The Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett

Werthead

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Discworld #1: The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Ankh-Morpork is the greatest city on the Discworld - a flat planet carried through space on the back of four elephants standing astride a giant turtle - and has seen fire, flood, famine and even the odd barbarian invasion during its long history, but even it is unprepared for the arrival of a much more devastating threat: tourism. Twoflower is the first visitor to the city from the distant Agatean Empire, and is happy wandering around taking "pictures of the sights" with a magic box and soaking up the authentic atmosphere. This behaviour in Ankh-Morpork would normally result in him having the lifespan of a mayfly confronted by a supernova, but luckily the wizard Rincewind has kindly volunteered to be his guide and protector in return for not having his extremities removed by the city's Patrician, who is anxious to avoid insulting a foreign power with an army in the millions.

Unfortunately, Twoflower's attempts to introduce the concept of fire insurance to the hardy and creative business-owners of Ankh-Morpork results in an enforced flight from the burning metropolis and the beginning of a long and very strange journey across the Disc, taking in dragons, spaceships and the fabled temple of Bel-Shamharoth along the way. All the while the only spell that has ever managed to lodge itself in Rincewind's mind is very keen to get itself said, which could be a very bad idea indeed...

There is no more disheartening notion than the one which has sadly been reality for the past six years: the Discworld series is complete. There will, never again, be a new Discworld novel (or any other) published by Terry Pratchett. This state of affairs was once unthinkable: almost annually between 1983 and 2015 - and sometimes two or even three times a year - a new Pratchett book would be released and cheerfully climb to the top of the bestseller lists, glowing in critical acclaim and adulation. It was easy to take Pratchett and his books for granted, that is until there were no more.

But whilst that state of affairs is sad, it does mean we can now sit down and consider the Discworld series as a whole, and its position in the wider fantasy and literary canons. Pratchett was a funny, human writer, a reluctant (but accomplished) worldbuilder, a canny satirist and a fierce critic of human nature. His books fairly overbrim with intelligence, vigour and, occasionally, genuine anger at the state of the world. Discworld was the mirror he used to shine a light on real-world concerns, sometimes just to gently poke fun at them and sometimes to eviscerate them with savage, forensic analysis. If he occasionally faltered - there's a few (and only a few) books he wrote mid-series which sometimes felt a bit too reminiscent of earlier books - it was only briefly and usually still entertainingly.

A lot of that came later, though. The first book in the series, The Colour of Magic (1983), was conceived as a one-off, an attempt by Pratchett to improve his writing career that was, if not in danger, than certainly faltering. His debut novel, The Carpet People (1971), had been a successful children's book but Pratchett had been reluctant to get typecast as a kids' writer. His next two novels, The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981), had been adult-aimed science fiction, with a more serious edge. They'd been greeted with near-total bafflement and faded into obscurity almost instantly. Despite that, Pratchett had been tickled by the idea in Strata of a flat planet and, having failed to make the subject sing in SF, reworked it into a satire of fantasy tropes. This proved much more successful and The Colour of Magic became a near-instant, surprise hit.

The Colour of Magic exists in a bit of an odd state when viewed from 2021. As a satire of fantasy, it works. It's funny and breezy and succeeds because it has a serious edge to it as well. Pratchett is smart enough to know that it's much better to satirise something you love, and that a lot of comedy that despises what it's poking fun at just ends up being obvious and mean-spirited. Pratchett was a deep-seated, genuine fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, Jack Vance, Anne McCaffrey, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft and the book overflows with affectionate pastiches of those authors (well, apart from Tolkien, which Pratchett thought was too obvious). So Rincewind and Twoflower meet barely-concealed analogues of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, with Ankh-Morpork here feeling like Lankhmar with the serial numbers filed off, before teaming up with Conan the Barbarian Mk. II and getting into trouble with Budget Cthulhu and an entire civilisation of Dragonriders of Pern-wannabes. A few Zelazny-isms get trotted out, with Ankh-Morpork being apparently the ur-fantasy city, the one all other fantasy cities are but shadows of, like Amber if Amber had a massive homelessness and civic disorder problem. Pratchett's erudite wordplay also recalls Vance's Dying Earth, although even Pratchett struggles to match the sheer vocabularic firepower of on-form Vance.

Taken on its own merits, this is all entertaining, if risking being dated horribly: the authors who were the touchstones of any self-respecting fantasy collection in 1983 certainly are not in 2021. Fortunately, Pratchett uses the satirical strokes of the setting to propel his own narrative and his own characters. Rincewind, a wizard who can't use proper magic due to a powerful uber-spell sitting in his brain, scaring off all other comers, works as the Only Sane Man protagonist who frequently responds to any given situation exactly how most people would (i.e. running like hell) and only finds himself motivated to apparently heroic action through the threat of an even worse punishment or by coincidence.

Rincewind isn't quite at the Harry Flashman/Ciaphas Cain level of "selfish coward whom things work out for anyway," but he's at least nodding in that direction. Twoflower is also an engaging character, his early appearance as a hapless buffoon quickly replaced by his characterisation as an intelligent observer of events unfolding around him, which he sometimes feel doesn't apply to him as a tourist (despite no-one else knowing what a tourist is).

Of course, The Colour of Magic also has to be contrasted against the later Discworld novels. In that light, the novel may be considered an absolute primal example of Early Instalment Weirdness, with a lot of things that clash with later books. Pratchett's writing style is much less polished here, his sense of humour a bit broader and more obvious than normal, and character development is less-assured. Both the Patrician and Death are characterised much more differently to their later appearances (with Death's motivations and character being heavily retconned just three books later, in Mort), to the point that some fans have pondered if it's actually a different Patrician here. The book is solid, but also a bit disposable. Readers approaching the novel from the knowledge it has forty successor books which have cumulatively sold a hundred million copies and is one of most critically-acclaimed fantasy series of all time, may feel a bit baffled at the slightness of this work.

