Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is one of the richest and most detailed fantasy worlds in the genre, competing on an even keel with Tolkien’s Middle Earth, one of the worlds Pratchett is parodying. Discworld is a perfect conceptualization of the author’s whimsy, being a flat disc sitting atop four gigantic elephants sitting on top of a giant turtle floating through space (an early visualization of the Earth). The humans populating the various stand-ins for Earth continents are joined by trolls and dwarfs. The witches that populate this world are remarkably down to earth people whose strength is a wisdom in other things rather than any magical ability. The magical wizards, by comparison, are usually comically inept.
Pratchett has had so much fun exploring his world, however, that his body of work can be daunting for new readers. There are 35 published novels set in Pratchett’s world, falling into six distinct (sort of) sub series (not including a large set of stand-alone novels) featuring dozens of distinct characters. The characters in these sub-series interweave; a character that stars in one series may make a cameo appearance in another, possibly confounding new readers who sense that this is a person they should know more about, but they have no idea who he or she is.
Fundamentally the question new readers must answer when confronted with the entire Discworld series is, “where do I start?” The answer is: “I don’t know, but for goodness sake, start somewhere!” And perhaps I can help.
Your best bet is to pick one of the leading characters of the Discworld sequence and follow them. As you encounter some of the recurring characters your character will meet, you may be intrigued by their story, and given another route into the Discworld. In my case, I started out with Tiffany Aching, first seen in the book Wee Free Men as a nine-year-old girl and budding witch forced to go up against the evil Queen of the Faries.
The success of this series (reviewed here and here) is due both to Pratchett’s compelling portrayal of a girl maturing into a capable young woman, and also to the assistance lent by the Nac Mac Feegle — a group of hard-drinking, hard-fighting, six-inch-tall blue-skinned Scottish-accented “Pictsies” who feel great loyalty to Tiffany, who they see the new “hag o’ the hills”. Their bull-headed attitude and their accents offer much humour, especially alongside Tiffany’s practical bearing. After Wee Free Men, Tiffany journeys to Lancre to receive training as a witch from Granny Weatherwax and her colleagues in A Hat Full of Sky, and her abilities are further tested as she accidentally assumes the role of Summer in Wintersmith.
From here, however, I made an improbable jump, to the series of books featuring the anthropomorphic personification of Death and his granddaughter, Susan. Although Death makes cameo appearances in A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith, I ended up making the jump thanks to the big-budget adaptation of Pratchett’s Christmas-themed novel, The Hogfather (reviewed here). I was impressed at how this young woman handled the task of fighting back Mr. Teatime’s attack on the Hogfather; how capably she acquitted herself. I wanted to know about her, and that journey of exploration took me to the book Mort, this is followed by Soul Music, then The Hogfather and, finally, Thief of Time.
Death is one of Pratchett’s touchstone characters. He appears in many of the Discworld novels and for good reason. He is a wonderfully sympathetic character, combining the full power and foreboding of the task he manages with the humour inherent in his complete inability to understand the humans whose lives he watches over (and mimics… badly. His home is made up of bits of other homes he has seen, all put together improperly. He has a desk with drawers that don’t open, and a manservant named Albert who is really one of the most powerful wizards ever, hiding in Deaths domain in order to avoid his final passing). Death has the power of a God, but is rarely able to exercise it (he cannot alter fate). He has genuinely come to like the human race, and has defended it from attacks by powerful, supernatural creatures, but ultimately he still has to send people to the great hereafter. He takes the role of a perpetual outsider.
In Mort, Death takes on teenage farm boy named Mortimer as an apprentice, leaves the young man with his duties and goes walkabout. Of course things go badly from there. Sparks fly between Mort and Death’s adopted daughter (Ysabell, who has been sixteen for over thirty-five years, living in Death’s timeless domain — and, strangely enough, I learn that Ysabell makes her first appearance before the first book to focus on Death as the main character. She first appears in the second Discworld novel, The Light Fantastic), and pretty soon Mort acts on an all-too-human impulse and somebody ends up living who shouldn’t be living.
