Thursday, March 22, 2007

Paul's Nearly Complete Guide to Discworld, Part One

Introduction (Added May 2010, Updated January 2011)

The last Discworld novel, as of this writing is Unseen Academicals. By my reckoning, there are now 32 Discworld novels on the "main sequence."

I just want to take a moment and say that this is a really impressive achievement. They aren't all terrific, but most of them fall somewhere in the range from above average to excellent. Some of them hold up very well to re-reading. Some have unexpected depths. Pratchett has developed considerable skill as a storyteller over the years, and while his work is often very humorous, he will ultimately be remembered as a fairly serious satirist. Congratulations, Sir Pratchett!

Thirty-two is the number I got by counting up the "adult" Discworld novels, excluding The Last Hero. We'll be inclusive and include Eric, even though it is so short. (Apparently it is actually supposed to be typeset as Faust Eric, as a joking reference to another famed story about a deal with the devil).Technically, The Last Hero is a short (40,000 word) illustrated novel in the Rincewind sequence. I had not (and still have not) read it.

When I wrote the bulk of these reviews, I had not realized that the young adult novels The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents and The Wee Free Men are actually set in the Discworld as well (I never found them shelved in bookstores with the others). There are three more now: A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight. I have not yet read any of them. I can't promise that I'll get to them anytime soon.

That doesn't include any of the special illustrated books like The Last Hero, the cookbooks, the science book spin-offs, the maps, the quiz books, or the children's books (although my daughter loved Where's My Cow?)

When I originally wrote this guide, I broke the novels down into sequences: City Watch, Witches, Death, Rincewind, and Miscellaneous. With the release of Making Money, Moist von Lipwig probably deserves his own sequence. There are also now two books, The Truth, and Monstrous Regiment that feature the Ankh-Morpork Times, although the reporters now crop up elsewhere.

Wikipedia breaks down the books into "storylines," which can overlap (for example, Mort is both a Death book and a Susan Sto Helit book, per Wikipedia, and Night Watch is listed under both the City Watch storyline and the Monks of Time storyline).

I have chosen to err on the side of fewer sequences, and have put each book into only one sequence, with no overlapping allowed. But this breakdown is quite arbitrary, as the Discworld books actually overlap like crazy, which characters and locales intersecting all over the place, and so any reasonably simple scheme to organize the books is by necessity an over-simplification.

Finally, you may have heard the news that Pratchett has early-onset Alzheimer's disease and so it is, sadly, likely that we are at or nearing the end of the Discworld series. I wish Sir Pratchett the very best and he has my grateful thanks for these wonderfully enjoyable novels.

How I Came to Write this Guide

Over the course of reading these novels, I began to make notes to myself. They started out as notes on my own wiki, mainly just marking off the books so that I wouldn't wind up starting to read the same book twice by accident. I began adding comments and ratings. I started posting reviews on Amazon. Eventually, I had a reasonably coherent set of reviews and ratings of all the Discworld novels.

Advice to First-Time Discworld Readers

I do not recommend reading the Discworld books in chronological order. You can do this, of course, but it would be best if you were familiar with Pratchett's better Discworld books before attempting it. The danger is that some of the earlier books are much different in style and much poorer in quality than the later books. You run the risk of being turned off to the series altogether. In particular, The Colour of Magic is very different than the later books, and makes a poor introduction to Discworld, and does not reflect the quality of Pratchett's later writing. Consider it a rough draft. I recommend it only if you want to see how it all got started.

Although I like to support authors and maintain a personal library by buying books, if you are about to undertake Pratchett, I highly recommend that you start by borrowing them from a friend (if the friend will part with them), or from your local library. You don't want to begin buying the whole series, or even big chunks of it, yet. You won't know which ones you like the most until you have read them. So save your money; Discworld is a big investment, even in paperback. I have read all of them and some of them more than once, but I only own a dozen or so -- the ones I feel are worth re-reading.

I would recommend starting with books from the Miscellaneous sequences below, such as The Truth. After you have read one or two of these books, you should decide if you want to continue. If so, I recommend that you pick one of the sequences of related books, which follow a set of recurring characters.

