Introducing Discworld

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is old enough that it should hardly need an introduction but some people have been unfortunate enough not to encounter his magical (in both senses) world. It’s their loss, not mine, but I am always sorry to see people missing out on such a feast of freewheeling humour, ingenious invention, sharp satire and humane wisdom.

For their benefit, then, I have put together a quick introduction to the series, short reviews of two of the books, and advice about making the sprawling series more approachable. All of that makes this blog post long enough to need its own index but I’m also going to put the Reading Guide here at the top for convenience.

IntroductionMaking MoneyI Shall Wear MidnightNavigating the Series


Introducing the series

Discworld flies through interstellar space on the back of a giant turtle. People much like us share it with dwarfs, werewolves (one of whom is a cop), vampires, trolls, elves (seriously malevolent) and Nac Mac Feegles. Real gods live on the mountain-tops and occasionally intervene in human affairs, and magic is just as real, although it can be dangerously unpredictable.

The series began with The Colour of Magic in 1983 and grew at better than one book per year until 2015, maturing from a flippant spoof of Dungeons and Dragons and Conan the Barbarian into a vehicle for astute, but always entertaining, social comment.

A satirist willing and able to tackle issues as divisive as racism and religion, an author with a sharp moral sense and an even sharper wit, should be entitled to some respect. If he writes fantasy, however, he generally won’t receive it. Pratchett, with sales of 45 million copies, sidestepped the issue very successfully but there is still a chasm between his fans and everyone else.

Making Money

Making Money
Terry Pratchett, 2007

All that Terry Pratchett’s fans need to know is that here is another Discworld novel, chronicling further adventures of the hero of Going Postal.

It may not be the best book of the series but it is still very, very good. Pratchett’s world is purpose-built for examining the weirder aspects of our own, just as Lilliput was created to illuminate the absurdities of Jonathan Swift’s society. Making Money takes a good hard look at the banking system: why on Discworld (or Earth) should anyone value a piece of paper more than a potato? You can’t eat a piece of paper, can you?

There’s a lot of wacky mayhem and serious clowning on the way to the answer but none of the running jokes trip over their own feet and the answer is a good one.

I Shall Wear Midnight

I Shall Wear Midnight
Terry Pratchett, 2010

Tiffany Aching is the young but competent, hard-working and respected witch of a small Discworld farming community, doctoring the farm-folk and their animals alike. Changes are coming, however. The old Baron is dying, the young Baron-to-be is about to be married, and a strange, nasty undercurrent of suspicion towards witches is seeping into the atmosphere.

Before very long, Tiffany is locked in a deadly battle with the merciless spirit of a witch-hunting priest of long ago. He is a daunting adversary even for one who has defeated the Fairy Queen but she has support from many around her, especially the Nac Mac Feegles, tiny but incredibly tough warriors with bad habits and good hearts.

The author has identified this as a book ‘for younger readers’ but there is, as always in Discworld, plenty for older readers to enjoy as well. Children new to the series might find the first of Tiffany’s adventures, The Wee Free Men, a slightly better starting point but continuity is managed so smoothly that this book is perfectly accessible on its own.

Calling any one novel in such a diverse series ‘the best’ is impossible, but I Shall Wear Midnight is certainly one of the best. Sadly, it was also one of Pratchett’s last. He was diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007 and passed away in 2015.

Navigating the series

Older readers will eventually negotiate the labyrinth of Discworld novels wherever they start (or they won’t: sadly, some people just do not ‘get’ Discworld) but some guidance can make it easier and more enjoyable, especially for younger readers. The reading order guide at the top of this page was created some years ago with this in mind.

It was posted on the L-Space Web, a fan site which still has a lot to offer but hasn’t been updated for at least ten years. Neither has its reading guide, which omits the last three novels in the series – Snuff (City Watch), The Shepherd’s Crown (Tiffany Aching) and Raising Steam (Industrial Revolution).

