“Mort” or “Reaper Man”? “Pyramids” or “Small Gods”? WHICH IS THE BEST?
I don’t want to talk much about the books published after 2007, the year of Sir Terry’s diagnosis with a form of Alzheimer’s. They shouldn’t be characterised as part of the Discworld canon: In the case of Raising Steam and Snuff, they are almost unrecognisable as Pratchett books. The dialogue is baggy and expository – especially in Raising Steam – and the characters have the right names but behave nothing like the people we know from the earlier books. The earlier two are more Pratchett-like, but still, it seems a shame to start a celebration of the Discworld by focusing on them. I’m really sorry, Sir Terry. I feel awful writing this.
Pratchett does good feminism. His female characters are flawed, interesting, varied, fully realised human beings: look at Nanny Ogg and especially Granny Weatherwax for proof. His books are shot through with wry anger at men forcing women into preassigned roles. But normally he weaves it in: The plot device in this book (set in an obscure country torn by religious war) makes it explicit, and therefore clunky.
The most damning thing I can say about this book, in which the Witches head to Discworld Transylvania, is that it has entirely failed to stick in my memory. It has good lines (Vetinari describing the up-and-coming nations of the Hub as the “werewolf economies”) and some good satire of Hammer Horror vampire films and the like, but it is not one of the greats.
Some of Pratchett’s political beliefs shine through in his books, of course. But in this one, in which Vimes is trying to prevent a resurgence of ancient violence between dwarfs and trolls, he’s a bit heavy-handed with it. There’s a “War! What is it good for?” message and a we’re-all-the-same-under-the-skin message which is so front-and-centre that it gets in the way of the plot. Also, this is another later-period Vimes novel, with all the Vimes-worship that entails. The early Vimes, who hated the privilege of the rich, would have been infuriated by the Thud! Vimes shutting down several city streets just so he could get home in time to read his infant son a bedtime story. But Pratchett holds this up as something to be applauded, which feels weird.
Sourcery is the fifth book in the series, and it is of a piece with a lot of the early books: The world is threatened by some mystic power which seduces power-hungry men, and it is the lot of some reluctant hero to stop it. But while the humour is as sharp as all the early ones, the plot is wayward – Pratchett doesn’t really get control of plot until later – and feels like a retread of the first two. Also, Rincewind, although you can’t help but be fond of the guy, isn’t that interesting a protagonist.
You’ll have got the impression that I don’t like Commander Vimes very much, by now. But it’s false. He was a fascinating character for several books. Night Watch was pretty much the last of those books, and it was an interesting break from the Pratchett formula as well, throwing in a time-travel twist which showed us how Ankh-Morpork had been in the pre-Vetinari days. It’s also a good superhero origins story for Vimes himself. It’s not, though, very funny.
I feel a bit harsh putting this (explicitly) Faustian tale so low down the list. It’s got some great stuff in it – the bureaucratic redesign of Hell is particularly good, as well as some hilarious historical pastiches. But it’s just so damn short. It’s like half a book.
This may be a controversial choice, but this book suffers from a common Discworld failing: A third-act problem. The set-up is interesting, involving the personification of Time falling in love and having a child. (Personifications of abstract nouns are always doing things like that in the Discworld. Just ask Death.) And all the stuff with the Listening Monks and the parodies of kung-fu movies it lets Pratchett play around with is great. But then he’s got to the last 50 pages or so and he has to end it, and it feels like he doesn’t quite know how.
This is the third Death novel, and for the third time, the plot hinges on Death having taken a break from being Death, and as a result Things Go Off Course and the universe tries to heal itself. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to a formula, of course, but this is sticking particularly closely. Also, the jokey band names don’t really work and the satire of the music industry isn’t particularly sharp. But the bit about the Klatchian Foreign Legion, with its entirely throwaway pastiche of P C Wren’s novel Beau Geste, is brilliant.
Pratchett villains often fit an archetype: They’re mad, but in a sane way. They’ll be described as being so mad they’ve gone through madness and out the other side, or words to that effect. Jonathan Teatime (pronounced “Teh-ah-time-eh”) is one of those.
There’s a lot of fun stuff in this book (any book in which Death gets a good wedge of stage time is going to be fun) and Pratchett enjoys himself as the assassin Teatime heads off to kill the Discworld version of Santa Claus. But, again, the third act feels a little out of control, and the “sanely mad bad guy” trope is getting a little whiskery by this point.
The dark lands towards the Hub, a sort of mix of a Bram Stoker vision of eastern Europe with a little bit of Mordor thrown in, have been mentioned in passing earlier in the series, but this is the first time they’ve been properly explored. And as always, when Pratchett digs deeper into one of his asides, he unearths whole worlds: Vampires and werewolves aren’t simply monsters but people with goals and desires.
