The Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett

Mon0Zer0

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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...


Yeah, I think the most important feature of the Discworld books is Pratchett's narration. Anything which doesn't have that is always going to be lacking.
 

Werthead

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Discworld #14: Lords and Ladies

Returning to their home kingdom of Lancre after travelling across the Disc, witches Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax discover that a new coven of hip, young witches has arisen in their absence. Magrat is disconcerted to discover that plans for her marriage to King Verence are steaming ahead without her involvement, with guests arriving from all over. On top of those issues, an invasion of beings from another dimension is at hand. It falls to the witches of Lancre and an unlikely assortment of allies - an annoyed orangutan, a legion of ninja morris dancers and a terminally frisky dwarf in a wig - to rise to the occasion.

Lords and Ladies is intriguing as the first Discworld novel to rely heavily on pre-existing continuity, a point Terry Pratchett was so concerned about he includes a warning about it (and a quick recap of prior books) in the start of the novel. The book is the fourth in the "Witches" sub-series following on from Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad, but it also intersects and crosses over with the "Ankh-Morpork Wizards" sub-series, previously established in Moving Pictures and Reaper Man. Think of it as The Avengers of the Discworld Literary Universe, or something.

Those fairly moderate (and likely overstated) continuity concerns out of the way, Lords and Ladies is a fun romp which fairly effortlessly fits into the upper tier of Discworld novels. By this point in the series, Pratchett had moved on from satirising fantasy as a whole and was far more interested in examining the human condition through the idiosyncratic lens of the Discworld. However, he was fairly regularly being bombarded (or at least lightly shelled) by fan letters asking where the elves* were. The Disc had dwarfs, trolls, pixies and fairies after all, so elves should be around. Their only mention thusfar had been The Light Fantastic, where Twoflower mooned over elves as being beautiful and graceful and Rincewind reacted the same way as when someone says, "Well, say what you will but that Mr. Hitler had some good ideas." That idea had clearly been rattling around for a while before Pratchett finally decided to give it a good airing.

The modern epic fantasy idea of elves as graceful, noble beings was a somewhat unusual one when compared to folklore, where elves are presented more as mischievous tricksters, if not outright evil. Pratchett decided to tap that field of inspiration for his elves here, who as much more Aes Sidhe than noble Legolas, and all the more interesting for it. The Aes Sidhe - the elves of Irish mythology - are a fascinating study in cruelty and alieness, and Pratchett's exploration of them here in a fantasy context would remain unmatched until, arguably, Peadar Ó Guilín's recent and hugely enjoyable Call duology.

The novel is divided into two halves. The first is fairly familiar, with the witches dealing with more mundane concerns in Lancre, Magrat getting annoyed at finding out people are trying to arrange her life without asking her and Nanny and Granny trying to deal with the fact that they're not getting any younger and they are risk of being out to pasture by fresh, new blood (with some very odd ideas). This sequence feels slight but still funny, and quite clever (how Granny Weatherwax defeats the younger witch trying to take her down a notch is both), interspersed with a road trip as the Ankh-Morpork wizards travel to Lancre through a series of increasingly bizarre adventures, culminating in one of the funniest scenes in the entire series as their coach is held up by noted lowwayman Casanunda (here returning from Witches Abroad).

The second half of the novel, after the elves show up, abruptly shifts gears into the rather unexpected Die Hard with an Elfgeance as the Lancre regulars have to tool up and take down the elves with a gusto that Professor Hugo Dyson (a noted elf-hater who mocked his friend JRR Tolkien about them rather gleefully) would no doubt approve of. In fact, given Pratchett's general reluctance to use violence as the ultimate solution to problems, the transformation of the story into what is possibly the closest he gets to writing an all-out action novel is rather surprising, even moreso for how accomplished it is. Pratchett being Pratchett, he also has to throw in some clever references to quantum theory along the way, culminating in his unique solution to Schrodinger's Paradox.

