By Heather Rolph | Illustration courtesy of Henry Rolph
Dwarves who wear lipstick? Werewolves with the police? The Campaign for Equal Heights? Witches who love beer? Anoia — Goddess of Things That Get Stuck in Drawers?
Meet Discworld — the flat planet supported on the backs of four elephants carried through space on the back of the great turtle A’Tuin. Here there are wizards (who in another world might just be called professors with a fondness for food), the Thieves Guild (after all, there will always be crime, so why not tax it?), zombies who make excellent lawyers, trolls with drug problems, and of course Death, a scythe-carrying skeleton who also likes cats.
“You can’t map a sense of humor. Anyway, what is a fantasy map but a space beyond which There Be Dragons? On the Discworld we know that There Be Dragons Everywhere. They might not all have scales and forked tongues, but they Be Here all right, grinning and jostling and trying to sell you souvenirs. ”
– Terry Pratchett, “The Color of Magic”
Discworld is a fantasy realm, and it is also a series written by the late Sir Terry Pratchett, encompassing 41 books and a dedicated community of cult-like, bookstore-dwelling, quote-spewing followers. It’s a series that sounds ridiculous and comical, and it is, at times — in a read-aloud-to-anyone-nearby sort of way — but it’s also, at its best, deeply honed satire that takes aim at anything — governments, sexism, the postal system, universities, money, religion, sausages, Australia, the Tooth Fairy — without sacrificing a good plot and better characters.
In these pandemic times, Discworld has become the escape of choice for my family: witty fantasy that is never mindless but always funny, good for late-night reading and dinner-table jokes. While less slapstick than Monty Python, at times it runs in a similar vein, and it’s just as quotable.
“Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on.”
– Terry Pratchett, “Hogfather”
The hardest thing about reading Discworld can be figuring out where in all those 41 books to start (but the best part is, they don’t have to be read in any particular order). They’re a good sort of book to re-read, too: over the years I’ve read nearly all of them, but the humor gets even better the second (or third) time around. There are many Discworld suggestions out there — the official Terry Pratchett website even has a book suggestion generator — and, in case you’re searching for an alternative to binge-watching Netflix or trying not to kill your sourdough starter, here are a couple of mine.
“Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree. But people have always been dimly aware of the problem with the start of things. They wonder aloud how the snowplow driver gets to work, or how the makers of dictionaries look up the spellings of the words. Yet there is the constant desire to find some point in the twisting, knotting, raveling nets of space-time on which a metaphorical finger can be put to indicate that here, here, is the point where it all began…”
– Terry Pratchett, “Hogfather”
The first thing to note is that “The Color of Magic” and “The Light Fantastic” are the first two official books in the series. This does not, however, mean they’re the best to start with. They focus on Rincewind (an unnaturally inept wizard) and Twoflower, the first Tourist the Discworld has ever seen. While broadly funny, they aren’t as polished as some of Pratchett’s later works, and can take a bit of getting used to.
I was introduced to Discworld through one of its YA strains: The Tiffany Aching series, which follows a young witch defeating evil and asking lots of nosy questions on the Scotland-themed Chalk (“The Wee Free Men,” “A Hat Full of Sky,” “Wintersmith,” “I Shall Wear Midnight,” and — Pratchett’s last book before his death in March 2015 — “The Shepherd’s Crown”). Personally, I think it’s a good route in, particularly if you have some younger readers in your family with whom you’d like to start your Discworld journey. While they’re simpler and contain less of the adult satire found in the other Discworld books, they’re still a good read for adults, and an easy way to become accustomed to Pratchett’s writing style and the foibles of the Discworld.
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
– Terry Pratchett, “A Hat Full of Sky”
Otherwise, Discworld is mostly organized into series of character-themed books — and depending what you’re in the mood for, they can be a good place to start.
Death: Perhaps one of the best-loved characters in the whole Discworld series, Death appears when people die and ALWAYS SPEAKS IN CAPITAL LETTERS. He’s also fascinated by humans, and in some strange ways soft-hearted. Start with “Mort,” and be glad to know that Death makes at least a cameo appearance in most Discworld books.
Sam Vimes/City Watch: Perhaps some of the all-around best books in Discworld center on Sam Vimes, the recovered drunk who’s reforming the city police system. Rife with mysteries and some good old swashbuckling action, these are less fantastical than some of the others. Start with “Guards! Guards!”— though my personal favorite is “Men at Arms.”
Rincewind/Wizards: For the wizards in Discworld, think absentminded professors with a side of magical explosions. Unseen University, where they live, is a bit like Hogwarts — with less students, no Quidditch, more administrative issues, and a librarian who happens to be an orangutan. Start with “The Color of Magic,” although “The Last Continent” (a satire mostly of Australia) and “Unseen Academicals” (what happens when the Discworld discovers soccer?) are my favorites.
Witches: The witches in Discworld tend to be no-nonsense women with some serious, though often understated, bad-ass exploits. Start with the Tiffany Aching series, or to follow chronological order, with “Equal Rites” (what happens when a female inherits a wizard’s staff?)
Moist von Lipwig: One of the more recent characters in Discworld, Moist von Lipwig is a criminal turned respectable citizen — although he tends to blur those lines. Perhaps some of the most laugh-out-loud funny books in all of Discworld, his story starts in “Going Postal” and continues in “Making Money” and “Raising Steam.”
“Poets have tried to describe Ankh-Morpork. They have failed. Perhaps it’s the sheer zestful vitality of the place, or maybe it’s just that a city with a million inhabitants and no sewers is rather robust for poets, who prefer daffodils and no wonder. So let’s just say that Ankh-Morpork is as full of life as an old cheese on a hot day, as loud as a curse in a cathedral, as bright as an oil slick, as colourful as a bruise and as full of activity, industry, bustle and sheer exuberant busyness as a dead dog on a termite mound.”
– Terry Pratchett, “Mort”
Wherever you decide to begin your Discworld journey, know that there are 40 more books out there (and a couple non-Discworld Pratchett books as well). Enter Ankh-Morpork, the blueprint of cities everywhere — and be careful not to eat the sausages.