The book is also oddly-structured, in being four self-contained, episodic narratives that have been combined to form a novel-length work, like a fixup novel. I'm not sure why - Pratchett never seems to have considered individually publishing the four episodes as short stories in magazines - but it both gives the novel a feeling of pace but also of being rushed, with each of the sections of a very short novel (which is barely 280 pages long in paperback as it is) roaring along at manic speed before transitioning to the next episode.

If you want to find out why Pratchett is one of the 20th Century's best-selling British authors and most popular fantasy authors of all time, The Colour of Magic (***½) may disappoint or leave you a bit puzzled. This is embryonic Discworld, slotting pieces to place to serve as the foundations for later greatness. But as a stand-alone, affectionate satire of fantasy, and not just the usual suspects, it remains quite entertaining. The story continues (for the only time in the series) directly into the sequel, The Light Fantastic.
 

Werthead

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Discworld #2: The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

For reasons that are not immediately clear, Great A'Tuin the World Turtle (sex unknown) has decided to put itself on a collision course with a red giant star. Which is inconvenient and vexing for the inhabitants of the Discworld, the flat planet it carries on its back (via the intermediary form of four giant elephants, but that's not important right now). The wizards of Unseen University meet and conclude that catastrophe can be averted if the Eight Great Spells of the Octavo are united and spoken, which is complicated because one of the spells has lodged itself in the head of the charitably-designated wizard Rincewind, who has lately been seen plummeting over the edge of the Disc towards certain death.

Controversially and in defiance of spoiler norms, it's perhaps not too outrageous to reveal that Rincewind and his companions do in fact manage to avert their certain deaths and find themselves back on the road again, this time pursued by various special-interest groups who want to extract the spell from Rincewind's brain by whatever means possible.

The Light Fantastic is the second novel in the Discworld sequence and is the only book in the series to act as a continuation of the prior book. The Colour of Magic's storyline continues directly into this volume, creating an odd mismatch in tone, as The Colour of Magic is very much an atypical Discworld book whilst The Light Fantastic is starting to slowly transition the series into a more familiar format. There's only one narrative here, not the four novellas combined into one story structure form the first book, and Pratchett's voice and humour is already settling into a more familiar mode. There's much less riffing on prior fantasy tropes (a second Conan the Barbarian parody and a very brief shout-out to Tolkien aside) with fairy tales instead getting more of a satirical once-over here. Pratchett also abandoned the chapter structure at this point, which earned him much ire at the time from critics but also from fans, whose "just one more chapter" plans not to stay up all night reading were disrupted by there not being another chapter and invariably staying up to read the entire novel.

For the first time, though, we do get a subplot, with the action occasionally cutting away to the wizards of Unseen University and their various attempts to solve the crisis. The wizards are able to employ their vast resources to help, but these are invariably are proven useless by the actual protagonist, but nevertheless provides much comedy along the way. The effect here is slightly dimmed by none of the familiar wizard characters from later volumes appearing, with the exception of the Librarian, one of the series' most iconic and fan-favourite characters. We even get the Librarian's origin story here (orang-igin story?), albeit in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it manner.

There's also, intriguingly, plot-laying for later books, with a visit to Death's home introducing his adopted daughter Ysabel (foreshadowing the events of Mort) and the other Horsemen of the Apocralypse, who will become more important in Sourcery.

Early Discworld had a tendency for Pratchett to fall back on "nasty things from the Dungeon Dimensions threatening to break through the walls of reality and kill everyone in inventive ways with tentacles" as the default threat, even though it's not very interesting, and that issue is present here, as is the occasional loss of focus as Pratchett (who famously did not outline his books, at least not to start with) tries to organically steer the narrative towards a conclusion. However, the book does benefit from being one continuous story and Pratchett is more interested in characterisation here, with Rincewind and Twoflower both growing and changing as a result of their experiences after being painted fairly broadly in the first novel.

The Light Fantastic (***½) sees the author still finding his feet and confidence, but still crafting a funny and enjoyable novel, with hints of the greatness to come starting to appear.
 

Werthead

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Discworld #3: Equal Rites

The Unseen University, the centre of magical learning on the Discworld, a building whose endless rooftops make Gormenghast look like a toolshed on a railway allotment and whose faculty are the guardians of magic for the whole world. Of course, wizards are renowned for being incredibly intelligent but not very smart, and when Drum Billet realises his time is almost up he decides to pass on his staff to the eighth son of a poor blacksmith, himself an eighth son, and thus a potential great wizard. Unfortunately, he neglects to check the baby's gender first...

After two unexpectedly bestselling novels, Terry Pratchett changed gears in his writing career. He quit his day job as a press officer for a nuclear power station and became a full-time writer, churning out two volumes a year for more than a decade. He also adjusted his vision of what the Discworld series could be. No more a series of satires of fantasy or fairy tale tropes, he decided that he could take any subject and make a Discworld novel about it.

Equal Rites is the first novel to employ this approach. No previous characters from the first two books turn up (with one orange-furred and banana-stained exception), and there isn't even any mention of those events. Instead we have new characters having new adventures. Pratchett also starts to use his creation to address real-world concerns here, in this case, well, equal rights for those of a nonmale persuasion. The humour remains fairly broad, but you can almost sense the author thinking at this point that maybe the funny planet with the turtle and elephants can be used for something more interesting than just poking fun at Lovecraft and Conan the Barbarian, amusing as that may be. Unfortunately, this idea falters a bit since Esk's story is meant to make Unseen University a co-ed establishment, bringing in female wizards and making it more equal. As later books show, none of this happens, Esk doesn't show up again until more than thirty books down the line and UU remains a male-only establishment in the later novels. Given how well Pratchett develops his world, this lack of evolution is mildly disappointing.

