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.
 

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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.
 

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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.
 

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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.
 

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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.
 

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