The Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett


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Discworld #1: The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett


Ankh-Morpork is the greatest city on the Discworld - a flat planet carried through space on the back of four elephants standing astride a giant turtle - and has seen fire, flood, famine and even the odd barbarian invasion during its long history, but even it is unprepared for the arrival of a much more devastating threat: tourism. Twoflower is the first visitor to the city from the distant Agatean Empire, and is happy wandering around taking "pictures of the sights" with a magic box and soaking up the authentic atmosphere. This behaviour in Ankh-Morpork would normally result in him having the lifespan of a mayfly confronted by a supernova, but luckily the wizard Rincewind has kindly volunteered to be his guide and protector in return for not having his extremities removed by the city's Patrician, who is anxious to avoid insulting a foreign power with an army in the millions.

Unfortunately, Twoflower's attempts to introduce the concept of fire insurance to the hardy and creative business-owners of Ankh-Morpork results in an enforced flight from the burning metropolis and the beginning of a long and very strange journey across the Disc, taking in dragons, spaceships and the fabled temple of Bel-Shamharoth along the way. All the while the only spell that has ever managed to lodge itself in Rincewind's mind is very keen to get itself said, which could be a very bad idea indeed...

There is no more disheartening notion than the one which has sadly been reality for the past six years: the Discworld series is complete. There will, never again, be a new Discworld novel (or any other) published by Terry Pratchett. This state of affairs was once unthinkable: almost annually between 1983 and 2015 - and sometimes two or even three times a year - a new Pratchett book would be released and cheerfully climb to the top of the bestseller lists, glowing in critical acclaim and adulation. It was easy to take Pratchett and his books for granted, that is until there were no more.

But whilst that state of affairs is sad, it does mean we can now sit down and consider the Discworld series as a whole, and its position in the wider fantasy and literary canons. Pratchett was a funny, human writer, a reluctant (but accomplished) worldbuilder, a canny satirist and a fierce critic of human nature. His books fairly overbrim with intelligence, vigour and, occasionally, genuine anger at the state of the world. Discworld was the mirror he used to shine a light on real-world concerns, sometimes just to gently poke fun at them and sometimes to eviscerate them with savage, forensic analysis. If he occasionally faltered - there's a few (and only a few) books he wrote mid-series which sometimes felt a bit too reminiscent of earlier books - it was only briefly and usually still entertainingly.

A lot of that came later, though. The first book in the series, The Colour of Magic (1983), was conceived as a one-off, an attempt by Pratchett to improve his writing career that was, if not in danger, than certainly faltering. His debut novel, The Carpet People (1971), had been a successful children's book but Pratchett had been reluctant to get typecast as a kids' writer. His next two novels, The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981), had been adult-aimed science fiction, with a more serious edge. They'd been greeted with near-total bafflement and faded into obscurity almost instantly. Despite that, Pratchett had been tickled by the idea in Strata of a flat planet and, having failed to make the subject sing in SF, reworked it into a satire of fantasy tropes. This proved much more successful and The Colour of Magic became a near-instant, surprise hit.

The Colour of Magic exists in a bit of an odd state when viewed from 2021. As a satire of fantasy, it works. It's funny and breezy and succeeds because it has a serious edge to it as well. Pratchett is smart enough to know that it's much better to satirise something you love, and that a lot of comedy that despises what it's poking fun at just ends up being obvious and mean-spirited. Pratchett was a deep-seated, genuine fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, Jack Vance, Anne McCaffrey, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft and the book overflows with affectionate pastiches of those authors (well, apart from Tolkien, which Pratchett thought was too obvious). So Rincewind and Twoflower meet barely-concealed analogues of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, with Ankh-Morpork here feeling like Lankhmar with the serial numbers filed off, before teaming up with Conan the Barbarian Mk. II and getting into trouble with Budget Cthulhu and an entire civilisation of Dragonriders of Pern-wannabes. A few Zelazny-isms get trotted out, with Ankh-Morpork being apparently the ur-fantasy city, the one all other fantasy cities are but shadows of, like Amber if Amber had a massive homelessness and civic disorder problem. Pratchett's erudite wordplay also recalls Vance's Dying Earth, although even Pratchett struggles to match the sheer vocabularic firepower of on-form Vance.

Taken on its own merits, this is all entertaining, if risking being dated horribly: the authors who were the touchstones of any self-respecting fantasy collection in 1983 certainly are not in 2021. Fortunately, Pratchett uses the satirical strokes of the setting to propel his own narrative and his own characters. Rincewind, a wizard who can't use proper magic due to a powerful uber-spell sitting in his brain, scaring off all other comers, works as the Only Sane Man protagonist who frequently responds to any given situation exactly how most people would (i.e. running like hell) and only finds himself motivated to apparently heroic action through the threat of an even worse punishment or by coincidence.

Rincewind isn't quite at the Harry Flashman/Ciaphas Cain level of "selfish coward whom things work out for anyway," but he's at least nodding in that direction. Twoflower is also an engaging character, his early appearance as a hapless buffoon quickly replaced by his characterisation as an intelligent observer of events unfolding around him, which he sometimes feel doesn't apply to him as a tourist (despite no-one else knowing what a tourist is).

Of course, The Colour of Magic also has to be contrasted against the later Discworld novels. In that light, the novel may be considered an absolute primal example of Early Instalment Weirdness, with a lot of things that clash with later books. Pratchett's writing style is much less polished here, his sense of humour a bit broader and more obvious than normal, and character development is less-assured. Both the Patrician and Death are characterised much more differently to their later appearances (with Death's motivations and character being heavily retconned just three books later, in Mort), to the point that some fans have pondered if it's actually a different Patrician here. The book is solid, but also a bit disposable. Readers approaching the novel from the knowledge it has forty successor books which have cumulatively sold a hundred million copies and is one of most critically-acclaimed fantasy series of all time, may feel a bit baffled at the slightness of this work.