That's more a problem with the later books than this one, though. As with several other early Discworld books, there is something of a lack of focus here. The book starts off as a travelogue, with Granny Weatherwax and Esk travelling to Ankh-Morpork from the tiny Ramtops village of Bad Ass (later retconned into the Kingdom of Lancre, the setting for many later books), though the limited page count (Equal Rites barely cracks 200 pages in paperback) and the need for a Big Finale in Ankh-Morpork curtails this element just as it's getting interesting and we quickly (via a jump-started, second-hand broomstick) move to the city and the ending which - and stop me if you've (already) heard this one before - involves the threat of Unspeakable Things from the Dungeon Dimensions erupting through the skein of reality to destroy the universe. Again.

In terms of character, it's hard to argue with the book: Esk is a well-defined protagonist and Granny Weatherwax, of course, is one of Pratchett's signature characters, a formidable and solid figure whose common sense sometimes feels a bit adrift in a world as off-kilter as this one (Pratchett uses the Only Sane Person idea a lot in the series, but none are saner than Granny Weatherwax). This is still very much a proto-Granny, not the much more complex and sophisticated character of the later novels, but it's fun to revisit the somewhat simpler village witch and see her evolution and growth into a stronger and more interesting figure. Among Discworld characters, only arguably Sam Vimes of the City Watch can match this kind of evolution. We also get our first sympathetic Archchancellor of Unseen University, Cutangle, and it's rather a shame he doesn't show up again (though given the events of Sourcery, that might be for the best, for him at any rate).

Equal Rites (***½) is important as the first Discworld novel where Pratchett changes gears and realises he can tell self-contained stories about this world not involving Rincewind and Twoflower, and use the Discworld as a reflection for real-world concerns as well as simply being funny. It's still Early Pratchett, with a bit of a reliance on standby ideas, but you can see the growing ambition and craft on display here.
 

Werthead

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Discworld #4: Mort

Death comes to us all. When he came to Mort, he offered him a job. Mort is taken aback to find himself a trainee Grim Reaper, and puzzled because Death does not seem likely to retire or, well, visit himself. But, it turns out, after several million years on the job, Death would like a night or two off to let his non-existent hair down. What could go wrong? Well, as it turns out...

A reviewer more fully embracing of cliche would, at this juncture, feel inspired to say "This is where the fun begins," or look moodily into the middle distance against swelling orchestral music whilst declaiming, "S--t just got real." Mort, the fourth Discworld book, is generally accepted as the book where Pratchett finally nailed it. For many years it was the most-recommended entry point to the series, whilst it's also (by far) the easiest of the books to put on as a stage play. In 2003 it was voted as the best book in the series by the UK's "Big Read" survey. It's also been optioned for film several times, although Pratchett was always dubious of the idea after the first Hollywood producer he met told him how much he loved the book, but perhaps they could find some way of removing Death from the story?

Mort is radically different in tone and feel from the first three books in the series (or the next few, for that matter). It's a hugely concentrated story with only a few major characters: Mort himself, Death, Death's adopted daughter Ysabell (expanding on her brief appearance from The Light Fantastic), Death's manservant Albert, and a small number of characters in the kingdom of Sto Lat, including Princess Keli and the wizard Cutwell. The plot is straightforward: Death hires an apprentice, but doesn't quite take into account that a mortal human's view of the process of ushering souls into the next life isn't going to be as philosophical as a millions-of-years-old, non-human anthropological manifestation and Mort, unsurprisingly, makes a Bad Decision and spends the rest of the book trying to fix or avert it before Death can find out.

The result is a book that is very funny - we learn that Death is a huge fan of cats and curry (not together, fortunately) and has a kind of wistful curiosity about mortal life - but also surprisingly melancholy. It's a book that's about, well, death, which means it's also about life and the transitory nature of it. Pratchett does gentle, melancholic and intelligent humour very well but it seems to be something that almost every single adaptation misses out on, instead focusing on the zany out-there fantasy shenanigans (and admittedly Pratchett can do that really well as well, but it's not his focus). On a first read Mort works well as a reflective, funny novel but it gains additional kudos if you've read Soul Music and Hogfather and know more about the fates of some of the characters in this book.

The book is lean and focused, and also has a really satisfying, poetic ending. Pratchett's endings so far have leaned towards widescreen spectacle because that's what's expected in a fantasy novel - the plucky heroes making a one-in-a-million gamble to try to avert gibbering horrors breaking through the walls of reality - but you get the sense his heart was never really in it. In Mort he goes for a much more personal, character-based ending that's much more appropriate. Oh, there is still a supernatural swordfight of course. Some things are expected.

If there are negatives, they are fairly limited. This is still Early Pratchett, without quite the best-in-class wordplay and more incisive humour and characterisation of later books, but he's definitely getting there at a rate of knots.

Mort (****½) is Pratchett stretching his creative muscles, trying a different tack and finding a mode of storytelling that's exceptionally fine.
 

Werthead

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Discworld #5: Sourcery

There was an eighth son of an eighth son who became, as is right and proper, a wizard. But, in defiance of tradition, he also had seven sons. And then another one: a source of magic, a sourcerer. The Discworld hasn't seen a sourcerer in thousands of years, since the Mage Wars almost destroyed the world. Soon enough, the re-energised wizards of the Disc are engaged in all-out warfare and the Apocralypse - the teatime of the gods, the return of the frost giants and so forth - draws nigh, provided the Four Horsemen can get out of the pub in time. It falls to a wizard who can't do magic, a might barbarian warrior with three days' experience, a timeshare genie and a homicidal hairdresser to save the day.

