton really did talk like that – others not – not even Papa Tolkien really spoke the way that Tolkien writes – but even Tolkien’s archaic grandeur is authentic to some part of his character, is not merely an incidental confection to please the critics or the public). But it is something that has gone out of fashion now, as authors are forced to choose between the artistry of dissimulation and the commercial advantages of homogenisation. That – as well of course as his historical contributions to the genre – is why some fantasy fans still speak affectionately of ‘Papa’ Tolkien. And I think it’s one reason why people care more about Pratchett’s death than they might about the death of another author – because, rightly or wrongly, we have the impression of a personal knowledge of the author, and hence of a personal loss.

 

 

  1. He talked to us

This may seem trivial, but don’t underestimate it. Consider the opening lines of The Colour of Magic:

In a distant and second-hand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…
See…

Or Mort:

This is the bright candlelit room where the lifetimers are stored, shelf upon shelf of them, squat hourglasses, one for every living person, pouring ttheir fine sand from the future into the past. The accumulated hiss of the falling grains make the room roar like the sea.

Or Small Gods:

                Now consider the tortoise and the eagle.

Or most strikingly of all, there’s the beginning of Lords and Ladies. After a page reminding the reader what happened in the previous book, the novel proper begins simply:

Now read on…

Many of Pterry’s novels begin like this. Most of the book is, to be sure, typically in a conventional, distanced, third-person impersonal voice… but he’s not afraid to put his readers right into the action now and then (‘this’, ‘here’, etc) or to address them directly – even to instruct them (the first page of Truckers, for example, introduces our hero and then grabs our attention by the throat with ‘Look at him’).

It may not seem much, and it’s certainly not fashionable, but I do think that Pratchett’s occasional diversion into “O Best Beloved”-esque apostrophe, as well as having a powerful effect in the moment, helped to reinforce that bond between author and reader. Pratchett wasn’t some voice that droned on and that I occasionally overheard: he was a voice who spoke to me, directly. It’s only human nature that I care about that speaker more than I care about the one I only overhear.

 

  1. He talked about us

Terry Pratchett had many virtues as an author – almost too many, in that the enormity of his talents made his work seem perhaps too easy, and the sheer number of his skills distracted the attention that might otherwise be paid to just how advanced any one of those skills was all by itself. Pratchett could, when he wanted to, be suffocate-with-laughter hilarious. He could on occasion put together a fiendishly intricate mechanism of plot – although his ambition in that regard often pushed him further than even he could safely go, and for every one of his novels that works perfectly there are three or four more that go slightly off the rails by the end. He was a masterful crafter of epigrams – open almost any book on almost any page and there will be some striking apothegm in sight. He was not afraid to take on the most challenging topics, and undaunted by the depths of tragedy and sentiment, just as he was by the heights of joy. He was always probing his own abilities and his own tastes, always going forward, never settling. He was wise, experienced, well-informed, and dazzlingly well-read.

But I think perhaps that the real foundation of his work was character. Pterry was never exactly a dedicated ‘psychological’ writer, and many of his characters are drawn in very broad strokes, with nuances filled in later, if at all – his characters typically do not so much develop as become explored. But like any great cartoonist, Sir Terry was able to use those swift, bold lines to quickly sketch out recognisable people. More than that: ordinary people. Almost every character in his books is an ordinary person you might meet on the street. They aren’t heroes; they aren’t gods. Or at least, they may be heroes or gods on the surface, but under the mask they’re the bloke down the road. We love Sam Vimes not because he’s a figure of escapism or aspiration, although he can be both, but because we have met him. He’s someone’s dad; or he’s a local cop; or he’s just that stubborn bugger we work with who in some ways is an infuriating fuckup but in other ways we can’t help but admire his bloodyminded sense of right and wrong, his refusal to back down. We love Granny Weatherwax because she’s our grandmother, or at least someone’s grandmother, or the regal, iron-boned old biddy down the lane. We all know Granny Weatherwax; we all know Nanny Ogg, the disconcertingly bawdy, kind but tyrannical busybody who’s smart than you might think but would never admit it. We don’t all know Mustrum Ridcully, but I can assure you he’s real, and so are the Dean and the Lecturer and the Chair and the Senior Wrangler. And so, without doubt, is poor Ponder Stibbons. These people are alive, and they are all around us. Sometimes, they’re us, or a part of us sees us in them – not just in the heroic way in which we might want to be a great character, but in a real awareness of kinship.

Perhaps the only major character who isn’t real is Carrot – and his unreality, his fascinating impossibility, defines his character. To a lesser extent I think this is also true of Brutha – but then, Brutha is quite literally the one man in a million. And perhaps there is Vetinari – although I think it would be better to say that, at least in his earlier appearances, Vetinari really is a real person, just not a person most of us ever happen to meet, only read about or watch documentaries about.

Pratchett creates this reality in his characters first through the pinpoint use of distinctive features, in the exact same way that a caricature works. Think of Granny: think an old woman strangely free of wrinkles and warts, with a hatchet face and piercing, knowing eyes, and then think of her sitting alone in her cottage waiting for an invitation that doesn’t come, too old-fashioned in her pride to ‘put herself forward’ by going and asking why she hasn’t been invited. Think of Vimes: boots that are falling apart, cheap cigars, a bottle of whiskey in a drawer that he doesn’t dare drink but can’t bring himself to throw away, a guard who thinks of the city he guards as ‘my city’, a man who almost always says “yes sir” but who has elevated “yes sir” and “couldn’t say sir” into acts of subtle insubordination – an authority figure who despises authority, a man who shaves himself even if he can afford a barber, not because he likes shaving or because he thinks he’s good at it but because he hates the idea of a world divided into the shavers and the shaved.

With the shell of the character constructed, Pratchett makes them sympathetic. There are very few unsympathetic significant characters in his books – some of the villains, if they’re only seen sparingly, but even the more substantial villains are people we can admire, or at least pity. The same things that attract us to Vimes and Granny attract us, for example, to Dios. He may be a bastard but he’s a magnificent bastard. Everybody has virtues, and everybody has problems they have to deal with. Everybody, in the end, is afraid. Lillith is afraid of pain, and constructs fantasies to protect herself, but is also afraid of losing herself in her own masks. Dios is afraid of change. Granny is afraid of herself. Vimes is afraid of himself too, but more fundamentally I think he’s afraid that the world will turn out to be as unfair and merciless as he thinks it is.

