I was more upset than seems natural that the world lost one of its greatest writers, and, more importantly, a kind and awesome person when Sir Terry Pratchett died yesterday. His books are, quite simply, magic. They mean so much to me that I’ve rewritten this post at least twelve times because it never seems to be enough. I can’t explain it well enough to do them justice, especially if you’ve never read any.
The Discworld floats through space, supported by four gigantic elephants who are themselves standing on a giant turtle. A Star Turtle. It seems strange at first, but after you’re one or two books in, it seems completely natural.
Discworld books always get shelved in fantasy, because some of the characters are subpar wizards and there are swamp dragons and time travel and trolls. But it’s not some High Fantasy bullshit where you need a giant appendix with a glossary of elvish terms and characters. The Discworld is more about our world than anything. It’s about war and death and the pain of growing up and growing old, the magic in everyday things and the power of humans and what they can do together–for good or for evil.
Also, it’s hilarious.
I mean, if you couldn’t tell from the giant world turtle. My favorite books are hilarious but also meaningful. The other great thing about Discworld is that it really is an entire world. There are over 40 books, but most of them don’t go in any particular order. There are a few general storylines, but also many one-off novels, and characters from different books appear as minor characters in others. That in itself is a feature I love, like unexpectedly bumping into an old friend. I really think this means that there is a Discworld book for everyone. I love all of them, but at certain times in my life I’ve been more drawn to the Rincewind stories, for instance, whereas now (as you’ll see from my list) anything featuring Vimes usually gets top billing. It was hard to decide on a Top 10, and I feel like I will change my mind about some of the ordering even tomorrow, but for now:
10. Men at Arms
I love Vimes novels because I love: 1) a good mystery, 2) a scruffy, world-weary underdog, and 3) the underlying themes of inclusion and justice. Vimes works for the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, which, at least at the beginning, gets about as much respect as those flunky guards who always get killed by the hero on the way in to save the princess in a trope-filled fantasy novel. Still, I would classify these books as police procedurals, with werewolves. In this one, Vimes has to catch a serial killer on the loose in Ankh-Morpork with a strange new weapon that does untold damage. He also has to deal with new species integration in the Watch, when he’s forced to hire a dwarf, a troll, and a werewolf.
I really like watching Vimes grow as a person throughout the books about him, but still retain that hard-bitten core of Vimesishness. This book uses the anti-dwarf/troll/werewolf attitudes espoused by Vimes, other Watch members, and the populace at large to parody real issues of racism and sexism, and Pratchett’s portrayal is spot fucking on.
9.The Fifth Elephant
This is another, later City Watch novel, where Vimes is sent as a diplomatic envoy from Ankh-Morpork to Uberwald for the crowning of a new Low King of the dwarfs. Of course, since it’s a Vimes novel, there’s a mystery to solve–namely, the theft of a sacred dwarf artifact. And the theft of a model of it from an Ankh-Morpork museum. And the murder of a condom maker. Related? Maybe! This book builds on previous worldbuilding and gives us an insight into “traditional” dwarf, werewolf, and vampire society. Ankh-Morpork and all its problems are downright cosmopolitan by comparison. Case in point: Corporal Cheery Littlebottom, one of the first openly female dwarfs.
Pratchett’s depiction of traditional dwarf society, with all the attendant legends and mythology of a people who have lived their lives underground, in near-darkness, is breathtaking. The way he plays with traditional tropes is hilarious (the main vampire character, a Countess, knits her own cardigans). This book is as much a political thriller as it is a mystery, and Vimes is the best forever.
8. I Shall Wear Midnight
Lots of people discount the books about Tiffany Aching as being for “younger readers”, because Tiffany ranges in age between 9 (in Wee Free Men) and 16 in this book. To them I say, fuck you forever, because these books are some of Discworld’s best. I think it’s because Tiffany Aching is from the shepherding community of the Chalk, which Terry Pratchett based on his own childhood home of the Wiltshire downlands. His descriptions of the Chalk, the “Land Under Wave”, are so evocative and beautiful, in a way that I think is unique in the Discworld canon. Pratchett writes about Ankh-Morpork with wit and joy and pragmatism, but he writes about the Chalk with pure, almost child-like love.
This is the fourth book about Tiffany Aching, and the first time we see her in her own home, exerting some power and influence as a witch. In fact, she’s the Chalk’s only witch, since they are generally a superstitious people, and that superstition comes back with a force when the spirit of an old Witchfinder and the Old Baron’s death lead people to suspect Tiffany. Also, the Baron’s son and heir is engaged even though–come on!–he was totally set up by past books to be her One True Love. Tiffany isn’t sure she actually WANTS to marry him, but she kind of wants him to want to marry her, you know?