The book is also oddly-structured, in being four self-contained, episodic narratives that have been combined to form a novel-length work, like a fixup novel. I'm not sure why - Pratchett never seems to have considered individually publishing the four episodes as short stories in magazines - but it both gives the novel a feeling of pace but also of being rushed, with each of the sections of a very short novel (which is barely 280 pages long in paperback as it is) roaring along at manic speed before transitioning to the next episode.

If you want to find out why Pratchett is one of the 20th Century's best-selling British authors and most popular fantasy authors of all time, The Colour of Magic (***½) may disappoint or leave you a bit puzzled. This is embryonic Discworld, slotting pieces to place to serve as the foundations for later greatness. But as a stand-alone, affectionate satire of fantasy, and not just the usual suspects, it remains quite entertaining. The story continues (for the only time in the series) directly into the sequel, The Light Fantastic.

Discworld #2: The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett


For reasons that are not immediately clear, Great A'Tuin the World Turtle (sex unknown) has decided to put itself on a collision course with a red giant star. Which is inconvenient and vexing for the inhabitants of the Discworld, the flat planet it carries on its back (via the intermediary form of four giant elephants, but that's not important right now). The wizards of Unseen University meet and conclude that catastrophe can be averted if the Eight Great Spells of the Octavo are united and spoken, which is complicated because one of the spells has lodged itself in the head of the charitably-designated wizard Rincewind, who has lately been seen plummeting over the edge of the Disc towards certain death.

Controversially and in defiance of spoiler norms, it's perhaps not too outrageous to reveal that Rincewind and his companions do in fact manage to avert their certain deaths and find themselves back on the road again, this time pursued by various special-interest groups who want to extract the spell from Rincewind's brain by whatever means possible.

The Light Fantastic is the second novel in the Discworld sequence and is the only book in the series to act as a continuation of the prior book. The Colour of Magic's storyline continues directly into this volume, creating an odd mismatch in tone, as The Colour of Magic is very much an atypical Discworld book whilst The Light Fantastic is starting to slowly transition the series into a more familiar format. There's only one narrative here, not the four novellas combined into one story structure form the first book, and Pratchett's voice and humour is already settling into a more familiar mode. There's much less riffing on prior fantasy tropes (a second Conan the Barbarian parody and a very brief shout-out to Tolkien aside) with fairy tales instead getting more of a satirical once-over here. Pratchett also abandoned the chapter structure at this point, which earned him much ire at the time from critics but also from fans, whose "just one more chapter" plans not to stay up all night reading were disrupted by there not being another chapter and invariably staying up to read the entire novel.

For the first time, though, we do get a subplot, with the action occasionally cutting away to the wizards of Unseen University and their various attempts to solve the crisis. The wizards are able to employ their vast resources to help, but these are invariably are proven useless by the actual protagonist, but nevertheless provides much comedy along the way. The effect here is slightly dimmed by none of the familiar wizard characters from later volumes appearing, with the exception of the Librarian, one of the series' most iconic and fan-favourite characters. We even get the Librarian's origin story here (orang-igin story?), albeit in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it manner.

There's also, intriguingly, plot-laying for later books, with a visit to Death's home introducing his adopted daughter Ysabel (foreshadowing the events of Mort) and the other Horsemen of the Apocralypse, who will become more important in Sourcery.

Early Discworld had a tendency for Pratchett to fall back on "nasty things from the Dungeon Dimensions threatening to break through the walls of reality and kill everyone in inventive ways with tentacles" as the default threat, even though it's not very interesting, and that issue is present here, as is the occasional loss of focus as Pratchett (who famously did not outline his books, at least not to start with) tries to organically steer the narrative towards a conclusion. However, the book does benefit from being one continuous story and Pratchett is more interested in characterisation here, with Rincewind and Twoflower both growing and changing as a result of their experiences after being painted fairly broadly in the first novel.

The Light Fantastic (***½) sees the author still finding his feet and confidence, but still crafting a funny and enjoyable novel, with hints of the greatness to come starting to appear.

Discworld #3: Equal Rites


The Unseen University, the centre of magical learning on the Discworld, a building whose endless rooftops make Gormenghast look like a toolshed on a railway allotment and whose faculty are the guardians of magic for the whole world. Of course, wizards are renowned for being incredibly intelligent but not very smart, and when Drum Billet realises his time is almost up he decides to pass on his staff to the eighth son of a poor blacksmith, himself an eighth son, and thus a potential great wizard. Unfortunately, he neglects to check the baby's gender first...

After two unexpectedly bestselling novels, Terry Pratchett changed gears in his writing career. He quit his day job as a press officer for a nuclear power station and became a full-time writer, churning out two volumes a year for more than a decade. He also adjusted his vision of what the Discworld series could be. No more a series of satires of fantasy or fairy tale tropes, he decided that he could take any subject and make a Discworld novel about it.

Equal Rites is the first novel to employ this approach. No previous characters from the first two books turn up (with one orange-furred and banana-stained exception), and there isn't even any mention of those events. Instead we have new characters having new adventures. Pratchett also starts to use his creation to address real-world concerns here, in this case, well, equal rights for those of a nonmale persuasion. The humour remains fairly broad, but you can almost sense the author thinking at this point that maybe the funny planet with the turtle and elephants can be used for something more interesting than just poking fun at Lovecraft and Conan the Barbarian, amusing as that may be. Unfortunately, this idea falters a bit since Esk's story is meant to make Unseen University a co-ed establishment, bringing in female wizards and making it more equal. As later books show, none of this happens, Esk doesn't show up again until more than thirty books down the line and UU remains a male-only establishment in the later novels. Given how well Pratchett develops his world, this lack of evolution is mildly disappointing.