Many people say that in devising characters in fiction, you should ask yourself what does this person want? – well that’s a fair question but when to make characters like Pratchett’s characters, it might be more useful to ask yourself what does this person fear?

At the root of so much fear, of course, is death, and that is why death, or Death, is so central to Discworld. In the end, I think Pratchett proposes a sort of reverse Nietzschean judgement of the soul: where Nietzsche, who does away with ‘good’ and ‘evil’, suggests that a man’s self-fulfilment can be judged by how he would react to the prospect of endlessly reliving his own life, Pratchett, who very much does not do away with ‘good’ and ‘evil’, seems to suggest that good men can be distinguished from bad by how they deal with Death. Not ‘dying’ – almost all his characters would fight against dying itself – but how they would react to the knowledge of their own death. Granny and Vimes are heroes because we know that, when the time eventually comes, they’ll greet Death with a respectful nod and leave the world in peace. They cling to life so desparately not because they are afraid of being dead but because they aren’t finished being alive. Dios and Lily and Vorbis and the rest are villains – because when they come to a place they cannot escape from, they will be overwhelmed with terror, unable to find any acceptance. They cling to life because they are terrified of Death, and that terror drives them to do evil.

And it also must be noted that so many of Pratchett’s heroes are afraid of themselves to greater or lesser degrees – afraid of their own potential. Granny and Vimes, of course – but also certainly Angua, and probably (though we never really see his motivations) Carrot. Magrat and Agnes, and we can also suggest probably Nanny. Susan? Undoubtedly. Even poor Rincewind is running away not just because of the things trying to kill him, but because he does not want to be the hero.

Vetinari and Brutha, meanwhile, are the men who can change nations, because they are afraid of nothing, not even themselves.

But most characters have reason to be afraid of themselves, because the third thing Pratchett does is ensure that none of his characters are perfect. Every one of them has deep flaws. Every one of them, indeed, could very easily be written as the villain of someone else’s story. Indeed, many of them are the villains of many stories! Granny and Nanny are dominating tyrants who terrorise their local communities, albeit ‘for their own good’. Ridcully has driven one of his colleagues into madness and is a perpetual threat to the mental and physical health of everyone around him.

But Pratchett doesn’t fall into the trap of equivalance. Some of his characters are good guys, and some are bad guys. None of them are 100% anything, and there are a whole tranche of characters who are really neither good nor bad (Ridcully, for instance, is clearly on the side of good vis a vis saving the universe from extradimensional horrors, but on a daily basis is a deeply unpleasant bully who on some level only hasn’t subjugated any kingdoms yet because he’s far too lazy to want to worry about all that paperwork). But there is still good and evil. And Pratchett uses good and evil not just so that we know which side to root for, but to promise us that we too can be Good. Pratchett’s everyday heroes encourage us, if you’ll excuse the accidental pop culture reference, to search for the heroes inside ourselves.

And this I think is a big reason why Pratchett has such broad appeal, outside of his ‘genre’. Ordinary people can read Pratchett and read about Ordinary People just like them and the people they know… only doing extraordinary things. That’s powerful.

But I would like to point out another dimension of this ‘writes about us’ thing. Which is that Pratchett doesn’t just write about people, he writes about our sort of people. What sort that is exactly is hard to define, but it’s fair to say that he is a writer who instinctively writes from the margins. The most obvious example is the way Pratchett writes about women, who are absolutely as central, and as individual, as his men (if not more so). Think of the great female characters you know, particularly in Fantasy – and then think what proportion of them are in Pratchett alone! There’s Granny, and Nanny, and Magrat, and Agnes, and there’s Angua, and [spoiler redacted], and Sybil, and there’s Susan of course, and Tiffany (who I haven’t met yet)… and that’s ignoring the characters who aren’t in enough books to become more memorable, like Esk, and Conina, and Mrs Gogol, and Mrs Cake and Mrs Palm and and so forth… In Witches Abroad, the cast is virtually entirely female. But it’s not just women. Just think about Granny and Nanny. Why do we love them? Well a huge part of it is that we know them in real life and we don’t know them in fiction. What other author would make a pair of octagenarian women his heroes? Lords and Ladies is a powerful novel in large part because we get to see Granny, and Nanny, and also Ridcully being old people. They’re not the normal old people of fiction, who sit in the back and offer sage advice – they’re the ones driving the action. But they’re also not just young people in silly beards [sorry, excuse me, I’ve just remembered the ‘fake beards’ thing from Moving Pictures and had to take a minute to stop laughing]. They’re old people – they’re frightened of death in a weary, semi-resigned way, they worry about the arthritis that’s worse than they dare let on, they lose themselves in bittersweet memories of what was and regrets of what might have been instead. They fear dementia. These are people who aren’t just real people, but are representatives of a huge swathe of the population who are rarely represented in such pivotal ways in fiction.

But I don’t mean this in a shallow “hooray, old people have characters they can empathise with!” way. Although of course that’s a good thing in its own little way. But the bigger thing is that because Pratchett writes from the margins he draws those margins together. You don’t have to be old to sympathise with Granny – you don’t even have to have elderly relatives, though of course it helps. You just have to know what it’s like to be overlooked, dismissed, discounted. I sympathise with Granny not just because she’s the distillation of all my female relatives, but also because I can see myself in her position. I don’t have to be a teenage girl to sympathise with Susan, because I know what it’s like to be patronised. I don’t have to have spent my life as a professional clown like the Fool in Wyrd Sisters, because I know what it’s like to be mocked – and to feel like you have to make jokes, only to have everybody else ignore them. You don’t have to be a cop to wear the shoes of Sam Vimes – anyone who has ever felt ground down by injustice has been Sam Vimes.

It occurs to me that perhaps the strongest unifying thread in so many of Pratchett’s characters is confrontational and resentful: I’ll show them! – in many ways his books are explorations of how that impulse can be turned to good, rather than to evil.

So perhaps the fact that Pratchett’s characters are everymen (and everywomen) helps explain why he has such a broad appeal with the general public. But the fact that his characters are so often marginalised or odd is doubtless a huge part of why he has developed such a passionate – even fanatical – following, particularly among the ‘geeks’, ‘nerds’ and so forth who have traditionally made up the core of the Fantasy demographic.

