The Chronological Discworld Project

Reading all 39 of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels in order, in a year, and thinking about them.

Where Not To Start

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
  • Wintersmith
  • 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:

  • Sourcery
  • Lords and Ladies
  • The Last Continent
  • Monstrous Regiment
  • Making Money
  • Snuff

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
  • Hogfather
  • 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.

Job Done

Well, with just six days to spare I finished what I set out to do and read every Discworld novel in a year. It’s been a great experience, and not even nearly as onerous as I was worried it might be at the beginning.

Now I’m looking forward to getting back to book 4 of A Song of Ice and Fire (bad, perhaps, to have got sucked into that this last year too!), but I think it would be unfair to let this project go without a little final reflection at the end, so there’ll be a couple more posts over the next few days. In particular, I’m interested in saying something brief about: suggested reading orders and typologies; starting places; the chronological experience; my favourite and least favourite books; the enduring imaginative appeal (and development) of the series. So whilst the project is over, the blog has a little life in it yet, and I hope you’ll stay tuned!

Snuff

An awesome adventure story and some really rich new ideas are lurking deep within this book, but they’re generally invisible between lengthy disquisitions in which the word ‘copper’ appears far too many times and tracts of unusually coarse and/or scatological humour, which used to be an occasional refuge of the Discworld and now seem to have been elevated to a primary concern.

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After Carpe Jugulum, Pratchett made the very sensible decision to retire Granny Weatherwax to a supporting role, realising that she was simply too awesome for a plot about her to have any tension in it, and perhaps nervous about the fact that, largely due to her awesomeness, several huge sections of Carpe just consisted of Granny talking. I wish he’d had the same epiphany about Vimes, who we know from books like Unseen Academicals makes a great cameo character. But instead, we have Snuff, a Watch book from which the Watch are almost entirely absent, and one which is dogged – especially in its first third – by Vimes making speeches about how to be a policeman. There’s no room even for a villain: the main antagonist is entirely offstage, and even his nasty lieutenant/catspaw is really present on only a few pages. The plot suffers, too: on my journey through these books, I’ve so seldom been so far ahead of the story, successfully predicting (if you can call it that) nearly all of the twists and turns. Perhaps most egregiously, the portrayal of the horrible situation Vimes wants to avert is also compromised: in stark contrast to I Shall Wear Midnight‘s shocking descriptions of child murder and suicide, descriptions of the conditions on the goblin plantation are done by shorthand and innuendo. I suspect that this is not the result of any squeamishness, but rather the fact that Pratchett is more interested in Vimes’s outrage than ours.

The main reason this book made me sad is that it has tonnes to offer. We finally get our first ever glimpse of Howondaland and several other new locations in the Shires (and on the river down to Quirm), and we also meet the goblins, who are a really well worked-out race full of exciting mythology and promise. But the relentless focus on Vimes is as debilitating to these new ideas as his rugged, streetwise perfection. I can’t reliably remember the last time I saw Vimes make a mistake or do something stupid, but I think it was probably in Jingo, fourteen years before this was written. He does everything right, and is never, ever at a loss – the most that’s at stake is that sometimes he gets tired. There’s a moment in Snuff where he’s presented with having to ride a horse, something he announces (to the reader only) a fear of, and it’s genuinely unconvincing because at that point in the narrative you simply don’t accept that this is a character capable of that kind of deficiency. And, indeed, when he actually goes near the horse, the issue of his incompetence is magically resolved (in a way which is never explained).

Vimes’s superhero prowess has been accentuated by the powers apparently conferred on him by the Summoning Dark in Thud!, one of the many plot-centric links to other Discworld books which makes this one, I suspect, nearly-unreadable independently. There’s plenty of Feegle stuff in here, carrying over from the Tiffany Aching books, but also recurrences of the Blackboard Monitor joke, the clacks, and a whole bunch of other stuff from previous Watch books. Discworld novels have always referenced each other of course, and it’s a delight when they do, but many of these allusions are plot-critical and totally unexplained – this book, then, adds to the feeling generated by everything since Making Money than Pratchett is no longer writing for new readers. And like Making Money, the enduring feeling this book leaves behind is one of superfluity: this book has some great ambiance and some wonderful ideas, but they are too well concealed behind Vimes being Vimes, which is something we’ve already seen elsewhere, and handled far better.

