discworld terry pratchet

Fangirl unleashed: In Praise of Pratchett


Sir Terry Pratchett is one of the UK’s best-selling authors (and reportedly holder of the dubious honour of being one of the most shoplifted), creator of the phenomenally successful Discworld series, and recipient of numerous awards and honours, the most recent of which was only last month: the Bolinger Wodehouse Prize for his latest novel, Snuff. Yet he is also regularly dismissed as a ‘genre’ writer who just writes slapstick comedy for the sword and sorcery crowd. So if you’ve always thought he wasn’t your kind of writer – or just haven’t got round to his books – here are some reasons why you really should give him a try.

He’s phenomenally prolific

Sir Terry Pratchett

Not for Pratchett fans the agonising years-long wait for sequels; one of the most distinguishing features of Pratchett’s career is that he has a ferocious work ethic, dismissing writer’s block as something that is made up by people in California. Even slowed down as he is now by the cruel affliction of Alzheimer’s, Pratchett produces at least one book a year: Snuff is the 39thin the Discworld series, and there are around a dozen other books set outside that universe. If this fast turnaround occasionally results in a book that is less than a classic, it’s excusable, and even slightly off-form Pratchett is better than most writers at the top of their game.

He writes beautiful prose

Going Postal - one of a series of Discworld adaptations by Sky TV

Most people agree Terry Pratchett is very funny – but he’s far, far more than that. His language is playful and eloquent, and I’d argue that he is one of the most impressive prose stylists writing today. Even some of the most successful genre writers produce novels where the prose is simply a serviceable vehicle to power the story:  this is never the case for Pratchett. Even books collecting quotes from his novels are bestsellers, proving that even isolated from their contexts, his words have a power of their own.

He’s remarkably topical

While most genre fiction, no matter what its setting, touches on the big, universal themes – how else would we identify at all? – Pratchett casts a gimlet eye over the problems of the modern world, and somehow manages to reflect these in a universe where trolls and werewolves and witches happily co-exist. Religious fundamentalism, multiculturalism, the threat to traditional industry from the rise of technology, people trafficking and the demonization of traveller/ethnic minority communities are just some of the issues he has touched on in his work.

He is fiercely humane

Pratchett does Dickens?

Pratchett has occasionally been compared to Dickens for his social conscience and the use of broad comic stereotypes to nevertheless make a serious point – which seems crazy when you consider one of them was writing about poverty in Victorian London, the other writes about a world that floats through space on the back of a turtle – but one of the things I love about Pratchett is his humanity. The one crime about all others in Pratchett’s world is treating people (or dwarves, or trolls, or even Orcs) as things; as a means, rather than an end – this is often the root of all other crimes. Which, when you really think about it, isn’t a bad philosophy.

He writes great female characters

The National Theatre adapted his non-Discworld YA book Nation for the stage

Pratchett has created some of the most memorable female characters in fiction, probably the best known being the formidable witch Granny Weatherwax (and her young successor and heroine of a series of YA books, Tiffany Aching). Women are never merely decorative in his books, where working hard and being clever is always prioritised over being glamorous or showy. There are also very few heroes: Pratchett values a slightly tarnished decency, the often compromised pragmatism of people trying to do the right thing, even if nobody thanks them for it afterwards, and this is a trait that runs through both his male and female protagonists.

He has created a coherent but constantly changing universe

One of the great things about the Discworld universe is it is always adapting: there is no reset button. While there is no one over-reaching arc (some of the books fit into loose, character development arcs – the City Watch books, the witches’ books – but a lot are standalone stories, albeit sometimes with recurring characters), what happens in one book feeds into the next, creating one of the most consistent and vividly rendered worlds you will ever encounter. It’s also fascinating to see how characters from different interact: for instance, Sam Vimes is the dogged hero of the City Watch novels but, as a major figure in the city, he often pops up in other books – where he is viewed with scepticism, suspicion or dislike, depending on the protagonist’s relationship with the law. It’s a fascinating reminder that, while we’re all the star of our own lives, we’re only bit part players in other people’s.

Where to start?

His latest bestseller, Snuff

One of the main things that puts people off reading such an established writer is ‘where the hell do I start’? But really, don’t let this stop you. Try some of his standalone, non-Discworld books (the best of which is Good Omens, co-written with Neil Gaiman but including many signature Pratchett themes); if you want to read through the Discworld, I’d say skip the first two, Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, both of which have aged incredibly badly and bear little resemblance to the sophisticated satire of the later books – and start at Equal Rites, Mort or Sourcery. The Discworld series encompasses a whole load of different styles, from out and out fantasy, to crime procedurals,  to sporting stories – yes, he’s even written a book about football. Give him a try, and you may just have found your next favourite author. After all, Britain’s shoplifters can’t be all wrong.

Have I tempted you? If you’re already a fan, what’s your favourite? Do let me know in the comments. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with more Fangirl Unleashed, but in the meantime feel free to pop over to Body of a Geek Goddess and say hi. And while I’m not quite as prolific as Terry Pratchett, remember I do have my own book out so why not try it? You can download Dark Dates here (UK) and here (US).

S#!T Talking Central

  • Artur

    I love Discworld. I have started with Nightwatch as an audiobook to pass time in a mind-numbing factory job and fell in love. It’s still my favourite, since then I’ve read all but Unseen Academicals.

  • http://Bodyofageekgoddess.blogspot.com Tracey

    Night watch is definitely one of my favourites, too.

  • Sadhbh Browne

    I love Pratchett, he’s one of my all time favourite authors. If I had to choose, “Men at Arms” and “Weird Sisters” would be my joint favourites.

  • Adam Kerrigan

    Sir Terry is unbelievably talented and I admire that he continues to write (albeit with assistance). Many people credit J.K. Rowling for getting them/their kids to start enjoying books. For me, it was my first Discworld novel; Mort. Pure class. Loved every Discworld novel since. My favourite has to be Sourcery, though.