 

  1. He talked about things that mattered

I think there are probably two big reasons for not liking books: because they’re boring, or because they’re trivial. There are other reasons too, of course, like disliking them because they’re incompetantly made, but those two are the big two – they probably account for most book-dislike, and so long as neither of them apply most of the other reasons for disliking a book can be put up with.

Pratchett’s breadth of support shows that his works were not boring. Both his humour and his plots made them good fun to read. But I think a lot of the reason for the depth of love for Pratchett is a result of his willingness to not be trivial.

Death is, of course, omnipresent in the Discworld books. Not only is he a recurring character (present in all but two books, if I recall correctly, and those two are among the last), but there is an awful lot of emphasis on how characters approach death, and how they react to it. Even minor characters, murder victims who would not even be named by other authors are given little post-dying vignettes. Reaper Man has one of its three plotlines be the story of how a character reacts to their death and resurrection as a zombie, and a second be the story of how Death reacts to spending time in a small farming community. But it’s not just death. Small Gods and Pyramids both take on religion, faith and philosophy, as do many of the other books to a lesser extent (Witches Abroad, Hogfather and Carpe Jugulum, for instance, and the Bromeliad books outside Discworld). Jingo and Monstrous Regiment deal with the environs of war (Only You Can Save Mankind deals with living in the shadow of media presentations of war in the UK). Most of the Witches books and some others too deal with aging (Lords and Ladies in particular). Class warfare is almost as constant an issue as death, particularly in the Watch novels, which also lead the way in examining the nature of urban life and modernity, while the Witches novels document traditional rural lifestyles. Many of the books worry about the role of myth, fantasy, and story itself, whether through fear of detachment from reality (Moving Pictures, Reaper Man, Witches Abroad, Small Gods, Lords and Ladies) or through a fear that without myth life is unbearable, and civilised life impossible (Reaper Man, Hogfather). Strong moral points of view – some obvious, some controversial – are everpresent.

And a big part of this is that Pterry isn’t afraid to lecture us when he thinks we need it. Quite flagrantly at times – both through his opinionated characters and through his own strong and personal narrative voice. There really do seem to be times when he wants to teach us right from wrong. And at times that can become annoying – at his worst, he could be a little patronising. But for the most part, thanks to the humour and gentleness of his writing, and thanks to the flaws that weight his characters down and stop them from ever seeming to get above themselves, that stop them from seeming like saints commanding us from on high and make them sound instead like wise neighbours giving us the benefit of their hard-won experience, the didactic tone is well hidden in the sugar; and that, I think, is not just good for us as readers morally (because even when I think Pratchett gets it wrong I always appreciate his point of view), but also makes us love the novels all the more. I think there’s a paradox in many of us: we all want to be treated like children, but none of us want to be treated like a child. If you see what I mean. We don’t like it when somebody tries to put themselves into a parental position over us, as though we were less than them, as though we had to be spoken down to. But at the same time, isn’t there a great appeal to a wise old guy with a beard sitting us down and sharing his stories about the world and we all just look on with awe and wonder? We want to have that childlike feeling evoked in us again: and that involves not just a sense of wonder at a world, but a sense of wonder at a person. We don’t like people who try to impress us, but we still want to be impressed; and I do think that most of us, even if we deny it, do want people to give us advice, whether because we know we can do better than we’re doing or because we just need reassurance that we’re doing it right already. We want advice, but we don’t want anyone to set themselves up as the know-it-all advice-giver. Pratchett manages, most of the time, to walk that narrow line, impressing without seemingly trying to impress, and educating without seeming to lecture; even chiding, without seeming to scold.

I have a great deal of affection and respect for Old Papa Tolkien. But Pratchett rarely sounds like a father or a grandfather. What he does sound like is an uncle. Part parent, part co-conspirator – part jolly clown, part wise old man of the world.

I think that’s part of why he never went by his full name, or by his title. Nobody loves their Very Important uncle, Sir Terrence. But Good Old Uncle Terry, he’s someone we can cry about losing.

  1. Discworld was an institution – a part of life

I was born in 1985. That’s after The Colour of Magic was written. There has never been a time in my life when there wasn’t Discworld. Not just when it didn’t exist – but when it didn’t continue to expand. I was still in primary school when I read The Colour of Magic, probably one of my first ten books – in fact I can only specifically remember three, maybe four books that I had read at that point. When I left primary school, it was a Pratchett book I used to collect the signatures of the other kids (in a pen that has since almost entirely faded, but never mind, I didn’t like most of those guys anyway and I’ve basically never seen or thought about any of them since). It was a paperback – the first hardback Pratchett I bought was Feet of Clay, which came out about a week after my last day at primary school. I read Pratchett throughout secondary school. At university, I read Going Postal, the last Discworld I bought in hardback (other than Snuff for some reason). I read Pratchett when I started my first job. I had read Pratchett just a few weeks before he died. I have always been aware of Discworld; and I have always been aware of it as something that there would be more of soon.

With most authors, with most series, a book either exists or it doesn’t, and you come to terms with that. They never wrote the book you wanted – or they did, and that was that. But with Discworld, for my entire life, there has always been the idea that this book or that might still be written. We might finally get that Angua novel (seriously, after The Fifth Elephant, the Watch novels should have been about Angua, or at least some new character (obviously Night Watch would still have been an acceptable epilogue for Vimes)). We might finally get to go back to Krull! Whatever happened to Conina? Is Susan going to settle down and have kids of her own? Will Ridcully ever retire, and what will happen if he does? What about the Patrician? I want to read again about the Octarine Grass Country – more about octarine at all, frankly! It’s not that I expected these books, I didn’t, but they were always hypothetically out there, waiting to exist, in the same way that real life is waiting to happen. I’ve made no secret of the fact that my satisfaction with Pratchett’s later Discworld novels was dwindling almost book by book, and had been for at least a decade – but it was always possible that he might pull some rabbit out of a hat and put out another book that I at least – even if nobody else – really loved.

And now those novels aren’t going to exist. In a way, that alone feels like a real bereavement: this promising young thing, this world, this cycle of novels, is never going to go the places that we thought it might. It’s not that the story is left unfinished – it’s worse: the stories have been left unbegun.

 

  1. Pratchett spoke to us as children

Some authors have a huge impact on you as a child. Others pass you by entirely, are far too remote and sophisticated to matter. And when you’re old, those distant novels often suddenly seem important and present, and the things you loved as a child… well, those are best left in the memory.