One minor grumble is that he has tried too hard to turn throwaway jokes in earlier series into actual things that exist. Dwarf bread being so inedible it’s a sort of weapon of war was quite funny, but trying to write that into the story as a serious part of the plot feels laboured.
A satirical take on the birth of the newspaper industry which provides the best role of all for Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, the get-rich-quick-schemester and purveyor of inedible sausages (he was simply born to be a red-top tabloid proprietor). It’s a lovely depiction of the powers and responsibilities of the press, and of how the media can be in one moment a conduit for meaningless nonsense and in the next a vital curb on the excesses of the powerful, and of how people believe something simply because it is in the newspaper. Pratchett was a journalist for some years and of all his satires on the birth of real-world phenomena in the Discworld, this feels the most accurate.
A satire of the golden age of Hollywood, imbued with Pratchett’s ongoing obsession with the power of myth and story. Unlike the later The Truth, though, the satire doesn’t feel based in a knowledge of the thing itself, so much as in the stereotypes of the genre. The main characters are somewhat forgettable, as well. But Gaspode the talking dog is an absolute joy, and it’s notable for the introduction of Detritus the troll, as well, who becomes a major character in later novels. And the plot rollicks along satisfyingly.
Look, this is going to annoy some people, I know. But while TCOM is hilarious in parts, Pratchett simply hadn’t sharpened his game properly yet. In a way, the book it’s most like is his earlier sci-fi novel Strata. That too had a world shaped like a disc, and a Death character who TALKS IN CAPITALS, but it wasn’t the Discworld. TCOM, although it’s canonical, doesn’t represent a fully formed Discworld, and lots of the stuff that happens in it has to be quietly ignored in later novels. Compare the Ankh-Morpork of that era, which wouldn’t be out of place in Dungeons & Dragons, to the one of the Vimes novels, which is a fully realised city. And the plot is barely worthy of the name; it’s just a lot of things happening one after the other.
It’s The Colour of Magic, only now there’s a plot, so it’s better. Also, Cohen the Barbarian.
Four novels into the series, Terry Pratchett has, perhaps, his greatest idea: Granny Weatherwax, the arrogant, powerful, moral, headstrong, iron-willed witch. The first act of Equal Rites, in which Granny tries to teach witchcraft to Eske, a young girl who – against all the Lore – is born to be a wizard, is a joy. The Pratchettian love of the power of symbol and ritual is born in this novel, really. The witch’s hat isn’t magical, but unless you’re wearing the hat, no one knows you’re a witch, and that’s the magic.
The book loses its way somewhat when the action moves out of the witchy mountains and into Unseen University, but the creation of Weatherwax is an important moment.
Compare this Vimes novel to the later ones. It is so much better. That’s partly because Vimes is still fallible. His opposite number, a foreign policeman who I won’t reveal because his identity is a minor plot point, cons him two or three times, because Vimes is so disdainful of the xenophobes who think “foreigners” are evil and stupid that he is unable to remember that “foreigners” can be just as evil and stupid as the rest of us.
As so often, there’s a foreigners-are-just-like-us message, and an anti-war one (Vimes furiously insists on the difference between policemen and soldiers). But unlike the later books, it’s not ladled on, and the jokes are particularly good. Lord Vetinari gets an excellent turn alongside the more usual comic acts Nobby and Sergeant Colon, featuring a donkey up a minaret, and a Discworld Leonardo da Vinci.
Going Postal is, technically, part of the Moist von Lipwig series. But since the later Moist books are part of the decline of the Discworld, I prefer to think of it as part of a two-hander with The Truth. Essentially, they’re about Ankh-Morpork changing from a magical fantasy medieval city to an industrial Victorian one, and in this case, it’s the rise of the city’s neglected postal service that takes centre stage. Moist himself is a chancer, a petty conman given a second chance at life by Vetinari in Vetinari’s usual Machiavellian way. But the main character is the concept of the letter, for which Pratchett is sweetly nostalgic: While the Discworld-telegraph “clacks” system is efficient and useful, you can’t send a love letter by it, he says. It’s a paean to the physical written thing, the book over the Kindle and the letter over the email. Not that Pratchett doesn’t love the modern versions – he’s a technophile – but his love of the smell and sound of real paper with real ink on it leaps out from the pages.
One of the weaker Witches novels, by which I mean a very good novel. The surface jokes are on various national stereotypes, as the Witches meander through the Discworld’s funhouse-mirror versions of real-world countries, but the real joke is on Brits abroad, and our refusal to speak “foreign” and insistence on eating chips. Pratchett’s theme on how story and narrative shape the world, which was brought up in Moving Pictures, is front and centre here, as the witches find themselves moving through one fairy-tale after another, subverting each one as they go. The parody of The Wizard of Oz is particularly good.