I Shall Wear Midnight

The problem with the Tiffany Aching books has always been that the first one is stunning, whilst the subsequent volumes are merely very very good. But I think I Shall Wear Midnight is a close second to The Wee Free Men, and in many respects a nice place for the sequence to finish. There’s one sticking point, which I dwell on excessively below, but this has a lovely pace, is phenomenally easy to read, and has Esk in it – something which feels especially good when you’ve come through all the Discworlds in order, and Equal Rites feels ages ago.

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That this book is easy to read and extremely funny is actually quite remarkable, given that its social material is pretty much as heavy as you can imagine possible in places (the Petty sub-plot), and that its baddie is a genuinely disturbing opponent who is at times actively the stuff of nightmares. A more didactic tone, rather than a less sophisticated one, has always been the defining feature of Pratchett’s young adult novels, and that mission well suits the witches, who are the gatekeepers of a particular kind of grubby, thoughtful morality (no doubt this is why all the YA novels except the first one have centred around the witches). It’s worth commenting on how that mission has panned out. That someone can be commercially successful writing a book which starts with an intelligent cheese trying to cheat in a cheese-rolling competition (with the assistance of Scottish pixies) is impressive; that the same book is unembarrassed about tackling wife-beating, murder, suicide, and myriad other big social issues head on elevates it to stunning. As always, it’s human nature that Pratchett is really studying, but the breadth of what he takes on here, and the (generally) consistent subtlety with which he turns it into questions and thinking points for his (notionally) younger readers is humbling.

The sticking point I mentioned at the start is that Tiffany now seems – and for the first time, I think – a trifle too career-focussed. What do I mean by that? Only, really, that we have constant reminders in this sequence of Granny Aching, a serious contender for my favourite Discworld character, who manages a whole lifetime of witchcraft without ever telling anyone about it. Such is her power and subtlety; Tiffany, meanwhile, is on an identifiable career ladder, and seems increasingly self-defined by – and, more importantly, anxious to impose on others – the mores and trevails of her profession. There’s a lot of ‘I’m your witch’; ‘What would a witch do here?’, that kind of language. I’m not really thinking of it as a flaw – the rich interior workings of witchcraft are the central imaginative contribution of the Tiffany books to the Discworld series – but it does mean that the organic connection between Tiffany and the Chalk, the instinctive link to the landscape via Granny Aching so beautifully painted in The Wee Free Men, is now very much in the background. Perhaps that’s no bad thing, especially in a sequence which is meant to (and does) show Tiff growing and changing – but I still miss the good old days. (Tiff also uses a lot of magic, sometimes, it seems to me, to show off.. and this is most certainly contrary to the precedents of previous books).

The other thing this book does – with its visit to Ankh and cameos from various members of the Watch as well as Esk – is connect the Tiffany books a tiny bit more firmly to the rest of the Discworld series. In doing so, it salves some of the worries I was having during my comments on Wintersmith. Like Wintersmith, though, this book is avowedly part of a sequence, and the Tiffany Aching books, I would say, are definitely best read in order. 

Unseen Academicals

I approached this one with trepidation, for football is not my thing and I’d heard rumours – but the book kept its blurb’s promise and turned out to be about much more. It didn’t rocket onto my favourites list, but it went down smoothly and I’m looking forward to reading it again, because I suspect it will benefit from a second run-through.

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The main sensation I had whilst reading this was one of scale. It’s a significantly longer book than the Discworld average, but I don’t just mean that – the depth of what’s going on and in particular the width of interest on display here make this a veritable Discworld symphony, with lots of new ideas surfacing amidst the familiar themes from earlier in Pratchett’s career. I was worried about another wizard-centric adventure after The Last Continent, but this is deflected by the twin focus the book has on the staff of the University’s lower echelons. Glenda in particular is an enormously likeable and well-drawn character, and the journey she goes on in this book is a compelling one. I was worried about this working-class focus, which could very easily have been (and in places, still did not quite escape being) tokenistic or actively prejudicial. But the number and variety of working characters, coupled with the fact they end up dominating the adventure, offset this anxiety for me. This book also made a greater-than-usual concession to homosexuality, another notable absence in the Discworld (although in Pratchett’s defence I’d say that all sexuality is treated fairly distantly throughout) – it remains innuendo rather than actively present, but it’s an improvement.

