Last week…okay, this week, but it was meant to be last week…I talked a bit about Terry Pratchett’s latest novels, and someone suggested in the comments that I should write a “So You Want To Get Into Discworld” post. This is actually a really good idea; the question of “Where do you start with the Discworld books?” is a pretty common one among fans of the series. Much in the same way as “Doctor Who”, in fact, and much for the same reasons; both series are very long (32 seasons of Doctor Who, 38 Discworld novels), both have very loose continuity that enables you to jump in at different points (lots of Doctor Who fans have started with “Rose”, lots of Discworld fans have started with “The Wee Free Men”) and both have beginnings that aren’t necessarily the best in their series (Doctor Who starts with a relatively-inaccessible black-and-white episode from the infancy of television, while Discworld’s first book was written as a random fantasy parody, and is something of a hodge-podge of ideas.) But as both are tremendously rewarding to the long-term fan, both are worth getting into. So where do you start?
With “The Robots of Death”, a classic Fourth Doctor…no, wait. Sorry. Got a bit mixed up there. You start reading the Discworld novels with the understanding that you really do not need to read them in order. It helps you to understand a few details, such as why the Librarian at the greatest institution of magical learning on the Disc is inconveniently stuck in the form of an orangutan, and why the Thieves’ Guild of Ankh-Morpork is a fully-licensed and authorized body of law enforcement, but it’s not actually necessary. Each book is fully stand-alone, they frequently feature different casts, and Pratchett is one of the best expository writers in the business, so you should be pretty good to go no matter what point you pick to jump in.
That said, there are better spots to jump in than the first book. It’s interesting, and you’ll want to come back to it sooner or later to catch up on some of the things he’s helpful enough to establish at the beginning, but it’s also very clearly Pratchett’s juvenalia, and Rincewind (the main character of the first couple of books) is probably his least likeable protagonist. Not that he’s unlikeable, but he’s a cynic and a coward and really only has one bona fide moment of true heroism in the roughly seven books he stars in. So we can skip ahead a bit, past the first five books that Pratchett uses to establish the concept in his own mind and figure out what he wants to do with the fictional universe he’s creating as he goes.
Which means that the first book to start with is ‘Wyrd Sisters’. It’s a sharp, funny, easily accessible book that satirizes Shakespeare (the plot is sort of a bizarre remix/mashup of Macbeth, with the witches as heroes and the king as a villain) while establishing a lot of the core concepts and characters that you’ll see recur over the course of the series. Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and the kingdom of Lancre all get an excellent introduction for the casual reader (even though Granny Weatherwax has previously appeared.)
From there, you can comfortably read ‘Pyramids’, ‘Guards! Guards!’ (the novel that introduces the City Watch, probably the best-loved characters by fans)…skip ‘
Faust Eric’, which is a pretty direct sequel to one of the first five books, but then you can read the next six in a row (‘Moving Pictures’, ‘Reaper Man’, ‘Witches Abroad’, ‘Small Gods’, ‘Lords and Ladies’, ‘Men At Arms’.)
Now go back and read the first five. By this time you’ll be attached enough to the characters that you’ll feel comfortable reading through the first two (slightly sloggy) novels, and by ‘Equal Rites’ Pratchett’s writing skill has evolved to the point where you’re reading perfectly serviceable fantasy novels. ‘Mort’ is excellent (and has sometimes been my advised starting spot), and ‘Sourcery’, while a little rough in places, does answer a lot of questions you might have had about how magic works on the Disc.
Then go back and read the one you skipped, and pick up again with ‘Soul Music’. Not only will you understand pretty quickly why I suggested going back and reading the early books (‘Soul Music’ and ‘Interesting Times’ are fairly direct sequels to the earliest books) but you’ll also be struck by how much Pratchett has evolved as a writer in those first eleven years. He went from being a good writer to being a truly great writer, and as you continue onwards, you’ll be impressed even more. All of them are worth reading, and by the end, you’ll be just as much of a fan as I am.
And at some point, you’ll want to read them all over again from the beginning…