Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Great Discworld Re-Re-Read

When Terry Pratchett passed away I was in the middle of re-reading Going Postal because we had just watched the three-hour miniseries based on the book.

Mini-review for the mini-series:

I generally liked part 1. It took a bit of getting used to, but most of the cast worked for me. I think Stanley (Ian Bonar) was spot on (and that this guy should really get a turn at playing the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret). David Suchet (Hercule Poirot!) did good work as a perfectly loathsome Reacher Gilt. Things jumped ship from the book, but in a mostly organic and livable way. We reached the fire with enjoyment still intact.

However - then we got to part 2. Part 2 was a tragic disaster. Things derailed into the completely ridiculous and characters were behaving totally out of character. For example Adora Belle Dearheart never, would never, did never, just jump onto the back of a horse with Moist. Just NO! NO! NO!

Some things were still mostly well handled but so much was just wrong that the adaptation totally lost my affection.  If you haven't read the book (like my son) the miniseries is still fun, but if you have read the books and have a sense of history and character, the second part is really jarring. Both my husband and I disliked the second half, though interestingly enough, we cited the handling of different characters as the reason.

So, as a remedy, I started re-re-re-...-reading the book. The book Going Postal is one of my favorite Discworld novels and I have loved it to pieces (literally, my copy is falling apart.) I was around 3/4 thorough when I got the news that Terry Pratchett had passed away.  (Still sad.) That made me decide to start re-reading all of Discworld.

The Discworld books are not like anything else I have ever found. They started out as a satiric take on sword and sorcery fantasy novels but over time evolved into much deeper social commentary, while still maintaing a sarcastic worldview. The Discworld itself is a flat disc that sits on the backs of four giant elephants, which in turn stand on the back of the giant space turtle, the Great A'Tuin. While the world is clearly a high fantasy creation with trolls, dwarves, and magic, the characters are well-rounded and much more realistic then you expect from fantasy - flawed, cynical and contradictory, the story arcs in the books are engrossing as you watch characters evolve and grow. Through the characters eyes, you see the world from several perspectives.

After thinking about it briefly, I decided that while I did want to re-read the Discworld books, I didn't want to do it in chronological order (this time - other than Eric, the short stories and the illustrated novels I have missed out - I read everything in publication order the first time around and have periodically re-read favorites multiple times - usually whenever a new book came out.)

This time around I am reading story arcs. Roughly the books can be grouped as follows (note that there are several interpretations of this and many blog posts have been written arguing about the 'correct' classification and read order of the books.):

  • The Color of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Sorcery, Eric, Interesting Times, The Last Continent, The Last Hero, Unseen Academicals, (as well as the four Science of Discworld supplementary books)

  • Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies, Maskerade, Carpe Jugulum 

Tiffany Aching (YA-Witch associated series)
  • The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight

  • Mort, Reaper Man, Soul Music, Hogfather, Thief of Time*

History Monks (other than the first one, these are part of other arcs too) 
  • Small Gods‡, Thief of Time*, Night Watch° 

City Watch
  • Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, The Truth, The Last Hero, Night Watch°, Monstrous Regiment (sort of), Thud!, Where's My Cow (children's picture book which ties in with Thud!), Snuff

Industrialization/Modernization of Ankh-Morpork
  • The Truth, Going Postal, Making Money, Raising Steam 

Non-series titles:
  • Pyramids, Moving Pictures, Small Gods‡, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (the graphic above puts this one in the Death cycle, but I remember it more as a stand-alone).
click to enlarge

I have written about this before, but figure this is a good time to go over this again. For people who are interested in trying Terry Pratchett but have either been scared off by, or were unimpressed with, The Color of Magic - the first published Discworld book - there are a few other good ways to become introduced. First, rather than starting with Discworld 'proper' you can come in with the Tiffany Aching books, which are considered Young Adult. The first is The Wee Free Men, followed by A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight. There is one more on the way, which as far as I understand it, will be the last Terry Pratchett book to be published. 

The Tiffany Aching books take place in the same general region as the Witches books, but the stories are self contained and separate from events in the wider world. You get a taste of the Disc without getting overwhelmed by the huge cast of characters in the main series. While there are a couple of cameos it won't affect your appreciation of the books if you don't have their backstory.

Another way of getting into Discworld is to skip a few books (I know, I know - I am one of those obsessives who wants to start with the first book too) and start with a slightly later book. Pratchett's writing style evolves significantly from say the first five published books and the later ones. As one of the best starting points to one of the most popular story arcs I would suggest Guards! Guards! which is the first novel about the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. The writing is on even footing and you get introduced to several important characters in the Discworld universe. That is what I have decided to do this time around. 

Another approach is to start with Wyrd Sisters the second book in the Witches story arc. Skipping Equal Rites won't be a problem, it is really different from the remaining Witches books and Granny Weatherwax is almost a totally different character. Equal Rites was the third Discworld book Pratchett wrote and he was still working on hitting his stride. It is still very similar to The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic, more focused on being satirical about common tropes than in making deeper commentary.  

Finally, if you are not sure about any of this, you might try starting with Small Gods, which is basically a stand alone "Ancient Civilizations" style book that gives you a taste of Pratchett without a huge investment in trying to sort all of the characters out. You can try other stand-alones, but honestly none of the others are as solid as Small Gods and don't really work as a good bridge to the wider Discworld. 

Ideally, I still think that people should read the books in publication order to see how Terry Pratchett grew as an author and to really get a handle on his vision of the social evolution of his invented world. 

However,  if the first book is giving you trouble any of these suggestions should work to give you a better entry into Discworld. You can always get around to reading them once you are hooked. 

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