This wiki seems to be the replacement for L-Space. The publisher’s official reading guide  there looks quite different from the old one but is functionally equivalent apart from those last novels, so take your pick.

The terrypratchettbooks site is well maintained and includes links to dramatisations but not (oddly) the movies. There is also (of course) a Wikipedia page about Pratchett and another about the series.

• This page consists largely of reviews I wrote when the two books came out, suitably deconstructed, recycled and updated. More of my fiction reviews from that period are now on this blog under “words” while some with environmental themes (including nonfiction) are on my other blog, Green Path  under “Books“.

Gleitzman: Grace

book coverGrace tells the story of her family’s escape from a fundamentalist Christian cult in this powerful Young Adult novel from one of Australia’s best writers in the field. She is a teenager who has never known anyone outside her church community, because its members are forbidden to speak to the ‘unsaved’ except with special exemptions. They go to church schools, marry within the church and work in church-owned businesses. They accept the Bible, as interpreted by their Elders, as the ultimate authority on every aspect of their daily lives, and they accept cruel and bizarre punishments meted out by the Elders for any questioning or infringement of the doctrine.

Grace’s father has quietly questioned this peculiar way of life and brought up his children to do the same but he has not been quiet enough and, as the book opens, is expelled from the community. Continue reading “Gleitzman: Grace”

Gaiman: Coraline

[This is a 2008 review of the graphic novel, adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell, with some afterthoughts.]

book coverNeil Gaiman has been having a very good year, for about the tenth year in a row, writing fantasy for all ages and adapting it for other media. Coraline was his big success in 2003-04 as a short children’s novel, winning the Hugo, Locus, Nebula and other awards.

It is already available as an audiobook, it is in production as an animated film and here it is as a graphic novel (a classy comic book, to those who think ‘graphic novel’ is pretentious).

Does Coraline deserve this much attention?

Continue reading “Gaiman: Coraline”

Sara Gruen: Water for Elephants

Sara Gruen Water for ElephantsIf you ever wanted to run away with the circus, if you have ever been passionately in love with the wrong person, if you are scared by the idea of a lonely old age in a nursing home, if you know some animals are cleverer and nicer than most people, if you love larger-than-life characters, lost worlds, high adventure and fairytale endings, then this book is for you.

Set in the USA in 1931, a period defined by Prohibition and the Depression, Water for Elephants follows Jacob Jankowski as he drops out of veterinary school and accidentally joins Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show On Earth, travelling by train across the country.

Continue reading “Sara Gruen: Water for Elephants”

Venero Armanno: Candle Life

candle life coverA young Australian writer in Paris, drowning in grief for the death of his girlfriend, is drawn into a surreal series of events by an enigmatic expatriate American. Sonny Lee, first encountered as a vagrant on the streets, may or may not have been the important literary figure he claims to have been, but he does eventually set the novel’s unnamed narrator on a path that spirals down into the darkness of the Parisian catacombs. His disturbing influence is counterbalanced by a sweet, mute Russian prostitute and an uncomplicatedly affectionate young Frenchwoman.

Candle Life has many parallels with John Fowles’ The Magus, likewise centred on a young writer isolated in a foreign community and manipulated into strange and frightening experiences which ultimately bring him self-knowledge; both even have sub-plots revisiting the Second World War, but The Magus is fifty years old, and shows it, while Candle Life is absolutely contemporary. For its major characters, all living on the fringes of society, stability is inconceivable while identity is fluid and drugs, casual sex and gratuitous violence are commonplace. Fowles would have been appalled by the collapse of social institutions, but he would have recognised that his questions about identity and the relationship between truth, fantasy and fiction, had been tackled anew with vigour and integrity.

Brisbane-born Venero Armanno teaches creative writing at the University of Queensland. The mode of his seventh novel matches its content, dreamlike in its swirl of action and illusion and its sudden changes of perspective. Candle Life is a wild, brilliant book.

Vintage, $32.95

Review originally published July 2006,
added to this site October 2020.