Terry Pratchett was a great author for adults. But he was also a great author for children. I was a young kid when I fell in love with The Colour of Magic. It wasn’t really written for kids, but I loved it. I loved Strata. I adored Equal Rites and Mort, which I think were written for kids. And soon after I discovered Truckers, Diggers, and Wings, all written for kids, and I loved them too (and I do hope that history doesn’t fixate solely on Discworld and forget his other works). And I really liked Only You Can Save Mankind, and kind of liked Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb. And The Carpet People, that was awesome for a kid. And all the time I was blitzing through the main Discworld cycle. So Uncle Pterry was a big part of my childhood, which means he’s a big part of me. [Are Vimes, Granny and the rest why I have such a pigheaded anti-authoritarian streak, why I get viscerally, intestinally upset by certain forms of injustice? No, probably not. But they probably are a significant part of why I am who I am]

He’s not alone in that regard, of course. I read a bunch of books when I was young. But while Pratchett was a great author for children, he was also a great author for adults. I’m reading his books now, and most of them haven’t lost anything. Some of the more overtly kid-oriented books are, like cartoons, more rickety when viewed with the jaded eyes of adulthood. But for the most part, these books are only better than I expected them to be – I’m only getting more from them, the more critical I try to be. In other words, Pratchett is that rare thing: a part of childhood that you don’t have to ignore, replace or repaint when older.

Yet the bigger point here is something less precise. It’s not that Pratchett was a great kid’s author and a great adult’s author… it’s that he was both at the same time. Oh, sure, The Carpet People is for kids, not adults. And Night Watch is for adults, not for kids. Some books lean more one way and some lean more the other. But it’s not really a dichotomy with Pratchett; rather, it’s a continuum.

That was wonderful for me as a child. Pratchett enabled me to read big, grown-up books like Small Gods and Feet of Clay, but enjoy them the way I enjoyed simpler books – he let me be an adult for a while, while still a child. He didn’t say “sorry, this book has mature content, it has an age limit of 14”… some books had more mature elements, yes, but because everything was handled so gracefully, so delicately, nothing ever scared me off. And if they’d looked what I was reading, nothing would have scared my parents off either. As a kid, did I have… well, strong feelings about the creaking bedsprings near the end of Men at Arms? You bet I did! Was I creeped out by the poisonings in Feet of Clay? Yes. Spine on edge at the voodoo grandeur of the finale of Witches Abroad? Furious with rage at the rigidity of Dios in Pyramids or with the cruelty and senselessness of Vorbis and of organised religion in Small Gods? Just plain scared – though I wouldn’t have admitted it – by the man-eating werewolves of The Fifth Elephant or the gentle psychopathy of Mr Teatime in Hogfather? Yes on all counts. But that was OK. Nothing was ever too violent, too sexual, too gratuitous in any way, nothing made me recoil, or, worse, read on pruriantly. Not exactly that anything could have done – I read much rougher, much more adult stuff than that, and at a younger age, with no serious ill-effects. But the more adult stuff elsewhere, it was always slightly… away from me. It was ‘this is something I’ll care more about when I’m older’ – in the moment, it was fun enough to read and I understood completely what it meant but I didn’t really comprehend, in an active sense. Not… comprehensively. But with Pratchett, every bit of it was part of my version of the story. It took adult things but made them something that could be a part of a child’s world.

What’s that, you say? You didn’t read Pratchett as a child? Well that’s a shame… but that’s also the thing. Pratchett could make the adult world make sense to a child… but he could also make a child’s world make sense to an adult. Sure, Pratchett could appeal to almost every part of a reader’s psychology, but a huge part of his power was that he spoke to the children inside his audience. You didn’t have to actually be 10 years old to have the feeling of being a child reading his books. There’s something childlike about the ebulliance of his early work; there’s something childlike about the way he didn’t just love puns, but seemed to delight in naughtily sneaking a pun in completely unexpectedly when the book seemed to be dealing with an entirely different tone. There are the actual children in his work, like Esk, and the young adults, like Mort and Susan, who Pratchett depicts so powerfully, and so effectively. Pratchett clearly adores these young characters and respects them absolutely, even admires them… but he also never forgets that for all their intelligence they’re still just kids. Susan in Soul Music is a sympathetic portrait of a teenage girl, in which she, in all her teenagerness, is the hero of her own story… but we’re also quite aware of her limitations. [And as a child, incidentally, seeing these precocious children have flaws and need to grow up some more felt like more praise, more understanding, than any number of aren’t-they-just-perfect-how-they-are little angels]

And there’s also something childlike about the sense of fairness, the sense of right and wrong, and the wrongness of things being wrong. There’s something childlike about the belief in the power of stories. Something childlike about the sheer joy in language. Hell, there’s something deeply childlike about dealing with death by turning him into a friendly old chap with a scythe who comes and has slightly puzzled conversations with you when you die. Is Fantasy a childish genre? No, not inherently. But the liberty of Fantasy allows it to be childish if it wants to be, without giving up its adulthood. As another famous Fantasy novelist once said: “when I became a man, I put away childish things – including the need to always be grown-up”. Pterry’s work stands alongside some other great works of the genre, like Watership Down, in showing that a child’s soul and an adult’s mind is a combination that can move planets.

 

  1. Pratchett was a joy to read

Terry Pratchett’s books aren’t just enjoyable. They aren’t just fun, they’re not just funny. They are – or at least they often are – genuinely joyous. It’s hard to really define what that means exactly; but I do know this: no matter how bad a mood I’ve ever been in, it’s not been so bad that I haven’t enjoyed Pratchett. No matter how bored, frustrated, sad. Now a good action film, that’s fun – but sometimes you’re just so irritated, so tired, so down that you just can’t muster up the energy to sit through two hours of explosions. Because that’s just fun, and fun actually takes some work. Work that’s worth the effort, but still work. I often find it hard to make the effort to read books these days. I enjoy reading books, when I’m reading them, but I often find it hard to actually open the covers and read that first word. I don’t know why exactly. Partly it’s that even though I know I’ll enjoy reading them, I always have something more important to do right this minute, or that I’ll enjoy more right this minute and I’ll read that book later, or tomorrow, or next week. Partly it’s that it feels like a mental effort to haul myself out of this world and put myself into another. If I’m happy and relaxed, it’s a mental effort to discipline myself to take time to read; if I’m sad or anxious, it’s a mental effort to make myself relax enough to read. Reading is fun, but fun takes work.