Characterisation is solid throughout and Magrat gets fleshed out a lot more than in previous books, whilst Granny Weatherwax continues her evolution into arguably Pratchett's finest protagonist. The book also gives much-needed depth to Ridcully, whose character could formerly be defined as "blusteringly pompous," but here emerges as a smarter, shrewder and more romantic character than previously. There's also some subtle foreshadowing of later novels as Ponder Stibbons' experiences here set up his investigation of other-universe theory, leading to further shenanigans down the road. A slight crack here is the continued degeneration of the Bursar into mental instability and illness and it being played solely for laughs, which feels a bit obvious and risks becoming stale (Pratchett just about maintains it here, but by Interesting Times the joke has worn thin).

In overall terms, Lords and Ladies (*****) emerges as one of the strongest books in the series, and the second part of a formidable one-two punch after Small Gods. Pratchett shows he can play a story more strongly for laughs and even action, and still craft something as entertaining and memorable as that earlier, slightly more serious book about the exploitation of religious faith.

* Throughout the Discworld series Pratchett uses the more grammatically correct "dwarfs" rather than Tolkienian "dwarves" for the plural of that species, but even he had to admit that "elfs" looks weird and went with Tollers on that one.
 

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Discworld #15: Men at Arms

Captain Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is getting married. It's an occasion of great happiness and joy, marred by a massive explosion at the Assassins' Guild and the theft of an unknown artefact. The Guilds don't want the Watch involved and the Patrician doesn't want Vimes involved, but bodies are soon piling up. Someone out there has a weapon that kill people instantly at a long, long range and its up to the City Watch and their new intake to stop them. Somehow.

When Terry Pratchett introduced the City Watch in the classic Discworld novel Guards! Guards! it always felt like he was deliberately setting up a premise and cast of characters who could go on to recur regularly through the series. It's a bit surprising that it took him seven novels to get back to the Watch and their adventures, but when he did, he did it with style.

Once again, Pratchett engages with amusing cliches - Captain Vimes is only three days from retirement and we all know what that means in a police procedural - and once again also undercuts a simple satire with some outstanding character and story depth. There's a harder edge to this story than most Discworld novels, with a somewhat higher body count (including among some of the sympathetic protagonists), all arranged around a genuinely intriguing mystery. There's a great nod to hardbitten detective stories, with Sam Vimes as the cynical, weathered old cop doggedly pursuing the case in the face of opposition, with Corporal Carrot as his enthusiastic young sidekick. As you'd expect, though, Pratchett subverts this setup early on and takes the story in more interesting directions.

The novel benefits from being the first one written with Stephen Briggs' Streets of Ankh-Morpork guidebook to hand, meaning that Pratchett could plot things like rooftop chases and the routes of various characters on a big map of the city. This immediately gives the city more of a lived-in feel. But the writing is far more important in giving Ankh-Morpork a lived-in reality to it. Previous to Men at Arms, Ankh-Morpork was simply a great setting. From this novel onwards - and to this very day - it simply became the greatest metropolis ever presented in a fantasy series, a city that absolutely convinces from the tip of the Tower of Art to the depths of the sluggish River Ankh and from the office of the Patrician to the lowliest criminals on the streets. For the backdrop to an ostensibly comedic series, that's quite an accomplishment.

On top of this, Pratchett brings a rich level of characterisation. Both Vimes and Carrot take a step up, and the troll-and-dwarf pairing of Detritus (returning from Moving Pictures, as does Gaspode) and Cuddy is absolutely fantastic. Angua is also a very fine addition to the cast. Pratchett also uses the novel to intelligently investigate ethnic tensions in a divided city as well as political intrigue between the guilds and the government, as well as analysing the dangers of those who live in the "glories" of the past rather than trying to help the present.

Pratchett also still brings the funny. As usual there is intelligent wordplay, some smart references (Detritus's swift promotion to a Full Metal Jacket-style drill sergeant is as terrifying as it is funny) and, when called for, some more straightforward gags peppered through the book.

The real success of Men at Arms (*****) is Pratchett taking things he'd previously been good at in isolation and here combining them into an outstandingly successful combination, furthering the run of the Discworld series' first "imperial period" of quality.
 