We can see what’s changed about the Discworld lately all over this book – one mention only of Great A’Tuin (‘the World Turtle’), as an aside, once, and the first for many books now; Rincewind a minor character with  perhaps only ten lines of dialogue (but how nice to see him, finally, in the obscure and safe Professorship he’s always wanted); the faculty broken up, with the Dean moved away and Hix taking over from Recent Runes/Senior Wrangler as the main foil to Ridcully. This is not a book that’s divorcing its predecessors, though – there’s mention of the Archchancellor’s hat (Sourcery), for instance, and Moving Pictures comes up as well. The latter is especially interesting, since at first glance this is another ‘Roundworld tech comes to Discworld’ story, with Football rather than movies as its theme. This book, though, runs on very different lines: the Roundworld parody is there, but football is a pre-existing sport deliberately institutionalised by Vetinari and Ridcully; there’s no suggestion of it being demonic (Moving Pictures) or even a force from outside (The Truth) – rather, the wizards resurrect and old version of the rules, connecting to the Disc’s own deep past (as does the b-plot about the Orcs). And although there are some delightful references, and although I doubtless missed a lot of the in-jokes (not being a footballer), this book feels less straightforwardly powered by parody than, say, Soul Music. In its near-550 pages it depicts only one football game, and to be honest I thought the Roundworld phenomenon being channelled was Harry Potter (Quidditch) rather than the premier league (which is referenced in a more throwaway comic moment in Pyramids). This, then, is a book piling many other things around the core elements which have made up a Discworld text is the past – all those elements are still there, but the priorities have changed. Some evidence of this can be found in the link, via Boffo (and a few other things) to the otherwise-unconnected Tiffany Aching adventures happening in parallel.

There are moments when the density of this text inevitably leads it to places where it feels in tension with earlier works, but on the whole these were small, and as usual I thought Paul Kidby’s cover was much more of a problem here than the actual text is (this cover is a disaster for a number of reasons, the main one being that Glenda is wearing a cheerleader’s outfit – which she never does in the book – and is significantly larger than any of the wizards, which flies in the face of what the book’s about). One thing is for certain, though: the Discworld is no longer being written for newcomers. It’s perhaps not a reflection on the 37th book in a sequence that it goes in at the deep end, but as the extensive previous paragraph suggests, a primary source for the Discworld is no longer Roundworld but previous Discworld. Tonnes is unexplained or introduced with an offhandedness which I can’t imagine a newcomer not finding confusing. There were places where I got lost, and I literally just finished reading every previous book in the series. It’s never on anything major – Pratchett’s far too good a writer for that – but it does represent a change, and not one I’m delighted about.

All is forgiven on pages 482-4, though. I submit to you that no-one could read those pages and not love the book they’re in.

Making Money

This was a weird reading experience for me. It had all the right stuff in all the right place – it was compelling to read, has the usual array of great characters, and is downright hilarious in places. But for some reason – one I can’t quite pin down – I came away dissatisfied.

Making_Money_Paul_Kidby

This might be about sequely-ness. I moaned about this with Wintersmith too, and it feels ominous to me that the two books are consecutive. This book is definitely a sequel to Going Postal – not only does it have the same main characters, chapter structure, and social concerns, but it also follows the action directly and makes repeated reference to the specific events of the earlier book. This is a new level of direct follow-on – and unlike Lords and Ladies, which is far less ‘sequelly’, it doesn’t carry an opening author’s note explaining the fact.

By itself, this doesn’t constitute a problem. Pratchett never promised us a series where each book functions independently, and there’s nothing wrong with his having written one now, even if it does feel strange after 35 previous books which weren’t. What I think gets me about this book is that it doesn’t really offer anything which Going Postal didn’t do better. Moist is funny and inspiring in Making Money – he thinks on his feet, his relationship with Spike is far more interesting than a normal romance plot; Vetinari is awesome and scary, the villains are suitably evil, the book promotes intelligent consideration of some of our more fundamental societal mores. This is all great; Going Postal does them all way more convincingly.

