As you may have noticed, I’ve been reading Discworld again. All of it. In (mostly) order.
At this point, I’m now halfway through, in that I’ve (re-)read 20 books of a total of 40. Now, technically I haven’t read the first 20: I’ve read the first 19, and then #21, because nothing is ever simple with me. (I read and reviewed Hogfather before I had the idea of this complete re-read project, and I’m not sure about re-reading it again. I’ve decided that I do want to re-read it as part of this project, and I was toying with reading it for Christmas, but that didn’t happen. So now I don’t know whether I’ll be reading it next, or whether I’ll maybe leave it for next Christmas instead). And maybe
I should shamelessly copy Nathan’s halfway roundup halfway through is a good time for a bit of reflection.
So how am I finding it? Well, there have certainly been some surprises along the way! Fortunately, most of them have been good: in particular, The Colour of Magic, Sourcery, Moving Pictures, Soul Music, and Jingo were all much better than I remembered them being (though none of them would be listed among the all-time classics), while Lords and Ladies, which I expected to be good, turned out to be arguably the best of the lot. A couple of surprises have been disappointments: I knew that The Light Fantastic and Interesting Times would not be among my favourites, but I was expecting them to be better than I discovered them to be.
Perhaps the biggest surprise has been The Colour of Magic, which I think has benefitted immensely from my greater age and experience this time around. At first, I thought it was silly and childish compared to his more sophisticated books; later, I came just to dismiss it as defective Discworld, something to warn people away from. And sure, there’s an element of that – tonally, it does not fit well with his later works. But read in its own right – as readers would have done in 1983, when Pratchett would have been a virtually unknown author – it’s a real delight, hopelessly silly and disorganised but packed with wit and erudition and manic energy.
I have also in general been happily surprised by all the Witches novels. They’ve never been my favourites, perhaps because I do not instinctively feel the same level of empathic attraction to the characters as I have for some of Pratchett’s other protagonists, and yet the books themselves have so far excelled themselves.
More generally, I think that this re-read has helped me see below the surface of some of what Pratchett is doing, whether that’s thematically (his golden age reflections on the rewards and dangers of narrative in our understanding of the world) or stylistically (like how Interesting Times feels so different at first because it tries to return to a broader, Swords and Sorcery, style of fantasy, before collapsing under the weight of conflicting themes and political lecturing), and get a better sense of how his work has changed over time.
As a result of that, I’d like to tentatively propose a model for periodising the first half of Pratchett’s Discworld run (so far):
The Primordial Period
Dates: ? > 1983 > ?
Books: The Colour of Magic
Also wrote: don’t know. Pratchett had written three novels by this point: The Carpet People is clearly Pratchettian (though I’ve not read his original, pre-revision version), but does not fit alongside TCoM, which was written more than a decade late. I haven’t yet read The Dark Side of the Sun. I have read Strata, written two years before TCoM – my memory suggests that it might be stylistically similar, but I wouldn’t swear to it without a re-read.
Distinguishing features: exuberant, chaotic, imaginative, prone to showing-off, packed with jokes (some funnier than others). Little apparent interest in sustainable worldbuilding. Basically parodic, centred on sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Broad, absurd.
New Leads: Rincewind, Twoflower
New Featured Settings: Ankh-Morpork; Wyrmberg; Krull
Other Significant Introductions: the Luggage; Fate, the Lady and the Gods; the forbidden number; Things from the Dungeon Dimensions; Death
The Imitative Period
Dates: ? > 1987
Books: The Light Fantastic
Also wrote: nothing.
Distinguishing features: seems to be an attempt to replicate the surprise success of TCoM, but in replicating it lacks the originality and imagination of its predecessor.
New Leads: none.
New Featured Settings: The Ramtops
Other Significant Introductions: Cohen; the Librarian (technically and briefly)
The Exploratory Period
Books: Equal Rites; Mort; Sourcery
Also wrote: nothing.