But Pratchett? Pratchett is a joy. Oh, not all of his work, sure, he has weak moments, and he has heavy moments too; but overall, in general? Joy. So that’s how I decide what book to read these days: I think about this book, ponder that book, decide to read such-and-such but don’t get around to it, I’m right on the verge of starting to read so-and-so but things keep coming up… until eventually I think ‘oh bugger it, why don’t I just read the next Pratchett?’ – and then I do. It’s just so easy. It’s the opposite of work.

There’s a thing that Chesterton said once, which I’m sure Pratchett would have approved of (if you aren’t aware, Pratchett was a big Chesterton fan – Chesterton was one of the writers he read when he was a kid – and you can sometimes see the influence, sometimes entire jokes stolen, in Pratchett’s own work). I was tempted to quote it up above when I was talking about a child’s soul, but it didn’t quite fit in. So I’m going to quote it here because it’s also saying something about joy. It’s Chesterton’s comparison of God to a baby:

The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.

When I finish a Pratchett I don’t actually squeel ‘do it again!’ – but let’s face it, I might as well.

It’s hard to work out exactly where the joy comes from in Pratchett, but it’s there. It’s the childlike soul, it’s the dance of chaos and order, it’s the cleverness of the man, and it’s also just plain how the man writes. Finding that Chesterton quote, I accidentally got trapped reading Chesterton – because even when Chesterton is writing nonsense that I don’t agree with, he’s an inherently captivating writer, at least to me. And in the same way, Pratchett on form exudes this… well, exuberance.

In this regard, one of the most warming thing about Pterry’s death has been reading how much his life and work meant to people. And one particular thing that seems to keep coming up is that many readers discovered Pratchett when they were depressed, and that reading Pratchett made it better. Now, I don’t mean to say that in each case reading Pratchett made them well, but simply that it made things better. And I don’t think I’ve ever been clinically depressed, but I can completely understand how that could be: if I were ever in a serious depression, the one thing I would think might help to read would be Discworld. And, helpfully enough, it would also be one of the things I would be most likely to feel able to read when if I were depressed. I find it hard to imagine reading Discworld and not smiling; and if someone is totally beyond smiling for whatever reason, I think that Pterry’s work would at least have a good chance of softening their frown a little. And all this is not just to praise Pratchett, but also to explain his power. Because rescuing someone from depression is something people remember; even just making depression a little more bearable is a gift that people will feel desparate to reciprocate, and to pass on to others. Most Pratchett fans have probably not been clinically depressed, but I’m sure we’ve all felt badly down at times… and his novels for many of us have been fragments of life and laughter in dark places. For some of us those places have, of course, been darker than for others, but readers will remember in their souls every frown that an author turns to a grin, every tear sweetened with a smile; no surprise at all, then, that so many people are so passionate about sweet old Uncle Pterry.

 

  1. Terry Pratchett’s work was never just one thing

Pratchett’s writing might evoke in me the kind of joy that makes me want to shout, “Do it again!”… but he didn’t. He gave us enough of what we wanted to satisfy us, but he relieved the potential for monotony by always changing just enough to keep us excited.

It’s easy to think of Pratchett as an author who wrote that sort of stuff, for some value of ‘that sort of stuff’. It’s easy to think that in part because we’re always told that, always being told what Discworld ‘is’, but also because when you read Pratchett you always know you’re reading Pratchett. But what ‘Pratchett’ entailed never really stayed the same.

I’m not sure I noticed this before, but it’s become very evident now that I’m re-reading the series in order. So far I’m up to The Fifth Elephant – and believe you me, the world of The Fifth Elephant is nothing like the world of The Colour of Magic. Those two worlds could not co-exist.

The nature of the world changed; the emphases changed. The style of writing changed. Sometimes it changed over long stretches of time, gradually, through evolution; sometimes it changed from book to book, as the author’s fancy took him. Sometimes, as in the case of Reaper Man, it changed from page to page within a book.

Terry Pratchett was a protean author, who could exude his talent and distinctive voice into many different moulds. As a result, he could appeal to many different readers, and to the same reader in many different moods.

It’s easy to remember that Pratchett was brilliant. It’s harder to remember how many things he was brilliant at. The sheer fun of the lunacy of The Colour of Magic, the admiration for the layers of puns and literary references, that’s all totally different from what moved me to tears at the end of Reaper Man. Those two modes of writing hardly seem like they should be able to exist in the same universe. And that tragic voice is nothing in the slightest like the hilarious comedy routine of the Faculty in The Last Continent. None of these things are like the booming grandeur of the set piece scenes in Small God – or the quiet, sad reflections of an old woman in Lords and Ladies. None of those things are like the drama of a nearly-naked man hunted through the snow by a pack of werewolves in The Fifth Elephant. None of these things are like the moment when you realise howdunnit in Feet of Clay. And I don’t think that any of these things are really quite like the restless, intelligent YA adventure of Only You Can Save Mankind.

If Terry Pratchett hadn’t found Discworld, hadn’t settled on Discworld, he could have written bestsellers in half a dozen different genres. In a way, he did. It’s just that this way they all come in matching covers.

 

 

  1. Terry Pratchett was a wonderful person

Of course, the public never really knows for sure what anyone is like. Perhaps in a few years darker stories might emerge about Pterry – I very much doubt it, but you can never say for sure. But for now, something that struck me on reading the internet’s outpouring of grief is that… well… nobody had anything bad to say about him. And of course, people tend not to be rude about people who have just died, but still, there’s usually some tone-deaf dissenter. And then I thought back and realised: I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say anything bad about Terry Pratchett. More than that: it seems as though everyone has good things to say about him.

Every story about him meeting an author has him being interested and respectful, and often helpful or supportive. Occasional newspaper reports toyed with the idea that he might be bitter in the shadow of more temporarily lauded fantasy authors like Rowling and Pullman, or on behalf of his genre in the shadow of literary snobbery… but while perhaps there was a little wry displeasure there, from what I’ve seen he always made a point of directing any criticism at media coverage, rather than rival authors themselves.