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Discworld #16: Soul Music

Imp y Celyn, a musician from a druidic society, arrives in Ankh-Morpork to seek his fortune. Unfortunately, the entry fees to the Musicians' Guild are unaffordable and playing without their sanction is a good way of finding out if you actually need functioning hands or not. Joining forces with Glod and Lias (a dwarf hornblower and a troll drummer), Imp finds a strange guitar in a back-alley shop and inadvertently introduces the Discworld to Music with Rocks In. But the music wants to live forever, which means killing its creator. For Susan, the young Duchess of Sto Helit and granddaughter of Death (it's a long story), filling in for her grandpa whilst he takes a break, this presents her a tough quandary in her first week on the job.

Soul Music, the sixteenth book of the Discworld series, interrupts Terry Pratchett's imperial run of form in the series by not being stupendously excellent (after the one-two-three punch of Small Gods, Lords and Ladies and Men at Arms), instead settling for merely being pretty good. Pratchett is retreading old ground here, bringing rock music to the Discworld for study and satire in the same way he earlier tackled shopping malls (Reaper Man) and movies (Moving Pictures).

It's a solid formula and competently executed, but it still makes for something of a formulaic novel. Even the major subplot, in which Death takes some time off and mayhem results (for the third time in a dozen books), feels like we're in familiar territory.

Fortunately, formulaic and competent Pratchett is still pretty good by any standards. It helps that the novel's effective protagonist, Susan, is one of Pratchett's better characters, a sensible young woman who goes through life flummoxed at the sheer stupidity of many of her fellows and constantly trying to work out how to make things work out for the best. Susan does recur in several later novels, though she doesn't quite break through to the top tier of Pratchett characters like Vimes or Granny Weatherwax. There's also a surprising hard edge to her backstory, which relies on foreknowledge of Mort and makes the events of that novel somewhat bittersweet in retrospect.

The novel is funny, packed with references to classic rock singers, albums, lyrics and even cover art (the cover art makes a nod at Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell), though I wonder how some of these references have aged in 2021. Will as many people get the Michael Jackson, Blues Brothers, Buddy Holly, Sex Pistols and Who references now as then? If you do, then the book becomes genuinely a laugh riot as it riffs on real rock and roll events and history (both outright and subtly), gently but affectionately poking fun at the absurdity of the genre.

Still, greatness eludes the novel because it is so similar to previous books, not helped by Archchancellor Ridcully walking around giving metacommentary on how similar the events are to previous books. It also feels a bit odd, given their heroism and effectiveness in the prior novel, that the City Watch (here cameoing outside their own series) are treated as incompetent and ineffective buffoons here.

Soul Music (****) is entertaining and readable, especially if you are a classic rock fan, but still can't help but feel a bit of a letdown after the supreme quality of the books leading up to it. An animated version of the novel, produced in 1997 by Cosgrove Hall, is available on YouTube.
 

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Discworld #17: Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

The remote and mysterious Agatean Empire has sent a request to Ankh-Morpork, demanding that the "Great Wizzard" be sent to them. After thorough research and exacting study (or about five minutes of asking around), the faculty at Unseen University determine this to be a request for Rincewind, nominal wizard and adventurer-at-large who once had dealings with a representative of the Empire. Rincewind is, reluctantly, rescued from his new home (a tropical paradise which doesn't seem to want to kill him for once) and transported to the Empire, where he finds the politest revolution in history is underway and the capital city is about to be assaulted by a horde of (seven) formidable barbarian warriors. Unfortunately, he finds his exploits and power have been "marginally" exaggerated by his old friend Twoflower...

Interesting Times, our seventeenth visit to the Discworld, marks the return of Rincewind and the Luggage for the first time since the mini-novel Eric, and the first appearance of Twoflower since The Light Fantastic, fifteen books earlier. Pratchett probably chose to revisit the OG Discworld characters due to a sense of occasion: the novel was largely written during the tenth anniversary of the publication of The Colour of Magic, at a point when the series' profile and success were booming. There was also a feeling that recent Discworld novels had become fairly complex in terms of story and character depth, and Pratchett wanted to get "back to basics," as it were, with another Rincewind travelogue adventure.