I love that this book manages to deal with: growing up, navigating romantic relationships, the nature of power and public opinion for good and evil, and the power of fear and guilt. Plus, Tiffany and Sergeant Angua briefly meet, MY TWO BFFS TOGETHER AT LAST YESSSSSSS, I died a little of joy the first time I read it.
7. Small Gods
This book is unusual because it’s set thousands of years before the rest of the Discworld canon, in the ruthless, theocratic Omnian empire on the edge of the desert. In other Discworld books, various missionaries and immigrants mention the Omnian faith, usually in the form of earnest pamphlets and what might or might not incur the wrath of Om (theologians usually disagree). WELL, STRAP IN, KIDS, because it’s origin story time. The power of belief is literally what powers the gods of the Disc, and, despite the vast empires set up in his name, the number of true believers of the Great God Om has dwindled to ONE. Brother Brutha, a novice who has been a novice forever, and mostly just works in the gardens.
Because of the limited strength Om has with his single believer, he’s trapped in the form of a turtle. One only Brutha can hear. It’s a pretty great partnership because Om starts out arrogant and demanding and Brutha begins… well, I’m going to use the world “simple”. He believes what he’s been taught all his life. He earnestly prays to Om every day. It’s only after he realizes that “WAIT, OM IS JUST THIS TURTLE so who is directing the government to torture all those dudes right now??” that he starts to question things. And it’s only after Om sees the atrocities being done in his name from the human (or turtle) perspective that he starts actually wanting to gets his power back for the right reasons, instead of just to go back to being an uncaring asshole god.
This novel gives us a lot of worldbuilding about how Discworld’s gods work and gain power, as well as an awesome parody of Ancient Greece. And a scathing critique of organized religion’s abuse of power. I didn’t like Brutha at first. He seemed too dumb to make a good hero. But eventually I realized that he wasn’t dumb: just honest and truthful, and perhaps too trusting. And he wasn’t trying to be a hero either; he was just doing what was right. Also, him constantly arguing with this turtle is endlessly funny.
And now we’re back to Vimes because I DON’T CARE, I LOVE VIMES. In this book, a submerged island floats up out of the Circle Sea, and is immediately claimed by both Ankh-Morpork and Klatch, in a parody of the real-life dispute over real-life sunken island Ferdinandea. Of course, a lot of political rhetoric, propoganda, and misguided declarations of war ensue. And, since it’s a Vimes novel, a mystery. Who tried to assassinate the Klatchian Prince, sent to Ankh-Morpork as an envoy on a goodwill mission? Someone in Ankh-Morpork who wants to start a war? Or someone in Klatch who wants the same thing?
The novel is a parody and is quite funny at times, but also doesn’t shy away from showing you the real horrors of war, and how people you love die over something so stupid as a little bit of land that’s probably going to sink back into the sea anyway. Plus, it has the Discworld version of Leonardo da Vinci, Leonard of Quirm.
This is another one-off story, about Ankh-Morpork’s first newspaper and its founder, William de Worde. Of course I like this book, because William is generally quiet, a little sneaky, and perpetually curious. Naturally right after Ankh-Morpork’s first newspaper gets set up, its first tabloids quickly follow, and it’s funny to watch William furiously contend with fake headlines like “Woman in Lancre gives birth to live snakes!” Why would people want to buy that paper when it is obviously lies??? he demands. Because the truth is boring and complicated, his scrappy assistant editor replies.
Anyway, he starts investigating the bizarre stabbing of the Patrician’s secretary, because even though all evidence clearly points to the culprit being the Patrician himself, not even the watch is really buying it. His interactions with Vimes (!!!) perfectly mirror the give-and-take I imagine happens in the real world between police and journalists, and also there’s a talking dog. And a sneaky conspiracy. And a villain who talks in punctuation. So that’s exciting.
4. Wee Free Men
This if the first book about Tiffany Aching, and it is AWESOME. The way it’s written is almost dreamlike, which is good because it’s taking fairy tale tropes and turning them on their heads. The world of faerie is moving closer to the Discworld, preying off it, luring things (like children) into its endless winter. Meanwhile nastier things (like monsters) are coming through the other way. And only nine-year-old Tiffany Aching has really noticed.
Well, not quite true. So have the Nac Mac Feegle. They’re pictsies (not pixies), who were exiled from the fairy queen’s land for being too drunk all the time. They’re each about six inches high, covered in blue tattoos, and love fighting. They are totally Scottish and totally amazing. Their swords glow blue in the presence of lawyers. Natch Tiffany can rescue her little brother from the land of the fairies with them on her side!
