So with the whole series nicely digesting inside me, I return to the question which started me out on my weird quest just over a year ago: what’s the best novel to start a newcomer on? Reading them through in order was an amazing experience, but starting with The Colour of Magic – despite the fact that I thought significantly more of it than many others seem to – perhaps requires a bit more patience from your first-timer than some of the later books. Not necessarily, of course: a reader versed in pure fantasy might find this a great place to begin. And here the problem hoves into view – I suspect that the advice on which novel to start with needs to vary according to the startee.
I find myself tending to the belief that it might be better to start on one of the mid-series books like Men at Arms or Soul Music, because those later novels do effect a dependency (albeit in many cases a minor one) on the reader’s knowledge of what’s come before, and the glorious thing about the first two thirds of the series is that almost any of them can be read independently. Another reason for a mid-series start is that I think it’s important to have a sense, when you get to the later novels, of where the world’s come from (my inclination, in other words, is to start on a book which actually explains what the Discworld is at some point – the last 20-odd novels assume you know and skip the obligatory Great A’Tuin introduction). I’m treating this conviction of mine with caution, though, because I’m aware that the mid-series is where I began, and where my fond nostalgic memories are anchored. So the mileage of others might vary radically. Maybe it’s a good thing that the series can escape its roots in fantasy-parody; that new readers can dive in without any of that context and still be enthralled.
Despite all this wishy-washyness, there are a few things I can say with confidence. For example, it’s easy to choose some books not to start on:
- Lords and Ladies
- A Hat Full of Sky
- Making Money
- I Shall Wear Midnight
These are the ones that are so sequel-y that I judge them the worse for not being read after their predecessors. All Discworlds, of course, have some level of intertextuality which make them more satisfying when read alongside others, but these are the novels in which actual plot events directly follow on from a previous book. I believe you could tentatively add Snuff to this list because of the amount it expects you to know already – something I complained about in my report on it – and as I’ve already mentioned, this lamentation to a greater or lesser extent affects each of the last 10-odd novels, with the possible exceptions of Thud! and Going Postal.
If you wanted to flesh out this list of ‘don’t start here’ titles, you could bulk it up to include the titles I liked less on my readthrough. This necessarily becomes fuzzier, although I think it’s unlikely to be a coincidence that several of these titles were on the previous list:
- Lords and Ladies
- The Last Continent
- Monstrous Regiment
- Making Money
Caveats: I disliked The Last Continent way, way more than anything else on this list, and everything next to it is brilliant by comparison. Some of the reasons for my dislikes are very esoteric, and you are likely to disagree with me. The Last Continent is the only book which I would actually go to bat for as a bad piece of work – I think it’s objectively bad, and that if you disagree you’re wrong. All the others I think there’s some leeway with – especially Monstrous Regiment, which I feel I need to read again and which I include here with great trepidation.
So there’s a fairly small list of books you definitely shouldn’t start with, to which we can add a slightly murkier, larger list of books I reckon you shouldn’t start with. But this still doesn’t narrow the list down too much – is there a way of selecting one book which will definitely get your friend hooked?
This project really reinforced my belief that if your friend is a person of discernment, you should be able to get them hooked with any of the Discworld books, including, if I’m honest, most of the ones I’ve already mentioned. As I’ve already said, you may want to use your knowledge of their special preferences to lean in the direction of one book or another – the best Discworld book is different for each reader – but you’ll probably find your friend’s notional favourite hard to guess straight off. You can’t win, but you also can’t lose.
This is a cop-out from me, though, and in any case it assumes a correlation between best book and most welcoming introduction, which might be dangerous. So after mulling it for a year, and with all disclaimers about subjectivity and personal experience now formally made, here’s my two cents: in an introductory book you want something which at least nods at, and preferably does much more than nod at, everything the Discworld is about. In my view, the Discworld is about the following things: (i) excellent high-fantastical ideas mixed with sharply observed real-world parody, (ii) a firm and righteous moral base which always stops just short of being preachy, (iii) an eclectic cast of compelling characters, (iv) genuine philosophical insights/thoughts and (v) extraordinarily well-written and often laugh-out-loud prose. If these five things are the concerns of the whole series (I accept that this list is probably imperfect, and welcome suggestions for improvements), then it seems to me that the novels which display them all in equal measure might be the best ones to read to find out if you’ll like the whole lot. On these criteria, there’s still no one novel that stands out, but to me it seems that there are a bunch that encapsulate my five points extraordinarily well (although, again, there is no Discworld novel in which they are not all present to some extent):
- Small Gods
- Thief of Time
- The Wee Free Men
- Going Postal
I think I’d reserve honourable mention slots for Feet of Clay and Unseen Academicals.
What about chronological order?
I suppose this is the jillion-dollar question. I just read these books, many of them for the first time, in order of publication. Would I recommend it? Well, I certainly feel that my appreciation for and knowledge of the series has deepened, and that I now understand a bit more about the ways in which it was crafted and became the imaginative masterpiece that it is. But I don’t think these kinds of appreciation are necessary for (or to be expected from) a first-time reader. My first experience of the Discworld was piecemeal, and it did me no damage – in fact, it was precisely what made the chronological approach fun.
I encourage all Discworld fans who fancy it, especially ones who haven’t read those older titles for a while, to try the chronological approach. It’s good to be forced back into contact with the novels you liked less – there are nice surprises to be found there – and it’s amazing how many subtleties you pick up if you already have an acquaintance with the series going in.
However, first time readers certainly don’t need to read the books in order. I think that’s one of the great adverts for the series – it’s really a staggering achievement that so few of these novels require any prior knowledge at all. How many writers can claim such a huge series of books with such a range of entry points? It’s a feature, not a bug, that finding the ideal starting book for the Discworld is so difficult. If you are a first-timer considering the chronological approach, I would recommend thinking about the commitment you’re making – 39 novels! – and about whether you have that kind of staying power for a series you don’t yet know whether you like. Then, if you’ve doubts, just grab one at random – either from my list of good starters, or just wildly, from the shelf, and see where it takes you. You are a person of refinement, so it will take you somewhere good.