Sourcery, the fifth Discworld novel, feels like Terry Pratchett engaging in a reaction against his previous novel, Mort. Mort was a narrow-field, focused and character-based tragicomedy, and easily the best Discworld book out of the initial quartet. It seems like Pratchett may have reacted a little bit against that and turned the subsequent novel into a widescreen epic, arguably the most epic Discworld has ever gotten, with various groups of mages fighting magical wars spanning continents and prophesised destinies being fulfilled.

There's a certain guilty pleasure to this. Pratchett is reasonably entertaining at large-stakes action, especially when it's delivered alongside a broad sense of humour. I suspect in the heart of many authors there's a yearning desire to break out vast magical towers that explode and mighty-thewed barbarian warriors smiting legion of disposable extras with a broadsword so huge it had to be forged with a gantry, and Pratchett does that with aplomb. The sly wit and intelligence of Mort has been sidelined here in favour of much more obvious jokes about barbarians and Grand Viziers twirling moustaches villainously (the sequences in Al-Khali - fortunately only briefly - flirt with Carry On movie levels of stereotyping).

The book adds surprisingly little to the greater Discworld mythos, which is weird given how massive and world-girdling the events are. A line at the end of the book that the memory of these events has been magically removed from the world feels a bit too cheesy; given the dangers the wizards unleash here, it's implausible they wouldn't be chased from civilised society (well, society at any rate), which is why I guess Pratchett decided to jump through some hoops to reset things to a status quo later on. The only lasting impacts are the fate of Rincewind - which sets up the novel Eric - and a larger starring role for the Librarian. We also get a bit more information on the Patrician and his pet dog, Wuffles, who recur later on, even though the Patrician is still a long way off from the peak of his characterisation.

Sourcery (***) is arguably the weakest of the first five Discworld books. It's Pratchett at arguably his broadest and least intellectually vigorous, going for surprisingly cheap laughs. There are some better gags (the One Horsemen and the Three Pedestrians of the Apocralypse) and Rincewind, never the deepest of Discworld characters, get some decent development here, but overall it's a fairly disposable book and not a patch on the novels on either side of it.
 

Danny McG

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Are these updates from your 2009 postings?
Will you be including the Tiffany Aching series?
 

Werthead

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Discworld #6: Wyrd Sisters

The King of Lancre has died of natural causes. As everyone knows, it is very normal and even traditional for a king to die naturally from a stab wound to the back followed by a swift plummet down a steep staircase. As is also traditional, the king's heir and his crown have mysteriously disappeared and it's no doubt only a matter of time before he grows up and returns to reclaim his birthright etc etc. Some things are Traditional. Unfortunately, the new king and his scheming wife aren't hot followers of Tradition and as a reign of terror falls on Lancre, it falls to three local witches, a psychotic cat and a Fool to take a hand in events...

Six books into his Discworld series, Terry Pratchett decided to take on Bill Shakespeare. Wyrd Sisters mashes together the plot of MacBeth with influence from Hamlet and a subplot about making plays (including a Shakespeare-ish analogue character). It's also the first time that Pratchett seems to have consciously built up an entire community of characters in a book, with a view to revisiting them later on.

Our leading protagonist is Granny Weatherwax, who previously appeared (in a simpler form) in Equal Rites. This time around she's one of a coven of three witches, alongside the matriarchal Nanny Ogg and the young and (misleadingly) wet-behind-the-ears Magrat Garlick. Effectively having three leads is a new idea for Pratchett and allows him to spread the story out a bit more, even if Granny does come across as the effective leader of the group. Pratchett's characterisation is splendid as always, with the realisation of Magrat's anger issues at being constantly underestimated making for fun scenes and Nanny Ogg highly contradictory character tics being oddly compelling: she's a kind-hearted and funny person who inexplicably likes making life miserable for her extended relations and harbours a strong relationship with a cat she thinks is a fluffy kitten rather than a homicidal threat to the peace.

The wider community of Lancre is also established, with its vertiginous geography, literally-minded inhabitants (at least 25% of whom seem to be related by blood or terrifying marriage into Nanny Ogg's clan) and local colour, becoming, after Ankh-Morpork, clearly Pratchett's favourite place to write about on the Disc.

Those with a working knowledge of epic fantasy tropes, Shakespeare in general and MacBeth in particular can likely see where the story is going, which is something that Pratchett anticipates and has fun with, especially how he overcomes the issue of the witches not wanting to wait fifteen years for the Hidden Heir™ to make his unexpected reappearance, resulting in arguably the most impressive display of magic in the entire series (we'll perhaps ignore the apparent issues this causes with the timeline, as Pratchett subsequently does).

There is a lot of great comedy here as Pratchett riffs off various ideas and tropes (not to mention some nods to the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin), but there's also splendid use of a real-world theme, in this case propaganda. Words have power of their own, and can be a greater force than armies, and the deployment of the idea is intelligent and well-handled, and also done with relative subtlety, tying into the main storyline's use of a theatre troupe and their ability to create stories that are more memorable than real history.

Wyrd Sisters (****½) sees Pratchett evolving the Discworld setting even further away from the simple fantasy parody it started out as and into much more interesting territory, with a corresponding deepening and complicating of the worldbuilding and characters, whilst remaining funny.
 