That's more a problem with the later books than this one, though. As with several other early Discworld books, there is something of a lack of focus here. The book starts off as a travelogue, with Granny Weatherwax and Esk travelling to Ankh-Morpork from the tiny Ramtops village of Bad Ass (later retconned into the Kingdom of Lancre, the setting for many later books), though the limited page count (Equal Rites barely cracks 200 pages in paperback) and the need for a Big Finale in Ankh-Morpork curtails this element just as it's getting interesting and we quickly (via a jump-started, second-hand broomstick) move to the city and the ending which - and stop me if you've (already) heard this one before - involves the threat of Unspeakable Things from the Dungeon Dimensions erupting through the skein of reality to destroy the universe. Again.

In terms of character, it's hard to argue with the book: Esk is a well-defined protagonist and Granny Weatherwax, of course, is one of Pratchett's signature characters, a formidable and solid figure whose common sense sometimes feels a bit adrift in a world as off-kilter as this one (Pratchett uses the Only Sane Person idea a lot in the series, but none are saner than Granny Weatherwax). This is still very much a proto-Granny, not the much more complex and sophisticated character of the later novels, but it's fun to revisit the somewhat simpler village witch and see her evolution and growth into a stronger and more interesting figure. Among Discworld characters, only arguably Sam Vimes of the City Watch can match this kind of evolution. We also get our first sympathetic Archchancellor of Unseen University, Cutangle, and it's rather a shame he doesn't show up again (though given the events of Sourcery, that might be for the best, for him at any rate).

Equal Rites (***½) is important as the first Discworld novel where Pratchett changes gears and realises he can tell self-contained stories about this world not involving Rincewind and Twoflower, and use the Discworld as a reflection for real-world concerns as well as simply being funny. It's still Early Pratchett, with a bit of a reliance on standby ideas, but you can see the growing ambition and craft on display here.

Discworld #4: Mort


Death comes to us all. When he came to Mort, he offered him a job. Mort is taken aback to find himself a trainee Grim Reaper, and puzzled because Death does not seem likely to retire or, well, visit himself. But, it turns out, after several million years on the job, Death would like a night or two off to let his non-existent hair down. What could go wrong? Well, as it turns out...

A reviewer more fully embracing of cliche would, at this juncture, feel inspired to say "This is where the fun begins," or look moodily into the middle distance against swelling orchestral music whilst declaiming, "S--t just got real." Mort, the fourth Discworld book, is generally accepted as the book where Pratchett finally nailed it. For many years it was the most-recommended entry point to the series, whilst it's also (by far) the easiest of the books to put on as a stage play. In 2003 it was voted as the best book in the series by the UK's "Big Read" survey. It's also been optioned for film several times, although Pratchett was always dubious of the idea after the first Hollywood producer he met told him how much he loved the book, but perhaps they could find some way of removing Death from the story?

Mort is radically different in tone and feel from the first three books in the series (or the next few, for that matter). It's a hugely concentrated story with only a few major characters: Mort himself, Death, Death's adopted daughter Ysabell (expanding on her brief appearance from The Light Fantastic), Death's manservant Albert, and a small number of characters in the kingdom of Sto Lat, including Princess Keli and the wizard Cutwell. The plot is straightforward: Death hires an apprentice, but doesn't quite take into account that a mortal human's view of the process of ushering souls into the next life isn't going to be as philosophical as a millions-of-years-old, non-human anthropological manifestation and Mort, unsurprisingly, makes a Bad Decision and spends the rest of the book trying to fix or avert it before Death can find out.

The result is a book that is very funny - we learn that Death is a huge fan of cats and curry (not together, fortunately) and has a kind of wistful curiosity about mortal life - but also surprisingly melancholy. It's a book that's about, well, death, which means it's also about life and the transitory nature of it. Pratchett does gentle, melancholic and intelligent humour very well but it seems to be something that almost every single adaptation misses out on, instead focusing on the zany out-there fantasy shenanigans (and admittedly Pratchett can do that really well as well, but it's not his focus). On a first read Mort works well as a reflective, funny novel but it gains additional kudos if you've read Soul Music and Hogfather and know more about the fates of some of the characters in this book.

The book is lean and focused, and also has a really satisfying, poetic ending. Pratchett's endings so far have leaned towards widescreen spectacle because that's what's expected in a fantasy novel - the plucky heroes making a one-in-a-million gamble to try to avert gibbering horrors breaking through the walls of reality - but you get the sense his heart was never really in it. In Mort he goes for a much more personal, character-based ending that's much more appropriate. Oh, there is still a supernatural swordfight of course. Some things are expected.

If there are negatives, they are fairly limited. This is still Early Pratchett, without quite the best-in-class wordplay and more incisive humour and characterisation of later books, but he's definitely getting there at a rate of knots.

Mort (****½) is Pratchett stretching his creative muscles, trying a different tack and finding a mode of storytelling that's exceptionally fine.

Liberty's Edge

Quick question ... why are all of these in grey background quotes instead of normal white background normal posts?

Even if you are copying / reposting from your website or blog or whatever, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to use the quote tags, and all that unnecessary grey makes it kind of hard to read ...