You might try reading the first recommended book of each sequence to see which one you like more. Women and girls might enjoy reading the Witches sequence first, because they feature three interesting female protagonists and are largely about relationships and the role of girls and women of different ages in society. Men and boys may prefer the City Watch books because they feature Samuel Vimes and various other men (some human, some not, and some indeterminate) as protagonists.

My personal favorite sequence is the City Watch sequence, but you might prefer the Death sequence. I can't highly recommend the Rincewind books as a jumping-off point, but you might want to read them later; see my notes below.

After you pick a sequence, I would recommend reading that sequence in chronological order, finishing all or most of the books in the sequence, before veering cross-wise into another one. This is not required, since most of the books don't truly depend on each other, but if you read them chronologically the developments over time will seem as coherent as possible, which will make it more enjoyable.

Personally, I think I would have gotten the most out of the Discworld books by reading:
  • The Truth (it makes a good introduction to the whole Discworld)
  • The City Watch sequence, at least the ones recommended, in chronological order
  • The Witches sequence, ditto
  • The Death sequence, ditto
After that, it's open season. Maybe you'd like the standalone Small Gods. Maybe you'd like to tackle the Rincewind sequence. Maybe you'll want to grit your teeth and go back and start from the beginning with The Color of Magic, filling in the gaps in chronological order. By this point you will most likely be hooked, and most likely want to read them all, so have fun!

Personally, I wound up reading the Discworld novels, at least for the first time, in somewhat random order, starting with The Lost Continent, and then reading them as they became available through inter-library loan. The series would have made more sense if I had followed at least one or two of the sequences in order.

A Guide to the Sequences

The City Watch

The best ones are Guards! Guards!, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, and Thud. Read them in order for maximum coherency.

Consider skipping Men at Arms, which fits in between Guards! Guards! and Feet of Clay. It is not bad, but a little bit disappointing when compared with the others.

Consider skipping Night Watch. it is a longer, heavier, more philosophical novel, and you will not like it unless you like the character Samuel Vimes and want to know more about what makes him tick. For hard-core Vimes fans, though, it is indispensible.

The Witches

The best are Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Maskerade, and Carpe Jugulum. I recommendread reading them in that order.

Technically, Equal Rites was the first witches book and came out before Wyrd Sisters, but it is not as good, so I wouldn't recommend reading it first; it is mostly a standalone, and so reading it in order isn't crucial. Lords and Ladies came out in between Witches Abroad and Maskerade, but it also isn't quite as good as the others. Read these two only if you really love the witches, especially Granny Weatherwax.


Death technically appears as a character in every single Discworld novel, but these are the ones that feature him as a major character.

Read Mort and Thief of Time (in that order). In my opinion, Thief of Time is the best of the Death sequence and also the single best Discworld novel, although it isn't necessarily the best one to read first, because it is pretty weird even for Pratchett. Simply put, it just hits all the right notes -- a bit of fantasy, a bit of science fiction, a bit of slapstick, some bad puns, some philosophy, some danger, some adventure, and some likeable characters, all put together in an energetic style (lots of "showing") that doesn't suffer from excessive talkiness ("telling").

Consider skipping Reaper Man and Soul Music; they aren't quite as good, and suffer in comparison to Mort. If you want to read them all in order, Reaper Man and Soul Music fit in between Mort and Thief of Time.

I highly recommend that you avoid Hogfather since it is one of the worst of the Discworld books, one of the rare occasions where Pratchett's humor just seems joyless, sour, and cynical; reading it is like eating a beautiful cake which has gone rancid. If you want to try it anyway, it fits between Soul Music and Thief of Time.


This portion of my Guide originally started with the phrase "Two words: don't bother." Well, I've moderated my position a little bit since then, but I will still say this about the Rincewind sequence: set your expectations a little lower. Many of the books in this sequence are best thought of as sedimentary rather than metamorphic: they are full of undigested lumps that have not quite fused together. They are occasionally glittery and you could make them into unusual pieces of jewelry, but for the most part they are not gem-quality.

If you are just starting out, the Discworld books, don't start with these. Read the other sequences first. While they are sometimes funny, these books tend to rely more on insults and slapstick, creating funny moments -- humorous scenes and one-liners -- rather than interesting plots and engaging characters. The hero (technically, an anti-hero) of most of these books is the very two-dimensional Rincewind.