And Pratchett lets Weatherwax grow as a character. In the stories she finds herself part of, she’s the Good Fairy Godmother, or the Good Witch. But while she may be good, she’s not nice: Her caustic, tactless arrogance is a constant joy.
A lot of this book is cheap jokes at the expense of the Australians. It says a lot for Pratchett’s skill as a purveyor of cheap jokes that so many of them work, and that the book manages to come across as enormously fond of Australia. (There’s a bit when some wizards ask their magical library for a book on the dangerous animals of XXXX, the Discworld Australia-parody, and are promptly crushed underneath the Dangerous Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians, Birds, Fish, Jellyfish, Insects, Spiders, Crustaceans, Grasses, Trees, Mosses and Lichens of Terror Incognita, which runs to, at the least, Volume 29c Part Three. They then ask for a list of the not-dangerous animals, and a small piece of paper drifts down, saying “some of the sheep”.)
Rincewind is much less boring in this book than in some, and Pratchett’s prose evokes a real vastness and dryness to the XXXX outback.
I should admit that I have no idea how good the parody of opera is, or how good the parody of The Phantom of the Opera is. I’ve never seen the latter and I’ve hardly seen the former. But it works well as a parody of the tropes of opera, and as a murder mystery. More importantly, it’s the Witches blundering chaotically through a genteel Ankh setting, and it’s got a surreptitious feminist message, as Agnes the witch tries to become Perdita the opera singer, but can’t become the star despite her amazing voice because she’s not slim and pretty like a “star” should be.
I want to flag up something that happens in L&L but, as far as I can tell, literally no other Discworld novels. That is: Pratchett introduces a new species, but instead of that species being misunderstood and actually just as worthy of respect as humans, that species is straightforwardly evil. Elves (the species in question) are conniving tricksters bent on domination. Which makes me think that Pratchett is kind of racist against elves.
But problematic species-attitudes aside, Lords and Ladies is great. For the secod time, Pratchett does a good Shakespeare parody (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this time). Nanny Ogg and her great sprawling clan get higher billing than they do in most of the Witches books, and there are some very funny bits about Morris dancing (you’ll just have to trust me on that). Casanunder the dwarf lover is a splendid little addition, and the whole thing is steeped in a love of ancient England, its gods and monsters, its hedgerows and burial mounds. Oh, and all its phallic symbols. Lots of phallic symbols all over the place.
The first of the Monsieur Death’s Holiday novels, and an excellent example of the genre. There are some splendid set pieces: Death working as a short-order cook in a sort of Discworld McDonalds is particularly good.
The actual characters, other than Death, aren’t that memorable – Princess Keli is something of a cipher, and Mort himself is just a sort of bog-standard hapless adolescent, although he gets more interesting as the book goes on. Ysabell spends most of the novel as a whiny teenager and then seems to grow up in the space of a couple of pages. But the heart of the book is Death, who’s such a brilliant character he can carry the whole thing on his own. All the scenes he’s not in, you’re just waiting for him to reappear.
Look! A Rincewind novel that’s really good!
Of course it’s not just a Rincewind novel. The real stars are the members of the Silver Horde, Cohen the Barbarian’s superannuated gang of heroes, including one in an ancient wicker wheelchair. And while it contains lots of Far East clichés and tropes the underlying message, as in most of Pratchett’s books, is that underneath the trappings of ritual and tradition, people are really just people everywhere. And the denouement is brilliat
The facts of the novel, if you like, are that it’s a whodunnit featuring Vimes trying to solve the mystery of a poisoned Patrician. It’s tied in with a plot about the liberation of golems, who are a sort of slave race in Ankh-Morpork society. But the heart of the novel is an investigation of how Vetinari keeps the city ticking: It’s a machine which he keeps oiled with a certain amount of blood, and which he adjusts with specialist tools in the form of people like Vimes. There’s something slightly uncomfortable, perhaps, about how this benevolent dictatorship is held up as a good system of government, but Vetinari is a great character and it’s all so cleverly done that you don’t get bogged down in the politics.
Dragons, a shadowy brotherhood of cowl-robed magic-workers, the return of a king to overthrow a tyrant: On the face of it, this has all the elements for some of the straightest fantasy in the Discworld oeuvre. But it isn’t. The cowl-robed brethren (specifically, the Unique and Supreme Lodge of the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night) are a splendid send-up of the Masons; the prophesied king is not all he seems to be, and you’re always rooting for the tyrant.
And what’s more, this is Vimes’s first appearance, along with Carrot, who is a much more interesting and funnier character than he immediately appears. The splendid Sybil Ramkin is a note-perfect pastiche of a certain kind of British aristocracy, rich enough to look shabby, and the “Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness” is introduced, which goes like this: “A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.”