In other words, by becoming an outright sequel this book opens the Discworld to all the vulnerabilities associated with that form: the feeling of ideas and characters developed past their natural end points purely for the sake of continuing a series. It’s not (at all) a bad book, but it is definitely an unnecessary one – it feels disorganised, even though it isn’t, and much of the farce (Mr. Bent’s reform; Cosmo’s deterioration) feels overdone, even though it isn’t. When the many likeable things about this book have marched into the sunset, what’s left is an emptiness I’ve never felt before whilst doing this project – the emptiness of ‘why did we do this?’. The close, in which Vetinari eyes up the Tax office for Moist’s next job, only makes this feeling seem even more hopeless.

Wintersmith

Reading Hogfather in June was weird, but it did at least mean that I got to Wintersmith at a seasonally appropriate time. It’s remarkable how little these two books have in common, despite their shared ‘plucky heroine who doesn’t fit in’, ‘intangible fairyland climax location’ and ‘anthropomorphic personification of a concept’ themes…

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Wintersmith is the third Tiffany Aching book, and I think some seams are visible. Not in the story, which is wonderful (drawn out a little, but with an immensely satisfying ending), but in the Discworld itself, which is here looser and baggier than it has been before. The ‘rules’ of narrative causality are much more inscrutable here, and a lot of what Granny Weatherwax says about the world seems to be made up on the spot – not by her, the reader fears, but by Pratchett himself. Despite a central interest in the power of stories which has been explicitly on the table since at least Witches Abroad, there’s still the feeling that a lot of this is flying by on a whim. Boffo’s a good example: Discworld readers, and even Tiffany Aching readers, are more than familiar with this concept by now, so why does it only now suddenly have a name? The narrative flab only draws attention to this. What was the point of the two passages about Wee Dangerous Spike? Why the cameo from Magrat (if it was Magrat)? Why so many witches, suddenly, for so few named other characters – and why do they seem suddenly to live so close to each other and have such a busy community and job ladder, despite the assertions of previous books? Questions like these can be asked of any Discworld book, and normally answered with a ‘That’s not the point’ which rings a little hollow for me, in this case – simple continuity breach is not the problem, it’s world integrity which feels compromised now, as the Discworld becomes junior to the plot necessities of the adventure immediately at hand. This is unusual.

The further I get through the Tiffany/Feegles series, the more I feel like I’m watching episodes of a TV show. Wintersmith‘s device of opening with a climactic scene from near the ending is straight out of TV, and there’s something in the way that slowly developing character arcs mesh with immediate and soluble problems which lend the whole sequence a televisual edge. And ‘sequence’ is the word – this book makes repeated reference to the events of its precursors, and relies on your knowledge of them in a way that other Discworld novels so far haven’t. I don’t say this as a criticism, but it does push the Aching books away from the rest of the novels – much more than the chapter structure or the ‘Young Adult’ tone, in my view. Perhaps the most meaningful totem of this distance is the fact that, as in Hat Full of Sky, Ankh-Morpork is never named, despite a brief scene there.

So there’s a definite ‘set-aside’ feeling here, which I think runs slightly up against the wonderful way Pratchett integrates the Young Adult narrative with a pre-existing fantasy world, so successfully in The Wee Free Men. But the witches are out in force and fantastic as ever, it’s wonderful to see Nanny Ogg again, the Feegles themselves are superb, the Wintersmith himself is an appealing concept, and the complexity of Tiffany’s feelings for him are wonderfully realised. It’s a great instalment in the series, but I’m not sure I’d recommend starting with it.

The Final Push?

I admit that accidentally reading the whole of Frank Herbert’s Dune may not have been the best way to ensure that I finish this project on time. But Dune is a great book! And it’s Christmas, which I assume means I’m just going to steam through these final Pratchetts. I’m about halfway through Wintersmith right now, so expect a report on that soon.. and then it’s just four novels to go. The end’s in sight, but so’s the deadline! Will I make it? Does anybody care? FIND OUT SOON!

Thud!

