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”.

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6 thoughts on “Where to start Discworld: suggestions and explanations

  1. Your link to: “my list of ten reasons why Pratchett fans are so upset by his death” tries to take me to one of your edit pages.

  2. ….well bugger. Thanks for pointing that out!

  3. Nathan says:

    I have given up and completly changed my way of telling people where to start. My new go to is “grab a book that looks interesting and start reading.”

    It is, after all, how I read through the series. I knew Angua’s secret before reading Men at Arms. It didn’t mess with me. I sit here trying to give people a ‘better’ reading experience than I had and yet obviously mine was good enough to make Pratchett my favorite author. So I am done.

    Other than that, agree with your starting points for the most point. And still think Light Fantastic is better than you did.

  4. Hans says:

    One reason why nobody mentions the (internal) chronological order is that the parts where it deviates from the publication order are not well defined (when exactly does SG take place – we had that discussion) and even for NW it’s not even clear where to put it – after all, the framework narrative fits the publication order. And, as you say yourself, NW is one of the worse places to start, as it is better read knowing at least the previous Guard books. So the chronological order is difficult to establish and leads to spoilers or confusion. Pratchett made up things as he went along, so I#d say the best way to read the Discworld books is in the order he wrote them (if your Goal is to read them all).
    I mostly read by publication order – I happened on TCoM first, and then, when buying the books, I followed the publication order for the ones that were already out (I think a dozen or so), and later, of course, I bought the books when they came out. I think I only read Eric out of order.

  5. jshupac says:

    Interesting stuff. I’ve thought about this a bunch, trying to get friends to read Pratchett but worried they would be scared away. In the end I suggested they start with Truckers or Amazing Maurice or Nation, since in a weird way I think Pratchett’s children books can actually be less silly than his adult ones. I liked the suggestions you gave for the Discworld books, though many of them I haven’t read yet; my own feeling is that, if the person isn’t nerdy enough to be likely to enjoy the Colour of Magic to begin with, it would probably be best that they start with an accessible book like Mort or a one-off like Small Gods or The Truth or something. My own personal introduction to Discworld was the Amazing Maurice, followed by Feet of Clay. I might be biased here by my own experience, but I thought Feet of Clay was a decent place to start, because it’s more serious and “meaningful” than Guards Guards or Men of Arms, and I also suspect that reading it first might have made Guards Guards a lot more interesting than it would have otherwise been. But anyway, keep up the good work, I’m looking forward to reading your next review!

  6. Heh… I was wondering as I read this which one I read first–I couldn’t remember–and then when I came to your description of The Light Fantastic as the absolute worst place to start I realised–that’s the one I started at.

    But I still ended up reading every novel!

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