Tolkien. Martin. Sanderson. Le Guin. These are some of the names that most commonly come up when people talk about the great fantasy writers. These are the people who’ve created some of the most unique and enduring worlds in fiction – Middle Earth and Westeros are household names, while the Cosmere and Earthsea are worlds fantasy fans know like their own neighborhoods.
Yet I don’t see Sir Terry Pratchett and Discworld come up often enough on those lists, and that makes me sad, because Sir Pratchett is one of the greatest fantasy authors who has ever lived, and Discworld is one of the most creative settings ever. So if you haven’t read Pratchett, or have and want a nostalgia trip about why he’s amazing, read below to find out what makes him one of the best fantasy authors of all time.
The Setting of Discworld is Incredible
In genre fiction, it’s common to praise a series for its world building. It’s understandable why – when reading something in the fantasy genre, you want to be transported to another world.
Discworld does that.
The world Sir Pratchett created is one that’s pure fantasy, and it’s made clear right off the bat. Discworld is set on a flat earth that is held on the back of four elephants, who themselves stand on the back of great A’Tun, the turtle that flies through space. The speed of light is a sedate eighty miles per hour, there are eight colors (the eight is octarine, the color of magic), there are eight days to the week (octday being the eight, naturally) and you can literally fall off the edge of the world if you’re not careful.
I’ll admit that was a turn off for me at first. It felt like it was too finely condensed zaniness, and I was worried the world would just be…random.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Discworld sets its own rules and then adheres to them tightly. The most commonly visited location is the bustling metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, home of the magical academy Unseen University, the foremost magical school on the planet (so long as you’re asking them) and Night Watch that is my favorite story branch in the series, a tyrant who understands that tyranny works best when you don’t go around throwing people in dungeons too often, a Thieves Guild that lets you pay a fee to not be robbed, and dozens of minor recurring characters that make the city feel like a living, breathing thing.
I could go on about all the various incredible locations across Discworld, but as engrossing as the world is, it’s not what keeps me coming back to the series. No, it’s the…
Phenomenal Cast of Characters
Let me introduce you to one of my favorite recurring Discworld characters. Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler. C.M.O.T. Dibbler, known most commonly as “throat” has appeared in pretty much any book that takes place in Ankh-Morpork. He’s usually selling sausages in a bun. It’s inadvisable to ask what kind of meat is in the sausages, because he won’t answer and you’ll be glad that he didn’t. Throat is a salesman at his core – after all, he can sell his meat sausages consistently – but he’s always looking for the next big score.
He’s exaggerated, but he’s also someone you know.
Maybe he’s the vacuum cleaner sales-people that pushed their way into your house and wouldn’t go away. Maybe he’s that one friend who keeps falling for the newest MLM scam. Perhaps he’s just every overly-friendly car salesman you’ve dealt with. He’s that person, but amplified to the point of caricature and, because it’s so over the top, he’s completely likable for it.
And that’s just one of the recurring characters. There are dozens. Some, like Corporal Nobbs, a man who has to carry an official certificate to prove he’s human, are mostly tied to one location. Others, like the anthropomorphic personification of Death, are major characters in their own series but turn up in other people’s series. Still others, like Death’s granddaughter (it’s a long story) mostly stay in their own series. Which brings me to the next reason I love these books:
Something for Everyone
This is the suggested reading order for Discworld. Or, more accurately, this is the various paths that exist in Discworld you can take.
It’s kind of intimidating.
Here’s the thing, though – the novels are almost all written as self-contained things. You do not need to read Moving Pictures to read The Truth, nor do you need to have read anything in the Rincewind path to read the Guards path. (In fact, I’m not a huge fan of Rincewind’s stories, so some of them I haven’t even read.) Sir Terry Pratchett suggest starting at Sourcery, and that is a good place to start…but I usually suggest starting with Guards! Guards!, because it has my favorite characters and some of the best storytelling.
It all depends on what you want, though, as long as you enjoy a satirical take on it.
Do you like tales of Wizards getting in over their heads? The Rincewind path is for you. Do you like taking a fantastic lens to modern inventions? Then absolutely go down the Industrial Revolution path. More of a fan of cop stories with some procedural elements? The Watch novels are going to be a jam. Prefer a look at the high concepts of a fantasy setting and how they interact? Absolutely should go with the Death path. Like fairy tales? The Witches have you covered, and to round it out the Tiffany Aching stories are there if you love good fantasy YA.
However, if none of that appeals to you, you can probably find an individual novel that does.
Feet of Clay is probably my favorite of his novels, down the Watch path. It uses a murder mystery as a framing device to set up a story that looks at the nature of nobility – and by a similar vein our worlds politics because satire – and how we chose our leaders, the dangers of over-reliance on tradition, the rights of an oppressed people, how we look at good and evil people, and it does all that without sacrificing a tightly plotted story that has some of the best laughs in the entire series.
I started off this post with a list of some well-known fantasy authors, because that is what Sir Pratchett wrote, but I could have easily started it off with a list of known satirists and had the same basic lead it, but less nerdy.
Because, in addition to being a brilliant fantasy author, Sir Pratchett is one of the greatest satirists of the 20th century.
You can get a hint of that in my description of Feet of Clay, above, but there’s almost no topic I can think of that’s safe from his prose. While he particularly skewers the rich and powerful, especially in the Night’s Watch series, here is also a sampling of subjects he tackles over the Discworld books:
- Christmas, and with it the very notion of traditional holidays and how we view religion relative to tradition, taking an eye at how both evolve over time.
- The media, both our willingness to believe something because it’s printed and its effects on society for both good and ill.
- Class and racial divides, and unlike a lot of genre authors who attempt to address this subject, his inhuman species are so relatablely human while at the same time not tied to any particular real world ethnic group that there’s more nuance than you normally get.
- Pretty much all forms of government, at one point or another.
- How we interact with foreign cultures and our view of the other, as well as exactly how we break down the world into “us” and “them.”
- Golden Era Hollywood and its obsession with glitz and spectacle, and addressing how industries can rise and fall and how bubbles can burst.
- Las, and certainly not least, every single fantasy trope under the sun – but without alienating non-fantasy readers.
Seriously, I can’t say enough about how amazing Terry Pratchett’s writing is. So stop reading this, pick a book that strikes your fancy, and come back and let me know what you thought.
Why are you still reading this? Go read Terry Pratchett! And if you don’t want to spend money, I have a free book out! If you’re already a fan, let me know your favorite in the comments below.