3. The Last Hero
Okay, this book has so much going for it. Check it:
1) IT IS SO ILLUSTRATED RIGHT NOW OMG. Paul Kidby’s illustrations give me life. They are beautiful and amazing and exactly what they should look like.
2) It is basically a Whos-Who of Discworld, castwise.
3) The plot is A+ work. Cohen the Barbarian is the oldest hero on the Disc. By this time, he’s incredibly good at not dying, so even though he’s old, he’s basically invincible. He decides there’s nothing left for him here, he’s conquered everything. So he and his Silver Horde (of equally old heroes) are going to right the original wrong, make amends for the original crime: they’re going to bring fire back to the gods.
Basically, they’re going to climb the giant mountain at the center of the Disc where the gods live, and blow that shit up.
Naturally, once people in Ankh-Morpork hear what they’re up to, a crack team is assembled to stop them. And that team RIDES ON A SPACESHIP POWERED BY SWAMP DRAGONS. TO THE MOON.
2. Night Watch
This book has so many of my favorite things: Sam Vimes, time travel (!!!!!!), back story, righteous citizen uprising, the History Monks, wizard Archchancellor Ridcully, and kind of wanting to punch a younger, stupider version of yourself. Basically, Sam Vimes is chasing a serial killer over the rooftops of Unseen University (the wizard college, natch), when he’s struck by lightning, which, combined with the strong magical field over the library, sends him back in time. Around the time when a younger version of himself is first joining the City Watch. When Ankh-Morpork was a much less cosmopolitan, much more dangerous place. Right before the people rose up in Glorious Revolution against the tortures of the secret police.
Oh, and also, that serial killer went back in time too. So Vimes has to catch the murderer in the past WHILE ALSO trying to mitigate the damage to the timeline caused by him. And try to get back to his own time. Hopefully with the time line relatively intact. You know I love Vimes, and this was the most Vimes novel that ever Vimesed because there were TWO of him for most of it: the young, innocent recruit and the world-weary old time traveler. Also, I loved seeing young versions of a lot of other characters from other Discworld books. Time travel is just one of my favorites, okay?
1. Monstrous Regiment
This book is so much to me. Some lesser Discworld fan on Buzzfeed made a “definitive list” of Discworld books (that left off everything about Tiffany Aching??) that ranked this book dead last because “Terry Pratchett does feminism well, but this book has too much of it.” Which… what? When it comes to feminism:
Oh, sorry, guy who has never been held back from something because of your gender. This book didn’t speak to your experience, so clearly it is the worst. But I would contend that YOU are, in fact, the worst, and here is why:
Monstrous Regiment makes me feel more empowered than my first Spice Girls CD, and it was written by a 55-year-old dude. If he gets it this much, you can a little bit, you ass. Dude also didn’t like Vimes so CLEARLY WE ARE ENEMIES FOREVER.
Anyway, this book takes its title from the 16th century tract by John Knox titled “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women”, which is awesome because the story is about an army regiment made up of women, some of whom are actual monsters, like a vampire and a troll. In the small, war-torn country of Borogravia, the war has lasted for so long that people have forgotten what it’s even about. There are almost no able-bodied men left, and the strict gender roles dictated by their authoritarian god make surviving without men to do the Man Jobs difficult. So Polly Perks cuts off her hair, calls herself Oliver, and joins up, hoping to find her lost brother. She quickly discovers that she’s not the only girl who had this idea–and most of them aren’t as well-prepared as she is for the gender performance required. The commentary on what Polly does to transform herself into a boy and why the other girls are less successful is endlessly fascinating to me. Alanna was my homegirl, remember? I’m a sucker for this stuff.
What we get is a scathing commentary on war, sexism, and narrow definitions of gender. And, yeah, as my Buzzfeed Mortal Enemy pointed out, it’s a little heavy-handed and “obvious” but MAYBE IT HAS TO BE OBVIOUS BECAUSE IT’S 2015 AND WE STILL DEAL WITH THIS SHIT omfgoddamn. Anyway, there’s also an amazing cameo from Sam Vimes. And Sergeant Angua. Polly and Angua meeting is too much badass lady in one room, you guys, I almost couldn’t take it.
So that is my Discworld Top 10. It was hard to rank them, and when I had trouble, I mostly judged based on “Which do I most want to reread right now?” If you haven’t ever read a Discworld novel, I suggest you give one a try! There are a lot of great ones to choose from!