Of course Mort and Ysabell end up falling in love and marrying but, at the beginning of Soul Music, due to circumstances beyond Death’s control, they meet their death sixteen years later, choosing to go off a cliff rather than accept eternal existence (but not life) in Death’s domain. Clearly stricken, Death gives up the business again, and the task falls to Mort and Ysabell’s orphaned sixteen-year-old daughter Susan, who has been given an education heaped up with logic and practicality as a counterbalance to Death’s influence. Susan proves to be up to the task of maintaining Death’s duties (even though it’s odd reading her as an awkward teenager after seeing her as an adult superhero in The Hogfather), and almost saves the day against a strange living music that’s started to rock the Disc, before the task proves to great for her, leading to Death’s triumphant return.
The villains of the last two stories in this Tetralogy are the Auditors of Reality (who also appeared in Reaper Man, which takes place between Mort and Soul Music, featuring Death but not Mort, Ysabell or Susan). These supernatural upper-level management types prove themselves to be the enemies of humanity, as it is their job to catalogue the universe and the things that humans imagine do not categorize easily. They’re the ones who commission assassin Mr. Teatime to destroy the Hogfather (the Discworld’s Santa Claus stand-in) to try and eliminate that troubling aspect of human belief. In Thief of Time, they decide that time should be stopped outright, so they can finally get the filing done. In both cases, Death is forced to handle the wider aspect of the Auditors’ attack, while Susan (after being somewhat coerced into participating) rolls up her sleeves and gets to the bottom of the mystery.
Pratchett has fun on a number of fronts. Pop culture parodies abound, and he loves playing with fantasy conventions. Thief of Time, however, puts together an original and offbeat sense of time. In this story, the Auditor’s plan to stop time is opposed not only by Death but by the History Monks — an ancient order of Tibetan stand-ins founded ages ago by Wen the Eternally Surprised. In their monastery high on the mountains, the monks practise their fighting skills and also maintain a vast array of stone time-reels, which spin to maintain the consistency of history, taking minutes from periods when time flies and adding it to periods where time seems to stretch. One of the students, Lobsang Ludd, is confounding his teachers by being too intelligent; he is apprenticed to master Lu Tze, and the two set off to stop the construction (commissioned by the Auditors) of a great glass clock so precise that it can measure the tick of the universe (an action that will stop the universe in place).
Thief of Time is possibly the deepest novel of the four reviewed here, not only exploring the nature of time, but the nature of humanity, as the Auditors (who have no sense of individuality) decide to come down to the Discworld and take human form in order to see what life is about. Their struggles as they cope with such unfamiliar human concepts as leadership and disobedience is a joy to behold. Susan acquits herself well here, as she helps Lu Tze and Lobsang take on the Auditors and break the glass clock, and Pratchett sees fit to flesh out her character a little, giving her a weakness for chocolate.
Throughout the books, Susan is Death’s polar opposite. Her hyper-practicality makes her good with children, and she ends up taking on jobs as a governess (The Hogfather) and, finally, a teacher. When children complain about a monster under their bed, most parents would waste a lot of time trying to explain how such a monster couldn’t possibly exist, but Susan simply hands the children a suitable weapon. Despite this, Susan she shares Death’s character trait of being an outsider, looking in at humanity. She is far too practical to accept the silly eccentricities most humans possess, and the result makes her quite a lonely figure. The romantics among Pratchett’s readership will appreciate the tenuous romantic link that begins between her and Lobsang Ludd.
But for all the enjoyment I took from Thief of Time, I have to say that Soul Music is my favourite of the four books. In this story, featuring a dangerously mischevious spirit of music that infects a young musician named Imp Y Celyn (translated as “Bud of the Holly”) plays with and parodies the history of rock music. Pratchett has great fun here, and populates his story with some especially groan-worthy puns. Indeed, should I ever be lucky enough to meet Pratchett in person, I may have to slap him after shaking his hand for two that stopped me in my tracks: “He looks a little Elvish to me” and the story about the felonious monk. The book rocks like its subject material, as well as firmly establishing Susan and Death’s relationship, and fixing one of the more incomprehensible scenes near the climax of Mort (given that the two books were written eleven years apart, I doubt that Soul Music’s fix was planned while he was writing Mort).
These four books will take you into the heart of the Discworld, introducing you to possibly Pratchett’s most famous character, and his ideal foil. These provided great enjoyment to read, for the ideas presented, the depth of the characterization, and the humour that permeates the pages. Now that I’ve gone as far as I can on Susan’s story, I need to look elsewhere for my Pratchett fix, and there are plenty of paths to follow. There are further Death books to read, or I might make friends with Sam Vimes, commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Either way, the future promises to be bright. And funny.