Distinguishing features: Pratchett seems to be trying to find a way to use his creation in a more original way. More anchoring of his stories in real world settings and characterisation. Ankh-Morpork (briefly appearing in both previous books) begins to get more identity; all three books have prominent AM/non-AM thematic contrasts. The three books have a lot in common in terms of plot and structure, both with each other and with TLF (EQ and TLF have basically identical plots, and Sourcery isn’t far off either), but in setting and style they differ considerably: which way will Pratchett take this world? In their variety we begin to get the idea of ‘sub-series’, but the characters and locations of these books are mostly dead-ends, with later follow-ups slanting away – Granny is more interesting than Esk, Death is more interesting than Mort, and so on. There’s also quite a YA tint to these books – Mort and EQ are straight YA (though not advertised as such), and even Sourcery is simple and broad.
New Leads: Esk; Mort; Conina
New Featured Settings: Octarine Grass Country; Klatch
Other Significant Introductions: Granny; Vetinari (briefly); the Librarian (properly)
The Formative Period
Books: Wyrd Sisters; Pyramids; Guards! Guards!; Eric
Also wrote: Truckers; The Unadulterated Cat (co-written)
Distinguishing features: these books feel more confident, less formulaic. They’re all very different in tone, but three of them at least are widely considered classics by different parts of the fandom. The characters and settings continue to solidify and become more relatable; the amount of magic generally lessens (there are big magic events in all four books, but it’s less omnipresent than the fireball-throwing of the earlier books). All the books introduce novel ideas, characters and places, but they also remain rooted in the work of the earlier periods – they expand, rather than starting anew. The books continue to slant a little young (eg the focus is on young adult protagonists), but older than Mort or Equal Rites. Pratchett returns to the idea of broad parody, but widens his scope – WS in particular draws on theatre, while GG draws on film – and makes the parody more central to the structure. There are still a lot of jokes. The parodic elements link to an explicit theme of the power of stories and belief, though as yet this is not really fully adumbrated.
New Leads: The Fool; Magrat; Pteppic; Carrot; Vimes
New Featured Settings: Lancre; Djelibeybi; Pandemonium; Tsort; Tezumen
Other Significant Introductions: Nanny; Greebo; the Assassin’s Guild; Colon; Nobby; Sybil; Dibbler; Vetinari (properly)
The Golden Age
Books: Moving Pictures; Reaper Man; Witches Abroad; Small Gods
Also wrote: Diggers; Wings; Good Omen (co-written); Only You Can Save Mankind; the Discworld short story Troll Bridge
Distinguishing features: having found a theme he liked in the Formative Period, Pratchett then explored where that theme could lead. That ‘theme’ is the conflict between material, mechanical conceptions of the world and more narrative, mythological conceptions. Stories have their own power, and are essential to our lives, but that power can also become destructive. Moving Pictures, Reaper Man and Witches Abroad discuss the threat of the postmodern hyperreal, where our systems of symbols and stories become self-sustaining, divorced from our physical and animal realities, and ultimately destructive; Reaper Man and Small Gods deal with the Chestertonian fear that belief is a constant, and that failing to believe in one thing means believing in another, and also with the extent to which our stories protect us from harsher, more inhuman realities. In other words, these books all explore, through the medium of myth, the concept (which I know Pratchett has singled out in interviews) of humanity as the meeting point between angel and ape.
In more practical terms, the Golden Age sees a continuing shift away toward a more modern, realistic Discworld, away from the parodic middle ages of the earlier books. YA elements mostly drop away (perhaps because at this point he was writing non-Discworld books for younger readers). Rincewind fails to appear.
It’s also worth pointing out the stunning writing speed. Eight novels in (less than) two years.
New Leads: Victor; Windle; Brutha
New Featured Settings: Holywood; Uberwald; Genua; Omnia; Ephebe (previously briefly visited in Pyramids)
Other Significant Introductions: Ridcully; the Faculty; Casanunda; Reg Shoe
I’ll leave discussion of later periods until next time, when maybe I’ve gotten a better sense of the direction of his later work.
Finally, my main conclusion from the re-read so far is that in every way Terry Pratchett is an even better author than I thought he was. He’s funny, smart, literary, philosophical, and a great writer. Later Discworld novels have sometimes left me worrying whether the brilliant Pratchett I remembered was only ever an illusion born of nostalgia. He really wasn’t. He’s as good as all that, and then some.
Anyway, because simplistic summations are what reviewing is all about, I’ll leave you with two:
Worst Book So Far: The Light Fantastic
Best Book So Far: Lords and Ladies