Of all my favourite fantasy series, I’m pretty sure I’ve re-read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series the most times. In fact, I’ve re-read my favourite Discworld novels so many times that some of the books are starting to fall apart. The bugger of that is not all of them are available to repurchase as hardcovers – but I keep my eyes peeled and I grab a backup copy whenever I can. Because one of these days one of his books will fall apart – and I’ll be heartbroken.
Want to know why I hold Terry Pratchett and his work in such high esteem? Then read on …
I vividly remember the first Discworld novel I ever read. It was Pyramids, and I borrowed it from my local library. Initially attracted by the stupendous Josh Kirby cover, I opened it to the first page, started reading, burst out laughing … and took it home with me.
And so my love affair with the Discworld began.
Mind you, I don’t love all the books equally. When I went back to the beginning and started reading my through, I found myself not terribly taken with Rincewind. And the earliest versions of Granny Weatherwax never quite clicked for me, either. So when did my heart start beating out of my chest?
The two books that did it for me were Wyrd Sisters and Guards, Guards. And as the years unrolled, with a few exceptions the Discworld books I loved the best – and still love, passionately, to this day – are the witches’ stories and the Ankh-Morpork city guard stories. Those are the books now in danger of falling apart because I’ve read them so many times. Less re-read but still much loved are the books starring Death and his grand-daughter, Susan.
Why those books? Hmm. I think it’s because they’re the most human, the most insightful, the most endearing, of them all. Of the stand-alone Discworld entries you’ll find me re-reading Pyramids, as I said. Also Small Gods, Thief of Time and The Truth.
Terry Pratchett’s genius lies in his ability to comment on our world through the lens and prism of the Discworld. He’s one of the most amazing social commentators and satirists of the modern age. What’s interesting is that aspect of his work built slowly. The first Discworld books were more a send-up of heroic fantasy. Then, slowly, book by book, they began to shift towards broader social observations – but in doing so, he never lost sight of the fantasy element or the humour. Also, gradually, sometimes a more serious tone crept into some of the books and the humour became more wry, more world-weary. But for me that never decreased their entertainment value.
Wyrd Sisters is a twisted take on Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. Granny Weatherwax is the undoubted star of the witch stories, ably partnered by the irrepressible Nanny Ogg, with first of all Magrat and then Agnes Nitt making up the required third witch. Their adventures encompass the perils of travel to foreign lands, the dangers of falling for a vampire, the insanity of opera and the dangerous bewitchings of elves.
One of the genius aspects of the witch books is how brilliantly Terry Pratchett writes his female characters. He’s simply one of the best in the business. The key, I think, is that he writes them as people first and a gender second. They are all vital, fascinating individuals, human to the core, absolutely women but never diminished or made to seem less than because of it.
Guards, Guards is a look at the ‘red shirts’ of popular genre fiction – those poor fools who exist only to die swiftly and horribly, thus underscoring the danger to our more important heroes. This is the book where we met Captain Samuel Vimes, of the Ankh-Morpork night watch: a man with a slightly tarnished soul and an unhealthy affection for booze. He knows the kind of copper he should be, wants to be, but life has kicked the stuffing out of him. But when he’s brought face to face with death, the inner Vimes won’t let him roll over and die. And so he’s reborn – and the night watch is reborn with him.
I don’t have enough words of praise for the city watch novels. Sam Vimes must be one of my absolute favourite characters ever. Closely followed by Corporal Carrot, the new recruit with a mysterious past and an iron core of integrity you couldn’t so much as scorch with a blowtorch. And then you’ve got Fred Colon, Nobby Nobbs, Angua, Cheery Littlebottom, Detritus, Lady Sybil Ramkin … and the truly stupendous Lord Vetinari, ruler of the city.
Together, these stalwart individuals confront dragons, golems, hostile neighbours and friends, avert international incidents and narrowly stave off war.
If by some amazing chance you’ve never read any Discworld novels, I do urge you to give Wyrd Sisters and Guards, Guards a try. Never mind the thought-provoking social commentary, the intricate examinations of religion and government and foreign policy and journalism and crime and honour – although you’ll get all that and more from these books. Read them for the sheer, exuberant joy contained in their pages, for the laugh out loud moments, for the unexpected sorrows and tenderness, for the piercing humanity that colours every tale.
I doubt there’ll ever be another writer quite like him.