The problem is that by this point in the conception of the series, Discworld had really moved far beyond being a series of knockabout comedy novels and a return to that format does it little favours. Pratchett does try to make this first visit to the Disc's equivalent of China more interesting, with a full-scale revolution in progress, but he shies away from using the setting to make the similar kind of points he did about religion and politics in the classic Small Gods. He does, laudably, mostly avoid any kind of lazy stereotyping of Chinese culture, though a few clunky lines slip through. Twoflower is fairly underwhelming and low-key on his return, and the Horde feels like the same joke that was already every effectively made in The Light Fantastic being regurgitated for the sake of it. Pratchett also seems a bit uncertain in tackling the Empire storyline, to the point that the book is almost a third done before we even get there, leaving events there also feeling quite rushed and its villain not really developed.

The book does have a few good points. There's some good humour from the meeting of minds that is Ridcully encountering Rincewind, and the Unseen University metastory gets a bit more development as we encounter Hex, the Discworld's first computer. The more sophisticated Pratchett of the mid-1990s does do a good job of making Rincewind a bit more fleshed-out as a character, although this does seem mostly achieved by making him a bit more unlikeable than he was previously. There's also some entertaining gags which do work quite well, like the literal terracotta army that's controlled by the exact same icon scheme as the classic 1991 video game Lemmings.

Interesting Times (***) is not quite the weakest Discworld novel, but it may rank among the most disappointing. Pratchett doesn't use the setting or story to illuminate wider themes, at least very well, and if it ultimately avoids being Carry On Up the Yangtze, it doesn't exactly use its setting to great effect either. Still, Rincewind gets some much-needed development, it is fun to see Twoflower and the Luggage again (if only briefly) and the novel passes the time before Pratchett gets his mojo back again.
 

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Discworld #18: Maskerade

Agnes Nitt, formerly of the secondary Lancre witches' coven, has relocated to Ankh-Morpork to become a singer in the Opera House, assuming her phenomenal natural talent would be enough, and so it proves...enough to become the real voice behind a much more photogenic but less-talented, would-be starlet. But a spate of murders has the opera company on edge. Meanwhile, Nanny Ogg has had her cookbook published, but Granny Weatherwax's keen eye suggests she has not been getting the promised royalties. They head to Ankh-Morpork to find the missing money and, just coincidentally, look for a third witch to replace Queen Magrat.

When I embarked on this Discworld re-readathon, Maskerade was possibly the book I was most intrigued to reach. Not because it's the best Discworld book (which it isn't), but it's possibly the most low-key, least-discussed book in the entire series. It's actually quite impressive how constrained it is a novel: almost the entire book (bar a couple of early vignettes as Granny and Nanny travel to Ankh-Morpork via stagecoach) takes place in just one building, with a very focused cast of characters. In fact, given that Discworld stage plays were already a regular thing when Pratchett wrote the book, I wonder if he'd deliberately kept the book restrained and focused to better accommodate stage versions of the narrative.

The narrow scope helps Maskerade improve on its immediate predecessor, Interesting Times, which might be the least-cohesive Discworld novel of them all. Here, the tight focus and clearer stakes makes for a more enjoyable read, though an imperfect one.

Ostensibly this is a book in the "Witches" sub-series, picking up after the events of Lords and Ladies, in which Magrat departed the coven to become Queen of Lancre after they saved the kingdom from an invasion of transdimensional elves (as you do). It is, refreshingly, much more focused on Nanny Ogg than it is on Granny Weatherwax, and seeing Nanny use her natural charisma and charm to infiltrate the Opera House and ingratiate herself with everyone is quite entertaining. Granny Weatherwax is surprisingly low-key, with several notably powerful moments but spending a lot of the book in the background as Nanny and Agnes Nitt take on the lion's share of the action. This may actually be the start of a trend where Pratchett has to bench some of his most hyper-capable characters for parts of the story because if they were properly involved from the off, they'd have the problem licked in five minutes.

It's a funny book, riffing hard on The Phantom of the Opera but easily-missed lines lampoon everything from Shakespeare to Cats to "a play about a miserable guy called Les." It is, once again, "Pratchett does xxx but in Discworld," where xxx is the opera, having previously been rock music (Soul Music), religion (Small Gods), shopping malls (Reaper Man) and the cinema (Moving Pictures). This format has resulted in some of the best Discworld books but can also get formulaic, with Pratchett settling for making funny references rather than using the satire to inform more powerful points. Maskerade probably tilts more towards the more formulaic end of the spectrum, but formulaic Pratchett is so much better than a lot of authors on their very best days, that that's not much of a criticism.