Discworld #5: Sourcery

There was an eighth son of an eighth son who became, as is right and proper, a wizard. But, in defiance of tradition, he also had seven sons. And then another one: a source of magic, a sourcerer. The Discworld hasn't seen a sourcerer in thousands of years, since the Mage Wars almost destroyed the world. Soon enough, the re-energised wizards of the Disc are engaged in all-out warfare and the Apocralypse - the teatime of the gods, the return of the frost giants and so forth - draws nigh, provided the Four Horsemen can get out of the pub in time. It falls to a wizard who can't do magic, a might barbarian warrior with three days' experience, a timeshare genie and a homicidal hairdresser to save the day.

Sourcery, the fifth Discworld novel, feels like Terry Pratchett engaging in a reaction against his previous novel, Mort. Mort was a narrow-field, focused and character-based tragicomedy, and easily the best Discworld book out of the initial quartet. It seems like Pratchett may have reacted a little bit against that and turned the subsequent novel into a widescreen epic, arguably the most epic Discworld has ever gotten, with various groups of mages fighting magical wars spanning continents and prophesised destinies being fulfilled.

There's a certain guilty pleasure to this. Pratchett is reasonably entertaining at large-stakes action, especially when it's delivered alongside a broad sense of humour. I suspect in the heart of many authors there's a yearning desire to break out vast magical towers that explode and mighty-thewed barbarian warriors smiting legion of disposable extras with a broadsword so huge it had to be forged with a gantry, and Pratchett does that with aplomb. The sly wit and intelligence of Mort has been sidelined here in favour of much more obvious jokes about barbarians and Grand Viziers twirling moustaches villainously (the sequences in Al-Khali - fortunately only briefly - flirt with Carry On movie levels of stereotyping).

The book adds surprisingly little to the greater Discworld mythos, which is weird given how massive and world-girdling the events are. A line at the end of the book that the memory of these events has been magically removed from the world feels a bit too cheesy; given the dangers the wizards unleash here, it's implausible they wouldn't be chased from civilised society (well, society at any rate), which is why I guess Pratchett decided to jump through some hoops to reset things to a status quo later on. The only lasting impacts are the fate of Rincewind - which sets up the novel Eric - and a larger starring role for the Librarian. We also get a bit more information on the Patrician and his pet dog, Wuffles, who recur later on, even though the Patrician is still a long way off from the peak of his characterisation.

Sourcery (***) is arguably the weakest of the first five Discworld books. It's Pratchett at arguably his broadest and least intellectually vigorous, going for surprisingly cheap laughs. There are some better gags (the One Horsemen and the Three Pedestrians of the Apocralypse) and Rincewind, never the deepest of Discworld characters, get some decent development here, but overall it's a fairly disposable book and not a patch on the novels on either side of it.

Discworld #7: Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Prince Teppic is the heir to the desert kingdom of Djelibeybi*. His father, a non-traditional man with odd ideas, decides to send him to get the best education possible outside of the Old Kingdom, by sending him to join the Ankh-Morpork Assassins' Guild. Seven years later, Teppic is summoned home by sad news and sets about building the greatest pyramid ever seen on the Disc. This proves to be a Very Bad Idea.

Pyramids is one of those rare books in the Discworld series, being a total stand-alone. Its characters and events do not recur elsewhere in the series (brief cameos by Death and the Librarian excepted) and its events are barely referred to elsewhere. It's a viable jumping-on point for new readers, although in terms of quality it's not among the best books in the series, though certainly not among the weakest either. It's a middling Discworld book which, fortunately, means it's pretty good.

The book is primarily concerned about ossification, ritual and conservatism, how slavishly following ideas because they're old and "have always worked" is not good enough and can lead to long-lasting harm. It's also Pratchett's first tilt at religious fundamentalism, and how people in power use and abuse religious faith to further their own ends, although here he takes the idea to extremes by having the fundamentalist being so unflinching in his belief that he's become incorruptible by dint of every idea outside of his very narrow worldview simply bouncing off him. Pratchett would address these ideas again later on in Small Gods.

Pyramids risks being a lazy comedic novel using stereotypes (the times Pratchett does this, with "fantasy China" in Interesting Times and "fantasy Australia" in The Last Continent, are among the Discworld series' weaker efforts) and the presence of gags about pyramids, mummies and the Sphinx do occasionally teeter on the edge of Carry On territory, but Pratchett does back off and instead uses the setting as a framing device for more interesting ideas about religion and science. The result is probably the best fantasy novel inspired by Egypt outside of N.K. Jemisin's more original Dreamblood duology.

The novel also has an interesting structure which seems to be inspired by the original Star Wars movie. Although Teppic is somewhat more worldly wise, he does have a Luke Skywalker vibe going on, whilst his much more charismatic friend Chidder has a Han Solo thing . Chidder even owns an unconventional freighter which is actually a faster-than-expected smuggling ship (the Unnamed), and both have tension with the beautiful Ptraci, who turns out to have a secret identity you're already probably well ahead of the curve on. Oh, and there's even a hairy sidekick who can't talk English but is vastly more intelligent than anyone expects. Once this was pointed out to me I couldn't ignore it.

Finally, the novel riffs on the state of hard science fiction in the late 1980s. Back then there was a seismic shift going on as the SF genre stopped focusing so much on spaceships and adventure stories in favour of long, complicated novels and series about cutting-edge ideas. SF authors were scrambling to stay current ideas being theorised by the likes of Stephen Hawking - A Brief History of Time came out whilst Pratchett was writing Pyramids - even if they didn't fully understand them, leading to lot of novels about knotty time travel or black holes where the word "quantum" is subjected to a lot of questionable abuse. Pratchett has great fun riffing on this tendency, whilst also employing it himself, with the novel featuring some clever ideas on time running at different speeds and time warps stripping people of some of their dimensions.