Pterry met a lot of fans. A lot of fans. He went to a lot of conventions, did a lot of signings. Gave talks. And every fan I’ve heard talking about him has said how he seemed to try to make time for them personally (despite a hectic schedule). At signings, he would do his best to work to the end of the queue, long after the official end of the event. Fans who had brief conversations with him report how he remembered them when they met again years later. Reports of convention panels go on about how he listened to and argued civilly with other panellists, with fans, how he was polite to rude people and took strange people seriously without mockery. Not just in the flesh: Pterry was among the first generation of major novelists to engage seriously with his fans online, back in the days of usenet. And if anybody doesn’t remember usenet newsgroups, the idea that somebody could regularly participate in that environment and not be hated and hateful is refreshing and uplifting! He even responded to some non-trivial proportion of his monumental tide of fanmail.

He also, of course, put his money and time where his mouth was. In his later years, he campaigned loudly and fearlessly on behalf of dementia research and care, and for assisted dying. Quite aside from the publicity and the financial donations, he made a difference to people’s lives simply through his honest self-presentation as a man suffering from terminal dementia – not as someone to be campaigned on behalf of, but as a campaigner in his own right, and still a bestselling novelist despite his disease. He was not afraid to put himself out in public even when the effects of his disease had become visible; he was not too vain to risk tarnishing his image by exploiting his celebrity in a good cause, and his documentaries I know have changed minds, and dramatically changed the public visibility of these issues. Some might point out, no doubt with some accuracy, that there was a degree of self-interest in campaigning on issues that directly affected him… but then, most charity is close to the heart of the donator or campaigner. It also overlooks a lifetime of good works prior to his diagnosis – he was for many years a trustee of a charity for orangutans, and he also supported organisations for humanism and for AIDS sufferers. His late-life campaigning was not just self-serving desparation, or even the vanity of a dying man looking for a legacy (as though he of all people needed any greater legacy), but simply the crystallisation of a life-long moral sentiment – the same moral sentiment that stands out so strongly in his fiction.

Even leaving his fiction to one side, Terry Pratchett was a great man, and, so far as I can tell, a genuinely good, kind, loveable man. Add that to everything I’ve said above, and I guess there’s no surprise that his death has been met not just with regret but with true lamentation. A lamentation that would no doubt have been even greater, even more deafening, were it not for the nature of the man himself and the nature of his death. It seems, as I said at the beginning of this, almost disrespectful to wail, rend garments and gnash teeth for him. I think he would much prefer that people focused on life.

So if anybody’s reading this who hasn’t read Terry Pratchett’s novels, go out immediately and do so. If anybody read them once but has laid them aside, go back and pick them up again. Recommend them to people. Read them to your children, so that we aren’t the only generation to benefit from the flower of his genius.

And perhaps I ought to say: donate to his charities, or to his own, or campaign, or give your labour in some other way. But in a way that feels superfluous. The philanthropist and the novelist were never different people. Works are the fruit of faith: get people to read Terry Pratchett, and the good deeds will follow.

 

Terry Pratchett. Rest in Peace.

 

 

 

 

…Or, as the lspace.com website puts it, and I can’t do it any better:

One day I’ll be dead and THEN you’ll all be sorry.
– (Terry Pratchett, 28 Nov 1992, on alt.fan.pratchett)

The Fifth Elephant, by Terry Pratchett

The latest part of my complete Discworld reread

Is it just because Pterry is dead? I don’t think so: I think it’s true of the book itself – this book feels like the end of Discworld. This is where it all ends.

I know, that’s hyperbole. The Discworld cycle didn’t just collapse after this installment – it went on for more than a dozen more novels. Some of those novels are good. Some of them may even be great.

But this feels like the end. This is where the world shuts down, gets a little smaller – from here on in, Discworld will seem smaller, and in a way less real. The Fifth Elephant brings the stories of Carrot, Angua and Vimes (and even Colon) to a fitting, even inevitable conclusion, and caps off the story of the Watch as a whole – leaving Night Watch as one last ‘Scouring of the Shire’ epilogue.

The fact that Pratchett didn’t realise this and wrote two more Watch novels after Night Watch, not to mention a whole bunch of cameo appearances (even the very next book after The Fifth Elephant, The Truth, was written as a Watch novel and contains heavy Watch presence) may be important for the cycle as a whole, but doesn’t in my mind change the finality of this novel, taken as a novel in itself.

But it’s more than that: The Fifth Elephant seems to me to represent the final obsolescence, in both practical and thematic terms, of the adventures of Rincewind and of Granny Weatherwax – the taming, in a sense, of the worlds that they inhabited. This is more striking as TFE immediately follows Granny’s Carpe Jugulum, and is largely set in the same part of the world… but not only is the book itself much more succesful than its predecessor, but its protagonist, Vimes, has a much easier time of it than Granny does in the end, despite a few tricky moments along the way. The juxtaposition of the two books underlines the thematic shift: the world that Vimes is conquering is the world that Granny lived in (there’s even a derogatory little jibe at Lancre along the way).

Because this is a novel about conquest. It’s that rare thing in modern popular literature: a pro-colonialist novel.

The newspaper quote on this cover says "the country's greatest living novelist". One of those adjectives is no accurate, but both were correct at the time.

The newspaper quote on this cover says “the country’s greatest living novelist”. One of those adjectives is no longer accurate, but both were correct at the time.

The Fifth Elephant is set in Uberwald: a vast, uncharted, mountainous nightmare forest of werewolves, vampires, and subterranean dwarven kingdoms, straddling the middle of the continent. Uberwald is bestial, backward… and in the way. Ankh-Morpork is spreading its tendrils all across the world, in the form of a network of semaphore towers marching step by step into the deep dark wood, and Uberwald is the dark age lying between the lights of Ankh-Morpork and of Genua. The semaphore towers are symbolic of the progress of modernity, of Ankh-Morpork, into the ancient cultures of the land. Uberwald is a place where men are hunted to death by werewolves and eaten… but now the werewolf daughters are educated at Ankh-Morpork finishing schools for ladies, and the vampires are toying with pink knitted jumpers and temperance societies.

But there is a problem. The Low King, ruler of all the dwarves, is dead, and the ripples of a bitter election to replace him can be felt as far away as Ankh-Morpork itself. There is hope that the new king will be a candidate more forward-thinking, more friendly toward Ankh-Morpork. But Something Is Afoot. If natural caution didn’t tell Vetinari that, the fact that his ambassador to the region, Mr Sleeps, has just disappeared in mysterious circumstances would be enough to make clear that something was up. Uberwald isn’t somewhere where people just wander off for a long walk in the snow – not if they want to come back, at least. Sleeps was spying on his hosts… but which one of them killed him, and why?

