With the death of Terry Pratchett this month, I’ve seen a lot of people sharing beginners’ guides and reading lists describing his work for the uninitiated. Most of them make some fairly basic mistakes, like describing a “Death series”, a “Watch series”, and so on within the Discworld books, and saying to read those in order.
Now, it’s true that, for example, Guards, Guards, Men at Arms and Feet of Clay (the first three “Watch books”) all share a lot of the same themes and characters — so much so that they could almost be seen as increasingly able attempts at writing the same book, there is almost no similarity between, say Guards, Guards — a broad satire of fantasy tropes, whose climax depends on the observation that million to one chances happen nine times out of ten, with the heroes setting out to ensure that they have *precisely* a million to one chance — and Thud, a dark conspiracy thriller with something of the feel of The Wicker Man about it. And if one were to read those in series as “the Watch series”, and then go back and read, say, “the Witches series”, there’d be a sense of whiplash, going back to the style of the earlier book, and seeing characters who’ve died alive again.
While it’s handy to know what characters are going to appear in which books, and while Pratchett did (and it still hurts to talk of him in the past tense — more than you’d expect for a man I only met twice, very briefly, when I was a teenager) use particular characters to discuss particular ideas (so the Death stories are “about” humanity, the Watch stories “about” justice, and the Witch stories “about” stories themselves), you’ll have far more idea if you’re going to like a Pratchett work based on what phase of his career it was written in.
Because Pratchett has very clear phases. They’re not perfectly demarked, of course — it’s not like he sat down one day and said “now I am going to enter my First Golden Age!” — but very roughly if you like a Pratchett book from 1994, you might not like the ones he wrote in 2004 or 1984, but you’ll probably like one from 1995.
So I’m going to look very briefly at the phases of Pratchett’s career. I’ll be looking almost exclusively at the Discworld novels — his first three, non-Discworld, books were juvenilia, and everything else was ephemera, collaborations with other authors, children’s books, and only a couple of things that most people coming to Pratchett fresh will find interesting. He never wrote a truly bad book, even before he became a professional writer or in his last years when illness was clearly affecting him, but the Discworld books are the ones that he’ll be remembered for and which new readers should come to first.
Early Novels (1983-89)
One piece of advice that is correct for new readers of the Discworld books is “don’t start at the beginning”.
The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, the first two Discworld books, are fairly generic comedies pastiching specific fantasy stories, in much the same way as those Bored Of The Rings style books do. They’re fun, but not the place to start, for the simple reason that if you’re the kind of fantasy reader who’s heard of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser then you’ve undoubtedly already read Pratchett, while if you’re not you won’t get the jokes.
They’re the first two books to introduce the Discworld itself (a flat world that rides on the back of a giant turtle), the great city of Ankh-Morpork (sort of fantasy medieval London, with a chunk of Venice or Rome in these early books, but much smellier), and the character of Rincewind, an inept, cowardly wizard who has become the unwilling tour guide for Twoflower, a tourist from the Counterweight Continent (basically Generic Oriental Fantasyland), and who is accompanied by The Luggage (a vicious box that moves on dozens of tiny legs). Once you know that, you know all you need to know from these books.
Equal Rites, on the other hand, is a reasonable place to start. It’s the first really strong novel Pratchett did, and in many ways is his breakout book. While the first two books had been broad comedies, Equal Rites is a more thoughtful book — the story of a young girl, Esk, who is bequeathed a wizard’s staff by mistake, and so gets magic powers — but the “male” powers of wizardry, not the “female” powers of witchcraft. It’s a story about breaking out of prescribed gender roles, and while not a perfect one (Pratchett was a cis man and this was the 80s, there’s only so enlightened he could be) it’s surprisingly good, especially when compared to the two earlier books.
It also introduces Granny Weatherwax, here a rather generic witch, but who will become much more.
Mort is the first book to feature Death as a main character. The standard scythe-and-hood, skeletal, anthropomorphic personification of Death had featured in the first three books as a minor character, but over the course of the Discworld books (he appears in all of them except children’s book The Wee Free Men and the last two books released to date — Pratchett seemed uncomfortable in interviews when talking about the character’s non-appearance, but given that he had a terminal illness at the time, the reasons are perhaps obvious) he develops into one of the most human of Pratchett’s characters, in a good way. Here that process begins, as Death takes an apprentice and it’s revealed that he also has an adopted daughter. The apprentice and the daughter, of course, hit it off…
And finally in this first phase came Sourcery, a return visit from Rincewind, who this time meets up with Conina The Barbarian Hairdresser (daughter of Cohen the Barbarian from The Light Fantastic), Nijel The Destroyer (a young nerd who wants to be a barbarian hero) and Creosote (the man for whom the phrase “rich as Creosote” was coined) to defeat an evil sourceror (with a u) and prevent the Apocralypse (so called because it’s been threatened so often that it’s regarded as somewhat apocryphal). He eventually stops the end of the world with the aid of a half-brick in a sock.
As you can tell from the description, this is another book which is mainly straight parody and daft jokes, and while it’s much better written than the first two Rincewind books it’s very much a retrograde step after Equal Rites and Mort.
And this is as good a place as any to stop for now. We’ve reached 1989, and Pratchett has by now become big enough that he’s no longer being co-published by Colin Smythe, the small press publisher who put out his earliest work. All the books from now until 1998 will be published by Gollancz, and the next one introduces some characters who will go on to be rather important…