I tend to think of this as almost Guards! Guards! Part II rather than a standalone novel. At the end of GG the Watch’s dignity was partially restored, but in MAA we see Vimes, and Carrot, start to build it into something great.
It’s also a welcome return for an underused character, Gaspode, and in the Detritus/Cuddy storyline it has genuine heart. Also the stuff in the pork futures warehouse is brilliant. The City Watch stories never again reached the heights of these two opening chapters, but that’s forgivable when the opening chapters are as good as they are.
The greatest of Pratchett’s parodies. The “wyrd sisters” are Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and the younger witch Magrat, the “wet hen” who makes up their triumvirate. The book is chiefly a pastiche of Macbeth, but there are lines and scenes ripped off from Hamlet and other Shakespeare plays. And, just as in the bad parody in Snuff, a figure meant to be Austen herself appears, in Wyrd Sisters there’s a Disc Bard in the form of Hwel the dwarf (who eventually sets up a playhouse called the Dysk. Like the Globe, geddit?).
But unlike the Austen parody, this stuff is all vital to the plot – I mean, most of it is the plot – and more importantly, it’s done well, and is funny. Weatherwax and Ogg are brilliant, the Magrat/Fool relationship is poignant as well as comic, and the whole thing has a marvellous mists-and-mountains atmosphere that permeates every page. One of the greats.
Remember we talked about the mad-in-a-sane-way villains? There’s another of those here, in Dios, the ancient high priest of a Discworld version of Pharaonic Egypt (it’s called Djelibeybi. Say it out loud).
There are so many brilliant ideas in Pyramids. Djelibeybi as a tired former superpower, broken by spending so much of its GDP on giant pointy houses for its dead kings; Djelibeybi as a sort of buffer-zone between two other parodies of ancient civilisations, Tsort and Ephebe, vaguely meant as Rome and Greece, which would immediately fight were the old kingdom not there (which becomes important); Teppic, the prince of Djelibeybi sent to be expensively educated in Ankh-Morpork (as an assassin, which he’s very good at apart from the killing people part); and, most importantly, the pyramids. The pyramids which actually distort time. That little conceit allows Pratchett to have lots and lots of fun, as do the sheer practicalities involved in building the things.
As always there are messages, about modernity and tradition and symbols, but they are in support of the plot, never suborning it. Dios might be a classic crazy-but-not-really villain, but he’s weirdly sympathetic. And the whole thing is riotously funny.
This is probably the Discworld novel I’ve read the most. Mustrum Ridcully – the bluff Archchancellor of the wizards’ Unseen University – gets room to breathe that he doesn’t get in many other books. Windle Poons isn’t a hugely strong character, but he allows Pratchett to gather a little squadron of hilarious undead around him. The wizards’ swearwords coming to life is repeatedly funny. And the subplot of Death becoming a farmhand and having a sort-of romance with an elderly farmer is touching.
The only reasons it doesn’t quite make the top spot are, one, the third-act problem raises its head again – there’s a sort of chaotic bit at the end where everyone’s running around in an out-of-town superstore being attacked by shopping trolleys which doesn’t quite work; two, the Death-is-missing-presumed-Death shtick is slightly old already; and three, the book that beats it is so bloody good.
What a book this is. Profound, hilarious, wise. Omnia, the theocratic state it’s set in, is one of the great inventions of recent British literary history (I know Pratchett doesn’t like the word “literature” but I wasn’t sure what else to use). The little conceit which Pratchett had previously set up, that gods rely on belief for their power and without belief wither and die, is explored and expanded here to create a whole treatise on the nature of religion and zealotry. Not in a kneejerk anti-religious way – Pratchett is an atheist himself, but has a lot of time for the trappings of religion – but on how religion separates itself from the god it purports to worship, creating a great shell of ritual and tradition until the god inside it dies, forgotten.
It’s also a marvellous buddy-movie of a book, as the god Om comes down to visit Brutha, his last remaining true believer in the city that is ruled in his name. And it has time to throw in informed parodies of a lot of Greek philosophy. The experimental philosopher trying to see if an arrow can catch a tortoise – it can, by the way, despite the apparent paradox – is a gem, as is the fight breaking out over the “liar paradox” (“he called me a liar!”).
The ending is explosive and moving, the jokes are sharp, and most of all it is shot through with Pratchett’s fond eye for human foibles and sillinesses. In a great series, the greatest book.
â¢ Disclaimer: This list will annoy some people, but it’s my list, so there. Also, I haven’t included the Tiffany Aching novels and the other young-adult books, or a few other oddments such as The Last Hero. The list was long enough already, and again, it’s my list.
With thanks to Graeme Neill, who is behind the blog Pratchett Job, in which he’s reading all of the Discworld novels in chronological order and writing about each of them. If you’re a Disc fan, I recommend it.