To cut the Gordian knot of espionage and diplomacy, Vetinari appoints a new ambassador to attend the dwarven coronation – a man of singular tact, subtleness and nuance… common-man policeman Sam Vimes.

If the basic conceit – spy goes missing in delicate situation, send someone to find out what’s going on – seems familiar, that’s no surprise. It’s how the first Bond film, Dr No, gets started. In a way this is a spy novel, even if (as in many spy novels) little actual spying gets done. It is a novel of deception, cold-blooded politics, brutal violence, and a hero who is a very, very long way from home. But Bond isn’t just about spying – it’s also about Empire. The twin assumptions behind Bond are the the Empire’s needs define the priorities of the world (the sinister goings on around whichever embassy it is this time only matter insofar as they affect British interests) and that the Empire’s values define progress and modernity (the British may be questioned regarding a few details of method, but are always doing the right thing overall). And exactly the same colonial assumptions play out in The Fifth Elephant: Vimes is in Uberwald to further Ankh-Morpork’s interests, and advance its civilised, law-abiding culture at the expense of the terrible old ways of the backward place he finds himself in. Pratchett is aware of these issues, and flags them up himself: characters explicitly question Vimes’ assumptions of superiority. But while the novel is at pains to point out that the world cannot be reduced into simplistic “us good them bad” terms, that the world is far more complicated than that, it never seriously challenges the idea that sometimes we are the good guys. While Vimes has his certainties bruised a little, we are never in any doubt that, in general, Vimes is the good guy here. And Vimes is a man who explicitly identifies the idea that ‘good and evil are just different ways of seeing the same situation’ as something that bad people say. Let’s be in no doubt: so far as this book is concerned, although tact and awareness of local complexities are necessary in carrying it out, imposing modern colonial values onto the savage mediaevalisms of Uberwald is the right thing to be doing.

Oh, and extracting favourable trade terms for the local resources, of course.

Ironically, though, this approach to Uberwald is much more succesful I think that that of Carpe Jugulum. Attack vampires and werewolves through magic and myth, and the only way you can win is by reducing the monsters into cartoons – the terrifying Magpyrs must be belittled into camp horror film cliches in order to make them be defeatable. But come at them through economics, realpolitik and information technology, and you can compass the whole of them while still being able to defeat them. The old Uberwald that is dying away in The Fifth Elephant feels much more real – and hence more intimidating – than the Uberwald that seems on the verge of conquest in Carpe Jugulum.

Of course, it helps that Pratchett is much better with his werewolves than with his vampires, and although there are vampires in TFE it is the werewolves who really shine. Pratchett never really seems to know what he wants his vampires to be – demons, funny people in evening dress, or anything in between – or in particular how they can fit in to the more realistic Discworld he is developing at this point in the cycle. But his werewolves, he has captured perfectly. Normally, well-written werewolves are those that are convincingly both wolf and human, while badly-written werewolves are humans who sometimes look like wolves (or wolves who sometimes look like humans). But these werewolves are more sinister than that: they are beings that are neither wolf nor human. Sometimes they look and act like humans, sometimes they look and act like wolves… but there’s always something wrong about them, something uncanny, something irreducibly alien. When Angua exclaims in this novel “I’m not human!” she’s not just saying that in the Fantasy “everyone’s human basically but some of them have pointy ears” sense, she really means that she is something inhuman. Something that would enjoy killing and eating humans, if its borrowed-from-humans sentiments weren’t getting in its way.

It’s a really great depiction of werewolves, that manages to present them as both genuinely threatening and as thoroughly alien. On which note: I’ve mentioned elsewhere that it’s impressive how Pratchett manages to sneak a lightly BDSM relationship into mainstream fantasy in the form of Carrot and, as she herself calls herself, ‘his bitch’ Angua, who is physically incapable of disobeying him. Well, it’s also impressive that at one point in this book a female character has a male canine as a potential love interest and it barely seems strange. That’s partly because of how much Pratchett’s dogs and wolves feel like real people, even if their non-humanity is always evident… and it’s also because of how alien his werewolves feel. They’re not humans, they’re not wolves, they’re just imposters – why shouldn’t they be just as likely to be interested in four-legged companions as in two-legged ones? Assuming, of course, that the opportunity arises – because wolves are better at spotting werewolves than humans are, and if you think humans don’t like the shapeshifters we’ve got nothing on lupine xenophobia…

Even by the standards of US covers, this is a terrible cover.

Even by the standards of US covers, this is a terrible cover.

The best world-building here, though, isn’t undead at all: it’s the dwarves. Dwarves have always been around in Pratchett’s books, but they’ve never really had much unique identity, beyond being short, drunk, literal, xenophobic, rat-eating and gold-obsessed. That all changes here with a fascinating, detailed, and original dwarven culture sketched out beneath the snows of Uberwald. There are elements of Judaism here of course (dwarves always seem to be Jewish in Fantasy, for some reason), and perhaps of Catholicism – the Low King is more of a pope than a traditional monarch, although the dwarves themselves believe themselves to have no religion. [I think part of what Pratchett is doing here is simply trying to call into question the distinction beteen religion and non-religion], and perhaps of Japan (at least, that’s what dwarvish opera made me think of) and of course of Germanic myth, and probably of Tolkien, and of mining culture, and perhaps some elements all new. And again, as with the werewolves, Pratchett stresses that these are not humans with different heights. Taking the most obvious example: previously, the idea (derived from a joke about Tolkien) was that dwarven women were indistinguishable from the men. But here we see the dwarven side of things: there are no dwarven women (and by extension no dwarven men). This is not a concept that makes sense to them. Vimes is puzzled by the mythological romance between two legendary dwarven heroes: so which was male and which was female then? He is corrected sharply: they were both dwarves. Oh, sure, perhaps there were some anatomical differences that became relevant when the two of them were alone together and curious about babies. Or perhaps there weren’t. But none of that is relevant to who, or what, they were.