Werthead

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Discworld #7: Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Prince Teppic is the heir to the desert kingdom of Djelibeybi*. His father, a non-traditional man with odd ideas, decides to send him to get the best education possible outside of the Old Kingdom, by sending him to join the Ankh-Morpork Assassins' Guild. Seven years later, Teppic is summoned home by sad news and sets about building the greatest pyramid ever seen on the Disc. This proves to be a Very Bad Idea.

Pyramids is one of those rare books in the Discworld series, being a total stand-alone. Its characters and events do not recur elsewhere in the series (brief cameos by Death and the Librarian excepted) and its events are barely referred to elsewhere. It's a viable jumping-on point for new readers, although in terms of quality it's not among the best books in the series, though certainly not among the weakest either. It's a middling Discworld book which, fortunately, means it's pretty good.

The book is primarily concerned about ossification, ritual and conservatism, how slavishly following ideas because they're old and "have always worked" is not good enough and can lead to long-lasting harm. It's also Pratchett's first tilt at religious fundamentalism, and how people in power use and abuse religious faith to further their own ends, although here he takes the idea to extremes by having the fundamentalist being so unflinching in his belief that he's become incorruptible by dint of every idea outside of his very narrow worldview simply bouncing off him. Pratchett would address these ideas again later on in Small Gods.

Pyramids risks being a lazy comedic novel using stereotypes (the times Pratchett does this, with "fantasy China" in Interesting Times and "fantasy Australia" in The Last Continent, are among the Discworld series' weaker efforts) and the presence of gags about pyramids, mummies and the Sphinx do occasionally teeter on the edge of Carry On territory, but Pratchett does back off and instead uses the setting as a framing device for more interesting ideas about religion and science. The result is probably the best fantasy novel inspired by Egypt outside of N.K. Jemisin's more original Dreamblood duology.

The novel also has an interesting structure which seems to be inspired by the original Star Wars movie. Although Teppic is somewhat more worldly wise, he does have a Luke Skywalker vibe going on, whilst his much more charismatic friend Chidder has a Han Solo thing . Chidder even owns an unconventional freighter which is actually a faster-than-expected smuggling ship (the Unnamed), and both have tension with the beautiful Ptraci, who turns out to have a secret identity you're already probably well ahead of the curve on. Oh, and there's even a hairy sidekick who can't talk English but is vastly more intelligent than anyone expects. Once this was pointed out to me I couldn't ignore it.

Finally, the novel riffs on the state of hard science fiction in the late 1980s. Back then there was a seismic shift going on as the SF genre stopped focusing so much on spaceships and adventure stories in favour of long, complicated novels and series about cutting-edge ideas. SF authors were scrambling to stay current ideas being theorised by the likes of Stephen Hawking - A Brief History of Time came out whilst Pratchett was writing Pyramids - even if they didn't fully understand them, leading to lot of novels about knotty time travel or black holes where the word "quantum" is subjected to a lot of questionable abuse. Pratchett has great fun riffing on this tendency, whilst also employing it himself, with the novel featuring some clever ideas on time running at different speeds and time warps stripping people of some of their dimensions.

There's a lot going on in Pyramids (****) - it was the longest Discworld book to this point, though still not cracking 400 pages - and sometimes it feels a bit crammed with ideas that it doesn't have time to fully explore, which is why some overspill into later novels (Small Gods addresses some of the same themes more elegantly). It's a funny book but also a smart one with some really cool ideas about time, space and advanced camel mathematics.

* Pratchett was reportedly disappointed that Americans didn't get this joke, so created the nearby kingdom of Hersheba just for them.
 

Werthead

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Discworld #8: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Captain Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is not a happy man. He has a thankless job, a bunch of incompetent subordinates and he doesn't get no respect or, more accurately, actually gets no respect. The arrival of a fresh, eager-eyed new recruit (a six-foot-tall dwarf named Carrot - long story) whose relaxed and literal approach to policing (such arresting the head of the Thieves' Guild for being a thief) is another headache for Vimes to deal with. At the same time, the Unseen University Librarian is upset over the theft of a book that could be used to summon dragons and, in an almost certainly unrelated incident, people over the city are vanishing, leaving behind only fine traces of ash and scorched brickwork. Yes, things are definitely afoot...

Guards! Guards! is Terry Pratchett's tribute to detective novels and all those hapless extras dressed in chainmail who's only job in films is to run into the grand hall and get cut down by the hero. No-one ever seems to ask them if they want to. The Ankh-Morpork City Watch is arguably the most popular and enduring of all of Pratchett's creations and this first book about them is one of the very best Discworld books, a solid combination of Pratchett's gifts for plot, satire, pacing, character and engaging in weightier themes of love, life, death and, er, municipal governance.

This unrepentantly eighth book in the Discworld series introduces some of its most popular characters: Captain Vimes of the Night Watch, a drunkard with a tiny sliver of civic responsibility that's just waiting to be reborn; his deputies Sergeant Colon (one of the most sergeanty sergeants ever committed to the page) and Constable "Nobby" Nobbs (a specimen who may be human only by dint of all other species refusing to acknowledge him); and their cheerful new recruit Carrot, a man raised by dwarfs and who is at all times surrounded by an impenetrable air of naivete which is more effective than full plate mail. There's also Lady Sybil Ramkin, who feels like a prototype for half the cast of Downton Abbey combined into one human being, and also the debut of the immortal Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, fast food seller and related purveyor of gastro-intestinal distress to the masses. Established characters also return: Lord Vetinari, the Patrician, a man so deviously cunning he could have Machiavelli for breakfast and Littlefinger for lunch before polishing off all of the Borgias for dinner, and of course the Librarian, who by contrast would settle for a nice banana.