Let me give you an analogy: Rincewind and the other wizards of Unseen University are to the City Watch and the Witches as the Three Stooges are to the Marx Brothers. Some people love the Stooges; I'm more of a Marx Brothers fan. Rincewind is a Stooge. He's a bit like Curly: he is always getting pummelled. He has only three important character traits: he's an incredibly incompetent wizard who flunked out of Unseen University and who can't cast even the most elementary spell; he's ridiculously lucky, and always winds up grabbing that hanging branch when he falls off a cliff; and he's an extraordinary coward, who is very good at fleeing from danger. Add a fear of women, a love of starchy food, and a stained, ratty robe, a hat that says "Wizzard," and a pair of running shoes, and you have Rincewind.

Along with Rincewind, these books also focus on the wizards of Unseen University. To me, Unseen University is one of Pratchett's disappointments. U. U. is a funny place, and could have been home to lots of intriguing storytelling involving student wizards learning their craft and playing nasty practical jokes on one another, a sort of darker and more satirical version of Hogwarts, but it isn't; instead, we only really get the to know the senior faculty and administration. U. U. is a parody of institutions of higher learning and the tenure system, and that could be very funny, too, but for the most part it isn't. In the early books these characters are just not very well-developed, and Pratchett seems to have gotten the tone wrong (too dark, too vicious), so he literally kills them all off, and replace them in the later books by a completely new set of wizards who are not quite as keen on literally murdering each other, but who are merely (figuratively this time) backstabbing. And lazy, incompetent, and gluttonous. It is telling that the wizard with the most depth of human character and feeling seems to be the Librarian, who is an orangutan, and all he can say is "ook." When Pratchett tries to delve deep into a wizard's character, the result is like scuba-diving in a wading pool.

With all that said, Interesting Times is actually a pretty funny book, and well worth reading for its send-up of Chinese politics and culture. The wizards only play minor roles, which is a relief; even Rincewind just happens to be the vehicle by which the story gets told, but Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde really steal the show, along with, as they say, a cast of thousands. A lot of funny things happen. But if you're looking for a convincing protagonist and a well-developed story: well, you're reading the wrong sequence of Discworld novels.

I've placed Unseen Academicals in this sequence because it takes place primarily in the environs of Unseen University, and because Rincewind shows up as a minor character, but it could just as well be filed under "Miscellaneous," as the lead characters are entirely new. It is a bit out of place here.

So, my advice is this: read books from the other sequences first. If you enjoyed the cameos the wizards make in those books, try reading Interesting Times. You will be missing a little bit of background on Rincewind's earlier adventures with Twoflower, but this is not critical to your enjoyment of the story.

If you like Interesting Times, then consider digging deeper; you could move on to The Last Continent, which in my opinion is not as good as Interesting Times; you could read Unseen Academicals; you could go back and pick up The Light Fantastic, which also suffers by comparison to the better Discworld books, or you could start through the early books in order... but however you do it, if you want to read all the Rincewind books, you'll eventually have to read... (drum roll...) The Colour of Magic (cue ominous music).

The Colour of Magic is a big pothole on the on-ramp to Discworld. I suggest strongly that no one read it as an introduction to the series: it is very, very uneven in style and quality, and not representative of what Pratchett has achieved later. But if you're a serious fan and want to see how it all started, go right ahead; just remember: you have been warned.


The Truth is probably the best book to introduce you to Discworld; it contains some of the city watch characters, but you don't need to be familiar with them to follow the story. Most the "alien" races (vampires, trolls, etc.) make an appearance, and it has a little bit of almost everything that is appealing about Discworld.

The later book Going Postal is also worth reading, and touches (briefly) on some of the characters from The Truth, although it would probably be best to read it after you have learned more about the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, so you might want to save it until you have read at least the first few of the City Watch books especially Feet of Clay, which has quite a bit to do with Vetinari. You should read Making Money after Going Postal, as it follows chronologically. Vetinari is one of my favorite characters and I would love to see a story centered entirely around him, but, alas, this story has yet to be written.

Small Gods shows a more serious and darkly satirical side of the Discworld, and can be read at any point.

Eric is very quick and might make a good very brief introduction to Discworld for the impatient, although if you are that impatient you probably aren't going to make it through thirty or more books anyway.

See Part Two for Reviews of Each Discworld Novel...

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