There’s something admirable about that dwarven refusal to draw unnecessary distinctions, but it sets uneasily with the general tone of the book. Because now some Ankh-Morpork dwarves, including a minor character, are starting to wear dresses and lipstick, because they’re girls and that’s what girls do. There is never any doubt in this book that female dwarves should have that right, and it seems pretty straightforward that those who are horrified by public displays of femininity are the bad dwarves, the conservatives, who will be washed away in the tide of progress, the tide of Ankh-Morpork’s cultural hegemony, which is going to stamp its gender roles onto every damn culture it can sink its teeth into. But at the same time, it’s hard not to think that maybe this freedom for female dwarves to express themselves is only a freedom to conform to Ankh-Morporkian demands rather than the demands of their own societies, and that maybe something will have been lost if the question “so which one was really a woman then?” begins to be meaningful for dwarves. Pratchett doesn’t come down on that side… but he acknowledges that it exists, and that things may be more complicated than we might at first imagine. Just because progress is good, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t bad too. The old werewolf baron is bad, and a bright new future where people aren’t hunted by werewolves would be good… but the progressive Wolfgang, he of the flags and the calisthenics and the racial purity, is much worse than even the bad old ways.

There’s too much in this book to talk about, I think. But I must draw attention to what I think is the best little bit of the whole book: the towers. On one level, the semaphore towers are a minor detail, which could be gotten rid of with only minor alterations to the plot. But on another level those towers are the book. They are beacons of civilisation in the wilderness. They are, for the Ankh-Morpork citizens in the middle of the primordial forest, almost a literal lifeline. They are like a distortion in the fabric of space-time: if you can’t get to a tower, you’re in the middle of nowhere, but the instant you reach one you’re just a few days from Ankh-Morpork itself, or at least from Ankh-Morpork’s power. They take on an oversized resonance within the novel, and I think they’re a little element of genius within the book.

Anyway, I should try to say something more general. This is a really good book. It has a gripping plot and some great action scenes – the feeling of menace in Uberwald is perhaps the strongest that Pratchett has mustered (you know you’re in a bad place when the courtyard of your castle has a cage over it to keep out enemies who can fly). It has some very good character work, and the best Boba Fett of the cycle. It has solid and evocative worldbuilding. It’s well-written, it’s insightful, and in places it’s funny. [Although I must say, this is the book that made me realise that, at least outside his early work, Pratchett isn’t a comedy writer at all – at least, not unless Dickens is a comedy writer. The jokes are incidental… but, probably because it’s fantasy and hence ‘silly’, people assume the work is a comedy just because you can laugh at it. In perhaps the opposite phenomenon from The Wire – an often-hilarious series that nobody ever refers to as a comedy because it’s so ‘realist’.]

It’s hard, really, to find anything wrong with it. A couple of characters aren’t in it as much as I’d like, but I understand why; some are in it more than I’d like, but I understand why. There are, I think, two missteps in the plot near the end – one is very obvious and a bit annoying but ultimately trivial, and the other is harder to notice (the way Pratchett does it works, just not as well as something else would) but more substantial. As a result, and I guess because Vimes is a somewhat distant protagonist (compared to his more vulnerable characters), it’s not really a perfect book. But it is very, very good!

How good?

The-fifth-elephant-1

Adrenaline: 5/5. Perhaps not a perfectly thrilling book, but as exciting as you could reasonably want. I found it very hard to put down. A general high pace and plenty of twists are punctuated by a few great scenes.

Emotion: 3/3. Not a deeply emotive book – as I say, a collected and ever-rational Vimes doesn’t yank your emotions around too much – but there are touching moments along the way.

Thought: 4/5. Pace and a light touch keep the book from getting deep into any topics, but the provocative conceit and the worldbuilding make this a thought-provoking read.

Beauty: 4/5. There are no stunning, sublime moments, but the prose is elegant and the description beautiful and evocative throughout.

Craft: 5/5. A really well-crafted book, and he even sticks the landing. Literally two things I think he might have done better near the end, but that can’t detract from the essentially flawless craftsmanship.

Endearingness: 4/5. Perhaps because it’s Vimes (who I really like, don’t get me wrong, but who I don’t find huggable), and there’s not quite enough Angua, and I guess because it didn’t go in any particularly emotional places, I didn’t love this book. But I did really like it. It’s always been one of my favourites, though that partiality has been tinged with doubt – I seem to remember when it came out many people were disappointed with it, and that led me to second-guess my own feelings. But now I remember how much I liked it.

Originality: 4/5. It’s one of Pratchett’s more innovative works, I think. Sure, little bits here and there are familiar, but overall it’s a distinctive plot in a distinctive place.

 

Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD.

Close to brilliant, even. I don’t think it quite reaches Small Gods and Lords and Ladies, but I’d put it firmly on the second rung (and hey, the difference between one rung and the next is always likely to be a matter of taste – call one of my ‘good’ books ‘brilliant’, or one of my ‘brilliant’ books merely ‘good’, and I may have an issue with that, but call a ‘good’ book ‘very good’ or a ‘very good’ book ‘brilliant’, I can’t really complain.

This does, as I say, feel like the end of Discworld (particularly with the way the novel ends), but if Discworld had ended here it would have gone out with a bang. This is one of Pratchett’s strongest outings – smart, fun and very well-made. With the enormous caveat that Night Watch is still to come, this probably edges Feet of Clay as the strongest Watch novel yet.

 

For the record, while I’m at it, here are my current assessments of the first 24 novels:

Brilliant: Small Gods; Lords and Ladies
Very Good: The Fifth Elephant; Feet of Clay; Reaper Man; Pyramids; Maskerade; Hogfather
Good: The Colour of Magic; Equal Rites; Mort; Wyrd Sisters; Guards! Guards!; Moving Pictures; Witches Abroad; Men at Arms; Soul Music; Carpe Jugulum
Not Bad: The Light Fantastic; Sourcery; Eric; Interesting Times; Jingo; The Last Continent

I haven’t yet found a genuinely bad book among them (The Light Fantastic comes closest), which is frankly a shockingly high level of quality and consistency, especially for a writer who evolves so much over time, and is so willing to experiment. [Going back to my ‘end of Discworld’ thesis: the world and characters of The Colour of Magic simply could not coexist with those of The Fifth Elephant]

So, finished writing a short story!

What it’s about, I’ve no idea. And I think I already dislike it (which at least saves time).

But I’m pretty sure I’ve come to the end of it… which makes a nice change from my usual ‘start, get bored, wander off’ approach to writing.

Movies of the Last Year (pt. 2) – rundown and conclusions

Second part of this post about the films I’ve seen this year.

Best Picture

Well, how about I count down in reverse order: Continue reading