Also returning, with an increased starring role, is Ankh-Morpork itself. In the great lexicon of fictional cities, Ankh-Morpork ranks right at the very top for its sheer believability as a metropolis for fantasy hijinks. For its first few appearances, the city was just a backdrop but in Guards! Guards! it is the star, Pratchett selling the grubby city through the unabashed and wholly irrational love that Captain Vimes has for it (whilst acknowledging it's million faults, oddly the same number as its population). What was once a self-acknowledged Lanhkmar tribute act is now a very effective solo artist in its own right, and will only get better from hereon out.

Pratchett's writing takes another significant upward swing with this volume, exuding a greater level of confidence than ever before. He's funny when he wants to be, dramatic when he needs to be, even touching when it is required. The story threads are laid out, developed and then resolved with impressive efficiency and maximum comedic impact. The way the last few paragraphs hilariously resolve very minor story points from a hundred pages previously is very clever.

Guards! Guards! (*****) is not the best Discworld book, but it's certainly not far off. Funny, dramatic and just brilliantly entertaining from start to finish.
 

Werthead

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Discworld #9: Eric by Terry Pratchett

Eric is a young demonology hacker who has discovered the spell he needs to summon a demon to fulfil his worldly desires. Unfortunately, due to a bit of a cock-up on the reality front, he summons the ostensible wizard Rincewind (who was banished to hell during the events of Sourcery). The always-reluctant Rincewind finds himself accompanying Eric on a prolonged road trip through time and space as he attempts to get back home.

Eric is a bit of an oddball Discworld novel, even by the series' elastic standards of tone, character and format. It's the shortest Discworld book of them all (barely cracking 150 pages) and feels almost bemusingly lightweight. After the previous several Discworld books featured much-improved and deeper characterisation and exploration of ideas, Eric is a bit of a throwback to the first couple of books by being more of a knockabout, travelogue adventure.

The explanation is that Eric isn't really a mainline Discworld novel, instead starting life as an illustrated side-project. The success of the Discworld novels in the UK was at least partially attributed to Josh Kirby's eye-catching cover art, which made up for in enthusiasm what it lacked in accuracy (such as Twoflower being depicted with literally four eyes rather than wearing glasses). Eric was conceived as a vehicle for Kirby's illustrations. However, the original, illustrated version of Eric fell out of print for many years, and it's the illustration-less version of the novel which has been most commonly encountered by readers. Fortunately, a new edition of the illustrated version of the book was issued a few years ago and is still commonly available.

Eric is a lightweight and disposable tale, though Discworld fans will enjoy it resolving Rincewind's cliffhanger fate from Sourcery and the mild worldbuilding work it does with setting up new locations (the Tezuman Empire). But there is a slight feeling of redundancy here. The Luggage rushes around and eats more people, the wizards of Unseen University fret futilely, Rincewind runs away from trouble, and the Tsortean-Ephebian War and its multiple not-Trojan horses which formed part of the subplot of Pyramids is here revisited without much effect. Eric feels distinctly half-assed in the writing stakes for a fair bit of its length.

Kirby's artwork is colourful and fun, and helps flesh out the relative sparseness of the narrative. Kirby's artwork is something of an acquired taste, though, much more stylised than it is accurate, and the continued rendition of Rincewind as an decrepit old man despite The Light Fantastic suggested he was only 32 years old (at the time of that book) remains odd. But it certainly makes the book work better than the unillustrated edition.

Eric (***) is a brief, mildly diverting tale which is a more successful showcase for the late Josh Kirby's artwork than it is for Pratchett's full writing powers.
 

Werthead

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Discworld #10: Moving Pictures

The Guild of Alchemists have created a new form of entertainment: moving pictures! Soon, Ankh-Morpork, perennial city of fads, is gripped by the phenomenon and everyone wants to break into the business. Semi-rejected wizard Victor Tugelbend and Theda Withel - who comes from a small town you've probably never heard of - are surprised when they become the biggest stars in Holy Wood. They are more surprised when it turns out that the magic of the movies is causing the threads of reality to break down and endanger the future of the Discworld. But that's showbusiness for you.

If there's ever such as a thing as an archetypal Discworld novel, Moving Pictures is probably it. Pratchett finds a facet of our everyday life that he finds interesting and transplants it to the Discworld, where he subjects it to all kinds of satirical analysis and character explorations, having a huge amount of fun in the process. He'll later do the same thing to rock music (Soul Music), the theatre (Maskerade), Christmas (Hogfather), war (Jingo), the press (The Truth), the post office (Going Postal), banking (Making Money) and football (Unseen Academicals), among many other examples.

It's a solid format and one that results in a much greater variety of stories than you might expect, although there is the sense that Pratchett didn't have much more of an idea here beyond "Discworld movies" before starting writing, as the plot only loosely comes together. It's certainly not as tightly-plotted and constructed a novel as Mort or Guards! Guards! That doesn't stop it being entertaining. It helps that Pratchett avoids contemporary movie references (the novel came out in 1990) in favour of more classic and long-lived ones. A series of King Kong gags are fortunately still relevant thanks to more Kong movies being made, although the Keystone Kops and Laurel and Hardy references might go over younger readers' heads. One joke feels stunning prescient - a troll actor calling himself "Rock" and there being widespread mirth at the idea of an actor with such a name - until you realise that Pratchett is referencing Rock Hudson rather than Dwayne Johnson, but amusingly that joke still works for the next generation. It also helps that some of the things Pratchett was mocking - advertising, product placement and crass commercialisation - have become if anything even more dominant forces in modern films.