The book rattles along until a very amusing, meta-fictional big curtain call, taking in (and riffing on) every famous musical and operatic tradition you can think of. There is a bit of a missed opportunity here, though, as the City Watch gets involved in the story but only through a new character and cameos for Nobby and Detritus; Sam Vimes does not show up in person, which could have been entertaining in a Javert kind of way. Of course, that could have led to an Avengers-style team-up between Vimes and Granny Weatherwax, arguably Pratchett's two most popular and competent protagonists, but alas that is not to be. A subplot about Greebo occasionally reverting to the humanoid form he last inhabited in Witches Abroad also feels somewhat underdeveloped.

Maskerade (****) is the Discworld series at its most relaxed, reliable and laidback. It's not challenging Night Watch or Small Gods' claim on being the best book in the series, but it is a fun read and a good time. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
 

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Discworld #19: Feet of Clay

There has been a murder in Ankh-Morpork, which at first glance is not unusual. But the nature of the murder intrigues Commander Sam Vimes and Captain Carrot of the City Watch. Their investigation of the case, aided by new forensics expert Cheery Longbottom, exposes an ambition that could plunge the whole city into chaos. Once again, Sam Vimes and his officers are the thin blue line between order and chaos in a city where it's hard to see where the one ends and the other begins at the best of times.

Feet of Clay is the nineteenth Discworld novel and the third to focus on the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, following the excellent Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms. Once again, the City Watch must rally to solve crimes and stop a threat to the safety of the city, through a combination of Commander Vimes's cynicism, Carrot's good-natured optimism, Colon's stoic experience, Detritus's massively impractical siege weaponry, Angua's nasal intuition and, er, whatever it is Corporal Nobbs does. The Watch is here reinforced by new arrival Cheery Longbottom, a dwarf forensics expert with something approaching a secret.

You might expect the novel to be predictable - the City Watch sub-series is, at least in potential, Pratchett's most procedural sequence of books - but as usual Pratchett takes some delight in wrong-footing expectations. This is still a funny book, as Colon's close encounter with a psychotic lunatic of diminutive size and then a very angry bull can attest, but there's more of a serious side to it as well. Existential debates on the rights of sentient beings when no one can agree if they're sentient form a key part of the story as well, as Pratchett introduces the Discworld's golems, here used almost as robot slave labour until it turns out that they can think and feel, after a fashion, which raises thorny ethical questions.

The book is also marvellously, intricately constructed. Some other Discworld books feel like Pratchett has aimed an Idea Cannon at a wall, blasted out whatever came to mind and then assembled the resulting narrative morass into something resembling a coherent plot. That worked extremely well for some novels and not as well in others, but Feet of Clay definitely feels more pre-planned and structured. There are more distinct character arcs, not just for Vimes but for Carrot and Angua's relationship, new recruit Cheery whose quiet confidence over gender expression rapidly sparks a cultural revolution among the city's dwarfs, and even for series stalwarts and standbys Nobby and Colon. The former gets drawn into what feels like a Game of Thrones subplot, whilst Colon - distressingly several weeks from retirement - has a solo mini-adventure that he was not expecting.

There's even foreshadowing at work here, as Vimes visits his childhood neighbourhood and we get the feeling of unspoken secrets about his background. These will, eventually, give rise to one of Pratchett's great masterpieces in Night Watch, but that's still quite a few books off.

Feet of Clay (*****) is one of the best Discworld novels, if not quite at the absolute-best tier of Small Gods and Night Watch. It's well-constructed, naturally funny whilst supporting more serious ideas, and as marvellously characterised as Pratchett at his best. It deepens the worldbuilding of Ankh-Morpork, the Greatest Fantasy City of All Time™, and sets the stage for intriguing developments to come. The novel is Pratchett at his best: erudite, thoughtful and smart, creating a work where fantasy, satire and detective elements meet perfectly.
 

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