There's a lot going on in Pyramids (****) - it was the longest Discworld book to this point, though still not cracking 400 pages - and sometimes it feels a bit crammed with ideas that it doesn't have time to fully explore, which is why some overspill into later novels (Small Gods addresses some of the same themes more elegantly). It's a funny book but also a smart one with some really cool ideas about time, space and advanced camel mathematics.

* Pratchett was reportedly disappointed that Americans didn't get this joke, so created the nearby kingdom of Hersheba just for them.

Discworld #8: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Captain Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is not a happy man. He has a thankless job, a bunch of incompetent subordinates and he doesn't get no respect or, more accurately, actually gets no respect. The arrival of a fresh, eager-eyed new recruit (a six-foot-tall dwarf named Carrot - long story) whose relaxed and literal approach to policing (such arresting the head of the Thieves' Guild for being a thief) is another headache for Vimes to deal with. At the same time, the Unseen University Librarian is upset over the theft of a book that could be used to summon dragons and, in an almost certainly unrelated incident, people over the city are vanishing, leaving behind only fine traces of ash and scorched brickwork. Yes, things are definitely afoot...

Guards! Guards! is Terry Pratchett's tribute to detective novels and all those hapless extras dressed in chainmail who's only job in films is to run into the grand hall and get cut down by the hero. No-one ever seems to ask them if they want to. The Ankh-Morpork City Watch is arguably the most popular and enduring of all of Pratchett's creations and this first book about them is one of the very best Discworld books, a solid combination of Pratchett's gifts for plot, satire, pacing, character and engaging in weightier themes of love, life, death and, er, municipal governance.

This unrepentantly eighth book in the Discworld series introduces some of its most popular characters: Captain Vimes of the Night Watch, a drunkard with a tiny sliver of civic responsibility that's just waiting to be reborn; his deputies Sergeant Colon (one of the most sergeanty sergeants ever committed to the page) and Constable "Nobby" Nobbs (a specimen who may be human only by dint of all other species refusing to acknowledge him); and their cheerful new recruit Carrot, a man raised by dwarfs and who is at all times surrounded by an impenetrable air of naivete which is more effective than full plate mail. There's also Lady Sybil Ramkin, who feels like a prototype for half the cast of Downton Abbey combined into one human being, and also the debut of the immortal Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, fast food seller and related purveyor of gastro-intestinal distress to the masses. Established characters also return: Lord Vetinari, the Patrician, a man so deviously cunning he could have Machiavelli for breakfast and Littlefinger for lunch before polishing off all of the Borgias for dinner, and of course the Librarian, who by contrast would settle for a nice banana.

Also returning, with an increased starring role, is Ankh-Morpork itself. In the great lexicon of fictional cities, Ankh-Morpork ranks right at the very top for its sheer believability as a metropolis for fantasy hijinks. For its first few appearances, the city was just a backdrop but in Guards! Guards! it is the star, Pratchett selling the grubby city through the unabashed and wholly irrational love that Captain Vimes has for it (whilst acknowledging it's million faults, oddly the same number as its population). What was once a self-acknowledged Lanhkmar tribute act is now a very effective solo artist in its own right, and will only get better from hereon out.

Pratchett's writing takes another significant upward swing with this volume, exuding a greater level of confidence than ever before. He's funny when he wants to be, dramatic when he needs to be, even touching when it is required. The story threads are laid out, developed and then resolved with impressive efficiency and maximum comedic impact. The way the last few paragraphs hilariously resolve very minor story points from a hundred pages previously is very clever.

Guards! Guards! (*****) is not the best Discworld book, but it's certainly not far off. Funny, dramatic and just brilliantly entertaining from start to finish.

Eric by Terry Pratchett

Eric is a young demonology hacker who has discovered the spell he needs to summon a demon to fulfil his worldly desires. Unfortunately, due to a bit of a cock-up on the reality front, he summons the ostensible wizard Rincewind (who was banished to hell during the events of Sourcery). The always-reluctant Rincewind finds himself accompanying Eric on a prolonged road trip through time and space as he attempts to get back home.

Eric is a bit of an oddball Discworld novel, even by the series' elastic standards of tone, character and format. It's the shortest Discworld book of them all (barely cracking 150 pages) and feels almost bemusingly lightweight. After the previous several Discworld books featured much-improved and deeper characterisation and exploration of ideas, Eric is a bit of a throwback to the first couple of books by being more of a knockabout, travelogue adventure.

The explanation is that Eric isn't really a mainline Discworld novel, instead starting life as an illustrated side-project. The success of the Discworld novels in the UK was at least partially attributed to Josh Kirby's eye-catching cover art, which made up for in enthusiasm what it lacked in accuracy (such as Twoflower being depicted with literally four eyes rather than wearing glasses). Eric was conceived as a vehicle for Kirby's illustrations. However, the original, illustrated version of Eric fell out of print for many years, and it's the illustration-less version of the novel which has been most commonly encountered by readers. Fortunately, a new edition of the illustrated version of the book was issued a few years ago and is still commonly available.

Eric is a lightweight and disposable tale, though Discworld fans will enjoy it resolving Rincewind's cliffhanger fate from Sourcery and the mild worldbuilding work it does with setting up new locations (the Tezuman Empire). But there is a slight feeling of redundancy here. The Luggage rushes around and eats more people, the wizards of Unseen University fret futilely, Rincewind runs away from trouble, and the Tsortean-Ephebian War and its multiple not-Trojan horses which formed part of the subplot of Pyramids is here revisited without much effect. Eric feels distinctly half-assed in the writing stakes for a fair bit of its length.

