Review: The Discworld Series

Last week I finished the Discworld Series.  I started with a few books early in 2008.  From the first book, The Color of Magic, I fell in love with the series.  Although I have found British television and movies to be hit or miss, I have loved all of the geek genre British books.  So I read the first four or five books here and there.  Then in November Borders had a “buy two get the third one free” and my wife bought me the remaining 20-something books for my birthday and Christmas.  She also let me start reading in November.  I started reading them during my lunch breaks at work, on business trips and – when things were getting really interesting – at home.

I think the Discworld Series is the greatest collection of books based on a single “world”.  Of course, you have to enjoy the genre I call “sarcastic sci-fi/fantasy”.  Other examples include The Hitchhikers’ Guide “trilogy” and Neil Stephenson’s earlier cypherpunk novels.  Part of what makes Terry Pratchett such an amazing writer is his ability to write amazing parody.  It ranges from subtle (The Builder of the Spacecraft in The Light Fantastic -> Taj Majal) to the obvious (Gollem-like creature in [I think] Witches Abroad).  To speak more about the parody would rob you of the pleasure of recognizing the parody.  (At least that’s how I usually feel about them)

The Discworld books are divided into stories about certain characters.  The Color Of Magic introduces The Wizards and Equal Rites introduces The Witches.  The wikipedia entry suggests you could read in publication order or read in the order of character stories.  I recommend against any reading other than publication order.  Even though Pratchett starts off with each book (other than the first two) being relatively self-contained, you will find yourself missing out on references and jokes if you skip around.  This is especially true on crossover stories.  For example, The Wizards appear in Carpe Jugulum even though it’s primarily a Witches story.  And there would be certain assumptions you would be missing.  This is especially true with the Moist von Lipwig and City Watch stories.  And, of course, The Wizards make cameos in City Watch stories.

A very interesting thing happened to me as I was reading through the series.  I started off really, really enjoying The Wizards.  I wasn’t too fond of The Witches and I definitely didn’t have that much fun with The City watch in their first book – “Guards! Guards!”.  But as time went on, I started to get a little tired of The Wizards.  I think Terry Pratchett did as well because they appear in a smaller and smaller percentage of the books.  I started to really like The Witches and by the end I REALLY liked The City Watch.  The appearance and description of Death in the first two books are what cemented my love for Discworld.  When I read his first lines, I was hooked.  As far as his own books, I’ve found myself really liking them at first and then dropping off with the later ones.  I think I like Death most as a cameo character.  His own books, especially later on, tend to get a bit dragged on.

So that’s the good stuff.  What’s the bad stuff?  I’ll start out with something that is only the tiniest bit negative.  The plots of many (maybe most?) of the Discworld books revolve around macguffins.  It’s only a tiny bit negative because, really most fantasy or sci-fi novels are macguffin-heavy.  The point of the Discworld books is to explore the Discworld and its many hilarious inhabitants.  I’m not saying that the plot suffers.  But sometimes I found the resolution to the conflict pretty darned anti-climactic.  Also, at first Pratchett seems to suffer from Sitcom-itis.  Many of the early books wrap up their plots so that in the end everything is returned to the status quo.  He seems to be afraid of changing too much of of the Discworld.  That’s probably a good thing early on since he didn’t want to get pigeon-holed.  But it does take away some of the punch of the episodes.  The reason why I never got engaged with most sitcoms is that I knew nothing would change after 30 minutes – so what was the point of all the mayhem?  It’s not until “Guards! Guards!” that the Discworld begins to have a history to refer back to.

A few other niggles I have are with some continuity problems.  WARNING THIS PARAGRAPH WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS!  And Pratchett does such a GOOD job overall with maintaining an extremely rich continuity and I think that’s why it hurts so much when it isn’t there.  Examples include the fact that it was SUCH A BIG DEAL for Esk to become the first female wizard.  Yet she has never appeared again.  It also seemed a bit cheap that after Gaspode lost his Movie-Magic reason to speak, he gained it from the Unseen University.  In one book, it is explained how Vetinari will never allow a printing press in Ankh-Morpork, but just a couple of books later he is endorsing it.  One other thing I think killed a lot of the fun of The Wizards is that they are no longer trying to kill each other.  Munstrum Ridcully comes in and suddenly everything’s normal.  I know Pratchett needed to do that for character development reasons, but it really stinks.  END OF SPOILERS

I would love to see Pratchett explore the lands mentioned in Pyramids a bit more.

Right now I’m reading ancillary books related to the Discworld, but not in its continuity.  This includes The Science of Discworld (an awesome book!).  I think the reader is in a very unique opportunity.  Right now there are 30 or so Discworld books to read.  The early ones are read rather quickly, but the later ones get lengthier.  It might easily also take you a few months to read them through, but you are able to read them back-to-back as I did.  This means that, unlike people who read them as they came out, you can easily remember the continuity and will therefore enjoy a lot more of the jokes.  (The same thing happened to me with Clerks -> Jay/Silent Bob.  I was able to get jokes seeing them back to back that others in my group had never seen)  It’ll cost a few hundred (the books are $8/ea in the US), but it’ll be money well-spent as far as books go.  If, like me, you find the first book amazing – you’ll like the entire series.  If you find the first book ok, give the next three a shot.  And if you don’t like the book, you probably won’t like the series much.  His writing gets better, but the tone stays more or less the same.

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