The book features some more world and character-building. The tendency of Unseen University Archchancellors to have a briefer lifespan than terminally depressed lemmings living next to the Grand Canyon comes to a merciful end with the arrival of Mustrum Ridcully, whose cheer and straightforward approach to all problems sends shockwaves through the establishment (most of them landing on the head of the Bursar, still semi-sane at this point, although his decline into terminal bewilderment arguably begins when Ridcully nearly shoots him in the face with a crossbow). Unseen University also gets most of its regular cast going forwards: the Dean, the Lecturer in Recent Runes, student genius Ponder Stibbons and the ancient Windle Poons. We also meet Gaspode the Wonder Dog, and more character development for characters introduced in Guards! Guards!, such as Detritus the troll and Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, who gets his biggest starring role of the series.

The book's biggest problem is pacing. Pratchett is usually very good with this, packing a lot into a modest 300-400 pages and then clearing out when the story is done, but Moving Pictures feels a bit sluggish, probably a result of the author knowing where he's starting and finishing, but a bit vague about making it join up in the middle. The book also arguably has a few too many endings, with several big climaxes in a row rather than one bigger, more elegant ending. Also, the fact that Victor and Theda become the biggest stars on the Disc only to go completely unmentioned in later books is odd, although possibly also a commentary on how the biggest actors can completely vanish from view after a few years in the doldrums.

Moving Pictures (***½) is a fine, readable but distinctly second-tier Discworld novel which has a ton of great ideas which don't entirely cohere into strong whole. But, as usual, Pratchett delivers enough laughs, intelligent observations and quotable lines to make the book worthwhile.
 

robertheerlein

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Considering the number of Discworld novels, this could prove to be a very long list indeed. Not that each and every one of them doesn't deserve recognition. I have always loved Terry Pratchett, the Discworld series has brought hours of fun and adventure. Now that you bring up some of them, I feel the need to revisit and reread them all. I highly recommend them to anyone looking for something good and light-hearted to read.
 

robertheerlein

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I wonder if you've seen any of the movies that were made. I watched all of them, I think maybe 3 or 4, and loved them all.
 

Werthead

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There have been six adaptations so far: Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music are animated; The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Hogfather and Going Postal are live-action TV movies.
 

CupofJoe

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I have seen a few of the TV adaptations [but not all] and thought them so slow and without any of the whimsy and lightness, I have found in Sir TP's writing.
I thought Soul Music was the best but it has been years since I have seen it.
The BBC Radio version of The Night Watch I thought was great... But there again the pictures are always better on the radio...
 

Rodders

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I haven't yet seen any of the Discworld adaptations yet. Some of them look pretty decent so I'll do a quick search tonight.
 

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Discworld #11: Reaper Man

Windle Poons, the oldest wizard in Ankh-Morpork, has died at the grand old age of 130. To his bemusement, Death does not show up to collect him and he is forced to return to life as a zombie. Across the Discworld, people are dying, only to find that they're not moving on. On a remote farm, a new worker shows up to start cutting the corn. Fortunately, he's a dab hand with the old scythe...

Terry Pratchett was something of a "gardener" when it came to writing. He started books with an idea and maybe a character and just kept writing until he bumped into something approximating a plot, often working backwards in edits to stitch the whole thing together cohesively. By the time he got to Reaper Man, the eleventh book in the Discworld series, he had this structure down pat and could write an entertaining yarn with his eyes closed. For whatever reason, Reaper Man doesn't quite work as a cohesive novel in the same way as most of the rest.

In this case it seems that Pratchett had two separate ideas competing for attention, neither strong enough to propel an entire book, and decided to fuse them together. In the first storyline, something of a sequel to the earlier Mort, Death's growing affection for the lifeforms he has to cull has caused some controversy among the Auditors of Reality and Death is fired. He's given some time to put his affairs in order, but rather than do this he decides to live as a human for the last few days of his existence, taking up the role of Bill Door, handyman for hire, and going to work on a remote farm for Ms. Flitworth. This story is entertaining, well-characterised and even somewhat moving.

In the second storyline, strange artifacts are appearing all over Ankh-Morpork (nominally caused by the growing lifeforce left behind by people who can't move on from this plane of reality, though this connection feels strained), initially snowglobes and then shopping trolleys, culminating in the horrific appearance of the out-of-town shopping mall, a parasitical commercial tic which drains the life from the urban host. This isn't a bad idea, per se, and ties in with Pratchett's preferred scheme of finding a facet of human existence - movies, cops, opera, the press - and transferring it to Discworld to be poked around satirically. However, you can't quite shake the feeling that Pratchett's idea here is not fully-formed and may have been driven by an unpleasant parking experience at a shopping centre rather than a much stronger idea.

The result is arguably the most schizophrenic Discworld novel of them all, on one hand the splendid and enjoyable story of Death trying his hand at life, and on the other, the much more vague idea of the Unseen University wizarding faculty and an undead self-help group joining forces to taken down an, er, evil retail park.

Fortunately, the vagueness of the Ankh-Morpork storyline doesn't stop it from having some very funny lines and characters. The undead self-help group is great fun, populated by a traditional, Pratchettian cast of deranged-but-likeable characters, and the book delves deeper into the Unseen University faculty after their previous major appearance just one book earlier. The fact that the entire faculty survived that book into this one may cause hardened Discworld readers to pass out (the Archchancellor is the same one from the last book, which has never happened before) and enjoy the growth the characters show, or, in the case of the Bursar, the distinct decline in sanity. Unfortunately, the UU cast do have a tendency to reduce Pratchett to the most slapstick style of comedy, a style which he is not accomplished at, and later scenes of the wizards running around, being whisked off by self-steering shopping trolleys etc do become tiresome.