Kirby's artwork is colourful and fun, and helps flesh out the relative sparseness of the narrative. Kirby's artwork is something of an acquired taste, though, much more stylised than it is accurate, and the continued rendition of Rincewind as an decrepit old man despite The Light Fantastic suggested he was only 32 years old (at the time of that book) remains odd. But it certainly makes the book work better than the unillustrated edition.

Eric (***) is a brief, mildly diverting tale which is a more successful showcase for the late Josh Kirby's artwork than it is for Pratchett's full writing powers.

Discworld #10: Moving Pictures

The Guild of Alchemists have created a new form of entertainment: moving pictures! Soon, Ankh-Morpork, perennial city of fads, is gripped by the phenomenon and everyone wants to break into the business. Semi-rejected wizard Victor Tugelbend and Theda Withel - who comes from a small town you've probably never heard of - are surprised when they become the biggest stars in Holy Wood. They are more surprised when it turns out that the magic of the movies is causing the threads of reality to break down and endanger the future of the Discworld. But that's showbusiness for you.

If there's ever such as a thing as an archetypal Discworld novel, Moving Pictures is probably it. Pratchett finds a facet of our everyday life that he finds interesting and transplants it to the Discworld, where he subjects it to all kinds of satirical analysis and character explorations, having a huge amount of fun in the process. He'll later do the same thing to rock music (Soul Music), the theatre (Maskerade), Christmas (Hogfather), war (Jingo), the press (The Truth), the post office (Going Postal), banking (Making Money) and football (Unseen Academicals), among many other examples.

It's a solid format and one that results in a much greater variety of stories than you might expect, although there is the sense that Pratchett didn't have much more of an idea here beyond "Discworld movies" before starting writing, as the plot only loosely comes together. It's certainly not as tightly-plotted and constructed a novel as Mort or Guards! Guards! That doesn't stop it being entertaining. It helps that Pratchett avoids contemporary movie references (the novel came out in 1990) in favour of more classic and long-lived ones. A series of King Kong gags are fortunately still relevant thanks to more Kong movies being made, although the Keystone Kops and Laurel and Hardy references might go over younger readers' heads. One joke feels stunning prescient - a troll actor calling himself "Rock" and there being widespread mirth at the idea of an actor with such a name - until you realise that Pratchett is referencing Rock Hudson rather than Dwayne Johnson, but amusingly that joke still works for the next generation. It also helps that some of the things Pratchett was mocking - advertising, product placement and crass commercialisation - have become if anything even more dominant forces in modern films.

The book features some more world and character-building. The tendency of Unseen University Archchancellors to have a briefer lifespan than terminally depressed lemmings living next to the Grand Canyon comes to a merciful end with the arrival of Mustrum Ridcully, whose cheer and straightforward approach to all problems sends shockwaves through the establishment (most of them landing on the head of the Bursar, still semi-sane at this point, although his decline into terminal bewilderment arguably begins when Ridcully nearly shoots him in the face with a crossbow). Unseen University also gets most of its regular cast going forwards: the Dean, the Lecturer in Recent Runes, student genius Ponder Stibbons and the ancient Windle Poons. We also meet Gaspode the Wonder Dog, and more character development for characters introduced in Guards! Guards!, such as Detritus the troll and Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, who gets his biggest starring role of the series.

The book's biggest problem is pacing. Pratchett is usually very good with this, packing a lot into a modest 300-400 pages and then clearing out when the story is done, but Moving Pictures feels a bit sluggish, probably a result of the author knowing where he's starting and finishing, but a bit vague about making it join up in the middle. The book also arguably has a few too many endings, with several big climaxes in a row rather than one bigger, more elegant ending. Also, the fact that Victor and Theda become the biggest stars on the Disc only to go completely unmentioned in later books is odd, although possibly also a commentary on how the biggest actors can completely vanish from view after a few years in the doldrums.

Moving Pictures (***½) is a fine, readable but distinctly second-tier Discworld novel which has a ton of great ideas which don't entirely cohere into strong whole. But, as usual, Pratchett delivers enough laughs, intelligent observations and quotable lines to make the book worthwhile.

Discworld #11: Reaper Man

Windle Poons, the oldest wizard in Ankh-Morpork, has died at the grand old age of 130. To his bemusement, Death does not show up to collect him and he is forced to return to life as a zombie. Across the Discworld, people are dying, only to find that they're not moving on. On a remote farm, a new worker shows up to start cutting the corn. Fortunately, he's a dab hand with the old scythe...

Terry Pratchett was something of a "gardener" when it came to writing. He started books with an idea and maybe a character and just kept writing until he bumped into something approximating a plot, often working backwards in edits to stitch the whole thing together cohesively. By the time he got to Reaper Man, the eleventh book in the Discworld series, he had this structure down pat and could write an entertaining yarn with his eyes closed. For whatever reason, Reaper Man doesn't quite work as a cohesive novel in the same way as most of the rest.

In this case it seems that Pratchett had two separate ideas competing for attention, neither strong enough to propel an entire book, and decided to fuse them together. In the first storyline, something of a sequel to the earlier Mort, Death's growing affection for the lifeforms he has to cull has caused some controversy among the Auditors of Reality and Death is fired. He's given some time to put his affairs in order, but rather than do this he decides to live as a human for the last few days of his existence, taking up the role of Bill Door, handyman for hire, and going to work on a remote farm for Ms. Flitworth. This story is entertaining, well-characterised and even somewhat moving.