It must be the cover – that hateful, archetypal Paul Kidby cover with its heavy use of black and its sparse oppositeness to the colourful profusion and chaos which, however inaccurately, was always conveyed by the Josh Kirby covers. Surely the mysterious painting at the heart of this mystery, depicting an entire battle happening at once, albeit in the wrong place, is a Kirby picture rather than a Kidby one? And surely this is a book to suit it, full of Watch-mode Pratchett at his best. I read this before and hated it. Apart from the cover, it’s hard now to see why.

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One reason to celebrate is that though this book is very Vimes-centred, it doesn’t exclude the rest of the Watch in the way that Night Watch did. And though it does have a dénouement in a foreign location, it gives most of its bulk over to Ankh-Morpork, which we haven’t had a decent Watch mystery in for some time (especially if we count past-Ankh-Morpork as a different place). It puts the conversations about race and politics, which were always where the Watch books were strongest, back in the middle of the table. And though the mystery element of something like Feet of Clay is very much in the background and the detection elements of the story feel like we’ve seen them before, this is a book with some new ideas, too. Mr. Shine is my favourite of them – by accident or design, we know so much more about dwarf lore than about troll, and I’m grateful for a little more on the trolls, although I also like not being given too much.

‘Being given too much’ might be the other thing at the heart of my earlier dislike of this book. With the Koom Valley plot following Maurice and Going Postal, it’s sometimes felt as if what Pratchett is now doing is consolidating good ideas he skimmed over in past books, rather than coming up with new stuff. This, I think, is a kind of fan service: Koom valley keeps getting mentioned, we all want to know more about it. But like all fan service, it carries with it a danger. Though the valley is wonderfully realised and a unique Discworld location, part of me preferred it just being the throwaway battle where both sides ambushed each other. I liked it being in the distance. On the other hand, completely new ideas such as the Following Dark and the Devices also feel awkward – why haven’t we heard some reference to these before? Pratchett works them in skilfully, through Vimes’s eyes, but this is a book which, despite its many successes, feels caught in these pincers a little bit. For the first time, I think we here see the Discworld starting to become a victim of the weight of its own canon.

But whether or not that made me huffy in the past, I was certainly able to look past it this time, and also vibed more off the Young Sam plotline (since my last encounter with this novel I’ve had a lot more experience reading to a little kid, which perhaps helped). It is amazing that Pratchett has managed to keep a sense that each Watch novel moves things forward in some way – it’s dizzying how far it’s come since Guards! Guards!, and reassuring that characters still mention those days. And that momentum looks set to continue (pun intended) as, at the end, Ankh-Morpork gets its first perpetual motion machine. Another great thing about this book is that it only has one ending, unlike most Discworld novels. It’s shorter, and a bit less baggy, and that feels good.

As usual, though, my closing thought is of the tribute this novel pays to its range of fabulous characters: Sybil, who we never see for long, has a little more space to shine here, and dazzles. I love Cheery, although I’m sad that she doesn’t seem especially connected to forensics any more. A. E. Pessimal is a wonderful new addition, and it was good to see the ‘Watch audit’ plot going in a direction other than the standard. I love the Sally and Angua scenes (although there’s more than a whiff of fan service to those, too), Colon and Nobby are on top form here, and even the walk-ons from characters like Igor and Visit are fantastic. It was a particular delight to see Doreen and Arthur Winklings again (I think we haven’t seen them since Reaper Man). None of these characters are on the cover, which I think does the book a huge and lasting disservice.

Going Postal

I read quite a lot of this on a train journey. Listening on soggy platforms to pre-recorded messages about how sorry a computer somewhere was about the delay to my service, and then crammed onto a train far too short to be carrying so many people between Bournemouth and Manchester. A lot of time was spent trying to squeeze out of the way of a refreshment trolley which barged up and down the cluttered gangways, its operator heedless of the nuisance it was causing whilst trying to flog people cups of tea for £2.50. This book resonated.