Still, Pratchett on an off day is still entertaining. Reaper Man (***) has some good laughs - Death trying to help out a cockerel with dyslexia, Poons mentoring a shy bogeyman - and the Death part of the novel is excellent. The rest just feels like it could have done with a few more rewrites.
 

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Discworld #12: Witches Abroad

A fairy godmother with an important mission has passed on, leaving her wand and quest in the hands of the well-meaning but inexperienced Magrat Garlick. Magrat teams up with Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax to travel to the distant city of Genua to stop a fairy tale coming true, which seems a bit off until the witches meet the other fairy godmother and learn that "happy ever after" can be a curse as well as a blessing.

Witches Abroad is the twelfth Discworld novel and the second to focus on the coven of Lancre witches (also the third to feature Granny Weatherwax). With their native village of Lancre recovering from the events of Wyrd Sisters, Pratchett decides to send the witches off on a jobbing holiday. This results in a book of two halves: the first, where they travel across the Disc to Genua, and the second where they confront the "bad guy" in Genua itself. The first half is a splendid romp as the witches visit castles, villages and dwarf mines and meet wolves and vampires. Pratchett can be good at travelogues and this is one of his better ones, and the trail of inadvertent chaos two "little old ladies and a wet hen" leave across the continent is most amusing.

Events in Genua take a cleverer turn, where the witches encounter a mash-up of Baba Yaga, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella in the Disc's version of New Orleans, complete with voodoo magic, zombies, alligators and some amazingly good food. It sounds odd but it works surprisingly well, and breaking the story in two in an already-short novel (under 300 pages) means the story cracks on with impressive pace. There's balls and glass slippers and lots of gumbo as the pages fly by.

The book features some of Pratchett's better one-novel-only characters, like Mrs. Gogol, Baron Saturday and Lily, as well as the formidable Legba. We also get a larger focus on Nanny Ogg than in the previous witches novel, and a much larger role (so to speak) for Greebo, Nanny's debauchedly murderous cat. Also look out for the debut of Casanunda, master swordsman and the world's greatest stepladder-assisted lover and/or liar.

Witches Abroad (****) is a free-wheeling book that mashes together influences from wildly different sources and creates a highly entertaining novel out of the results.
 

Werthead

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Discworld #13: Small Gods

Brother Brutha of the Church is a devout believer in the Great God Om, in whose name the Omnian Empire has scythed a bloody path of conquest across the continent. The only problem is that he is the only devout believer left of the Great God Om, which Om believes is the reason he has been incarnated and imprisoned in the body of a small tortoise. Still, with Brutha's help he hopes to reclaim his former place of glory. The only problem is that Brutha has no idea how to accomplish this, not in a theocratic empire where genuine faith is seen as a threat...

By the early common wisdom, Terry Pratchett's Discworld series was a series of amusing comic fantasies parodying other genre works and then facets of everyday life, like the movie business, law enforcement and shopping malls. More serious topics had started appearing in the series, but only as an underlying theme.

With Small Gods, published in 1992, Pratchett took the more serious ideas he'd been rummaging around with, put them up front and centre, remembered to bring a moderate number of laughs, and wrote arguably his masterpiece*.

At its core, Small Gods, from its first page to its last, is a lengthy, sustained and inordinately clever examination of religious fundamentalism and blind faith and their conflict with reason, argument and science. And you barely notice, because the story itself is extremely taut, well-told and brilliantly characterised with Pratchett's occasional bursts of silliness kept to a minimum in favour of flashes of wry and at times angry humour. Small Gods is a book that both argues for the importance of personal faith and piety and vehemently against people using their religious beliefs to impose fear, pain and death on others.

Small Gods has the veneer of being just a traditional Pratchett book: there's some jokes about men in togas arguing pointlessly about philosophy (in a world where it is difficult to ask, "Are the gods real?" when a lightning bolt will come flying through the window five seconds later with a label attached saying, "YES"), Death has a couple of cameo appearances and there is a running joke about tortoises being nice to eat. But you can tell the subject matter really got Pratchett riled up. His hatred of blind faith and the idea that setting fire to people is okay because an old book says so - even when, strictly speaking, it doesn't mention it - really comes through in this novel, but in measured tones. There's also a whole bunch of other things that clearly got Pratchett's goat up, with Flat Earthers (here cast as those believing the objectively flat Discworld is a sphere, because of irony) also having a hard time of it on the sharper end of Pratchett's wit.

Character-wise, Small Gods may be Pratchett's strongest novel. Being something of a prequel to the rest of the series, most of the cast does not recur elsewhere (Death and a very brief trans-temporal appearance by a certain simian book-collector aside), but Pratchett still has time to paint them in impressive detail. Vorbis may be one of the scariest antagonists in the whole series. Brutha is certainly one of its most interesting protagonists. Om's pragmatic, tortoise-meets-deity outlook on life is amusing. Even minor characters like Didactylos and would-be rebel leader Simony are well-rounded and given good rationales for what they do.

Almost as importantly, the ending does not suck. Pratchett had a patchy record with endings in the early going of the series, with his books sometimes ending okay and others being a bit of a let-down after a strong start and middle section. Small Gods, however, has a fantastic ending, starting with possibly the biggest belly-laugh out of all forty-one books in the series and proceeding from there. Intelligent but never preachy, philosophical but never boring, Small Gods (*****) is Terry Pratchett's masterpiece (okay, one of his masterpieces). It stakes a credible claim to being the strongest Discworld novel and maybe the best thing he ever wrote, and if I had to recommend just one Discworld novel for someone to read, it would be this one.

*Although, a decade later, Night Watch would have serious words about that, and Nation a few years later.
 

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