In the second storyline, strange artifacts are appearing all over Ankh-Morpork (nominally caused by the growing lifeforce left behind by people who can't move on from this plane of reality, though this connection feels strained), initially snowglobes and then shopping trolleys, culminating in the horrific appearance of the out-of-town shopping mall, a parasitical commercial tic which drains the life from the urban host. This isn't a bad idea, per se, and ties in with Pratchett's preferred scheme of finding a facet of human existence - movies, cops, opera, the press - and transferring it to Discworld to be poked around satirically. However, you can't quite shake the feeling that Pratchett's idea here is not fully-formed and may have been driven by an unpleasant parking experience at a shopping centre rather than a much stronger idea.

The result is arguably the most schizophrenic Discworld novel of them all, on one hand the splendid and enjoyable story of Death trying his hand at life, and on the other, the much more vague idea of the Unseen University wizarding faculty and an undead self-help group joining forces to taken down an, er, evil retail park.

Fortunately, the vagueness of the Ankh-Morpork storyline doesn't stop it from having some very funny lines and characters. The undead self-help group is great fun, populated by a traditional, Pratchettian cast of deranged-but-likeable characters, and the book delves deeper into the Unseen University faculty after their previous major appearance just one book earlier. The fact that the entire faculty survived that book into this one may cause hardened Discworld readers to pass out (the Archchancellor is the same one from the last book, which has never happened before) and enjoy the growth the characters show, or, in the case of the Bursar, the distinct decline in sanity. Unfortunately, the UU cast do have a tendency to reduce Pratchett to the most slapstick style of comedy, a style which he is not accomplished at, and later scenes of the wizards running around, being whisked off by self-steering shopping trolleys etc do become tiresome.

Still, Pratchett on an off day is still entertaining. Reaper Man (***) has some good laughs - Death trying to help out a cockerel with dyslexia, Poons mentoring a shy bogeyman - and the Death part of the novel is excellent. The rest just feels like it could have done with a few more rewrites.

Discworld #12: Witches Abroad

A fairy godmother with an important mission has passed on, leaving her wand and quest in the hands of the well-meaning but inexperienced Magrat Garlick. Magrat teams up with Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax to travel to the distant city of Genua to stop a fairy tale coming true, which seems a bit off until the witches meet the other fairy godmother and learn that "happy ever after" can be a curse as well as a blessing.

Witches Abroad is the twelfth Discworld novel and the second to focus on the coven of Lancre witches (also the third to feature Granny Weatherwax). With their native village of Lancre recovering from the events of Wyrd Sisters, Pratchett decides to send the witches off on a jobbing holiday. This results in a book of two halves: the first, where they travel across the Disc to Genua, and the second where they confront the "bad guy" in Genua itself. The first half is a splendid romp as the witches visit castles, villages and dwarf mines and meet wolves and vampires. Pratchett can be good at travelogues and this is one of his better ones, and the trail of inadvertent chaos two "little old ladies and a wet hen" leave across the continent is most amusing.

Events in Genua take a cleverer turn, where the witches encounter a mash-up of Baba Yaga, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella in the Disc's version of New Orleans, complete with voodoo magic, zombies, alligators and some amazingly good food. It sounds odd but it works surprisingly well, and breaking the story in two in an already-short novel (under 300 pages) means the story cracks on with impressive pace. There's balls and glass slippers and lots of gumbo as the pages fly by.

The book features some of Pratchett's better one-novel-only characters, like Mrs. Gogol, Baron Saturday and Lily, as well as the formidable Legba. We also get a larger focus on Nanny Ogg than in the previous witches novel, and a much larger role (so to speak) for Greebo, Nanny's debauchedly murderous cat. Also look out for the debut of Casanunda, master swordsman and the world's greatest stepladder-assisted lover and/or liar.

Witches Abroad (****) is a free-wheeling book that mashes together influences from wildly different sources and creates a highly entertaining novel out of the results.

Discworld #13: Small Gods

Brother Brutha of the Church is a devout believer in the Great God Om, in whose name the Omnian Empire has scythed a bloody path of conquest across the continent. The only problem is that he is the only devout believer left of the Great God Om, which Om believes is the reason he has been incarnated and imprisoned in the body of a small tortoise. Still, with Brutha's help he hopes to reclaim his former place of glory. The only problem is that Brutha has no idea how to accomplish this, not in a theocratic empire where genuine faith is seen as a threat...

By the early common wisdom, Terry Pratchett's Discworld series was a series of amusing comic fantasies parodying other genre works and then facets of everyday life, like the movie business, law enforcement and shopping malls. More serious topics had started appearing in the series, but only as an underlying theme.

With Small Gods, published in 1992, Pratchett took the more serious ideas he'd been rummaging around with, put them up front and centre, remembered to bring a moderate number of laughs, and wrote arguably his masterpiece*.

At its core, Small Gods, from its first page to its last, is a lengthy, sustained and inordinately clever examination of religious fundamentalism and blind faith and their conflict with reason, argument and science. And you barely notice, because the story itself is extremely taut, well-told and brilliantly characterised with Pratchett's occasional bursts of silliness kept to a minimum in favour of flashes of wry and at times angry humour. Small Gods is a book that both argues for the importance of personal faith and piety and vehemently against people using their religious beliefs to impose fear, pain and death on others.

Small Gods has the veneer of being just a traditional Pratchett book: there's some jokes about men in togas arguing pointlessly about philosophy (in a world where it is difficult to ask, "Are the gods real?" when a lightning bolt will come flying through the window five seconds later with a label attached saying, "YES"), Death has a couple of cameo appearances and there is a running joke about tortoises being nice to eat. But you can tell the subject matter really got Pratchett riled up. His hatred of blind faith and the idea that setting fire to people is okay because an old book says so - even when, strictly speaking, it doesn't mention it - really comes through in this novel, but in measured tones. There's also a whole bunch of other things that clearly got Pratchett's goat up, with Flat Earthers (here cast as those believing the objectively flat Discworld is a sphere, because of irony) also having a hard time of it on the sharper end of Pratchett's wit.