The first reaction, I’ll admit, was not a positive one, because it’s not been that long since The Truth. A lone outsider figure brings another aspect of modernity to a troubled Ankh-Morpork, fighting (with the distant assistance of Vetinari) a bunch of shady boardroom figures – but to do it, he’s going to need help, the help of a lovable cast of crazy characters, including exactly one woman! …it all sounded a bit familiar. But in fact, The Truth and Going Postal, despite everything I’ve just said, feel very different. Partly this is because Pratchett has seen this objection coming, and worked some of the cast of The Truth (and the paper itself, of course) into Going Postal‘s core mechanism: when Sacharissa turns up, you realise how different she is from Spike Dearheart. More importantly, William and Moist are really different – and Moist is much more interesting. His prior career isn’t window-dressing, but an essential part of both the message and plot of the book (the ‘angel appearing’ motif is one I particularly like). I’ll be honest and admit that Stanley and Mr. Groat make me roll my eyes a little bit, but Pratchett is back on the very, very top of his puns game (‘Deliver Us!’) and this more than makes up for it.

Above all, the anti-corporate side of things has transitioned from The Truth‘s very straightforward depiction of a sinister group of unidentified powerful men planning to overthrow Vetinari, and has become an extremely nuanced contemplation of the nature of public versus private economics (it’s interesting that Pratchett doesn’t come down firmly on either side), personal responsibility, the place of craft in business, and – an older concern – the mob obsession with spectacle. It’s amazing that it was written before the current financial crisis, and i think it addresses it perfectly. It’s engaged in some really sophisticated thinking, and if that endears me to it then it helps that it also has everything else: the clacks towers and the snapshots we see of life in them are robustly high-fantasy; the Smoking Gnu are a clever bit of Roundworld-mirroring; and there’s also plenty of the Ankh-Morpork we’ve seen before and missed lately evident in Vetinari, the Golems, Mr. Gryle, and Unseen University. I can see why it’s mooted as the ultimate Discworld novel – in the sense of covering all the bases rather than necessarily being the best.

I think it’s also interesting that Pratchett has brought chapters over from his Young Adult books (which in other respects read very differently to this one, while being no less satisfying). I think they really do make a difference here, especially when allied with their eighteenth-century-style italicised arguments (the little summary of each of them you get at the beginning). These are extremely clever, as they’re also used to fill in some gaps or provide commentary on things which happen later, and they’re well worth reading back again once you finish. Little flourishes like this show Pratchett’s attention to detail, and this is evident throughout the book (a character even gives a speech about how important detail is at one point). This is in sharp contradistinction to Monstrous Regiment, which felt loose, disorganised, unregulated. The Discworld is back on all cylinders here, and everything in this book has its function.

Simultaneously, it’s hard not to notice a change in the air. The talking letters and Moist’s visions of the glorious past of the Post Office don’t really go anywhere – the book’s closing act is entirely governed by human contrivance – and that’s an interesting change, a direction it’s hard to imagine an earlier novel taking. Moist’s ruminations that technology and theatrics are just as magical as magic, in a passage which reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous third law of prediction, probably fuel a lot of the sense I’ve picked up that this novel is a paradigmatic example of Pratchett’s move away from magic and his increasing interest in technology as the gateway to the human condition. Having read this again, though, I’m still not sure: this is not a book from which magic and fantasy elements are absent (although the Gods are at a further remove than usual), and there’s been an abiding interest in both technology and psychology dripping from Discworld since the very beginning. It’s important to remember that the clacks is not a non-fantasical contrivance (try building one), and that it relies for its operation on magic imps and gargoyles as well as on human labour (human labour is a persistent element in all Discworld magic – the best examples of that concern are the Tiffany Aching novels which Pratchett was writing in parallel to this one). Even de Worde’s printing press is made by dwarves – what’s being offered here is something much more complex than “magic vs non-magic”, and Moist’s thinking seems testament to this complexity rather than to a shift in the Discworld’s priorities.

This Discworld, I think, is nuancing rather than fundamentally altering. And that’s what it’s been doing from the very beginning – it’s just that now the change is more noticeable, because over the tens of novels there’s been more of it. I’m far more concerned by the diminished presence of Death, a character we haven’t seen in a major role since Thief of Time, and whose last few appearances have felt extremely fleeting. There have also been places where you’d expect to see him and don’t – if there’s real change in the air, it’s not in the revolutionary appearance of new thematic concerns and technologies, but in the continental drift which can only be seen, operating at glacial speeds, in tiny, suggestive details.

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