Character-wise, Small Gods may be Pratchett's strongest novel. Being something of a prequel to the rest of the series, most of the cast does not recur elsewhere (Death and a very brief trans-temporal appearance by a certain simian book-collector aside), but Pratchett still has time to paint them in impressive detail. Vorbis may be one of the scariest antagonists in the whole series. Brutha is certainly one of its most interesting protagonists. Om's pragmatic, tortoise-meets-deity outlook on life is amusing. Even minor characters like Didactylos and would-be rebel leader Simony are well-rounded and given good rationales for what they do.

Almost as importantly, the ending does not suck. Pratchett had a patchy record with endings in the early going of the series, with his books sometimes ending okay and others being a bit of a let-down after a strong start and middle section. Small Gods, however, has a fantastic ending, starting with possibly the biggest belly-laugh out of all forty-one books in the series and proceeding from there. Intelligent but never preachy, philosophical but never boring, Small Gods (*****) is Terry Pratchett's masterpiece (okay, one of his masterpieces). It stakes a credible claim to being the strongest Discworld novel and maybe the best thing he ever wrote, and if I had to recommend just one Discworld novel for someone to read, it would be this one.

*Although, a decade later, Night Watch would have serious words about that, and Nation a few years later.

Discworld #14: Lords and Ladies

Returning to their home kingdom of Lancre after travelling across the Disc, witches Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax discover that a new coven of hip, young witches has arisen in their absence. Magrat is disconcerted to discover that plans for her marriage to King Verence are steaming ahead without her involvement, with guests arriving from all over. On top of those issues, an invasion of beings from another dimension is at hand. It falls to the witches of Lancre and an unlikely assortment of allies - an annoyed orangutan, a legion of ninja morris dancers and a terminally frisky dwarf in a wig - to rise to the occasion.

Lords and Ladies is intriguing as the first Discworld novel to rely heavily on pre-existing continuity, a point Terry Pratchett was so concerned about he includes a warning about it (and a quick recap of prior books) in the start of the novel. The book is the fourth in the "Witches" sub-series following on from Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad, but it also intersects and crosses over with the "Ankh-Morpork Wizards" sub-series, previously established in Moving Pictures and Reaper Man. Think of it as The Avengers of the Discworld Literary Universe, or something.

Those fairly moderate (and likely overstated) continuity concerns out of the way, Lords and Ladies is a fun romp which fairly effortlessly fits into the upper tier of Discworld novels. By this point in the series, Pratchett had moved on from satirising fantasy as a whole and was far more interested in examining the human condition through the idiosyncratic lens of the Discworld. However, he was fairly regularly being bombarded (or at least lightly shelled) by fan letters asking where the elves* were. The Disc had dwarfs, trolls, pixies and fairies after all, so elves should be around. Their only mention thusfar had been The Light Fantastic, where Twoflower mooned over elves as being beautiful and graceful and Rincewind reacted the same way as when someone says, "Well, say what you will but that Mr. Hitler had some good ideas." That idea had clearly been rattling around for a while before Pratchett finally decided to give it a good airing.

The modern epic fantasy idea of elves as graceful, noble beings was a somewhat unusual one when compared to folklore, where elves are presented more as mischievous tricksters, if not outright evil. Pratchett decided to tap that field of inspiration for his elves here, who as much more Aes Sidhe than noble Legolas, and all the more interesting for it. The Aes Sidhe - the elves of Irish mythology - are a fascinating study in cruelty and alieness, and Pratchett's exploration of them here in a fantasy context would remain unmatched until, arguably, Peadar Ó Guilín's recent and hugely enjoyable Call duology.

The novel is divided into two halves. The first is fairly familiar, with the witches dealing with more mundane concerns in Lancre, Magrat getting annoyed at finding out people are trying to arrange her life without asking her and Nanny and Granny trying to deal with the fact that they're not getting any younger and they are risk of being out to pasture by fresh, new blood (with some very odd ideas). This sequence feels slight but still funny, and quite clever (how Granny Weatherwax defeats the younger witch trying to take her down a notch is both), interspersed with a road trip as the Ankh-Morpork wizards travel to Lancre through a series of increasingly bizarre adventures, culminating in one of the funniest scenes in the entire series as their coach is held up by noted lowwayman Casanunda (here returning from Witches Abroad).

The second half of the novel, after the elves show up, abruptly shifts gears into the rather unexpected Die Hard with an Elfgeance as the Lancre regulars have to tool up and take down the elves with a gusto that Professor Hugo Dyson (a noted elf-hater who mocked his friend JRR Tolkien about them rather gleefully) would no doubt approve of. In fact, given Pratchett's general reluctance to use violence as the ultimate solution to problems, the transformation of the story into what is possibly the closest he gets to writing an all-out action novel is rather surprising, even moreso for how accomplished it is. Pratchett being Pratchett, he also has to throw in some clever references to quantum theory along the way, culminating in his unique solution to Schrodinger's Paradox.

Characterisation is solid throughout and Magrat gets fleshed out a lot more than in previous books, whilst Granny Weatherwax continues her evolution into arguably Pratchett's finest protagonist. The book also gives much-needed depth to Ridcully, whose character could formerly be defined as "blusteringly pompous," but here emerges as a smarter, shrewder and more romantic character than previously. There's also some subtle foreshadowing of later novels as Ponder Stibbons' experiences here set up his investigation of other-universe theory, leading to further shenanigans down the road. A slight crack here is the continued degeneration of the Bursar into mental instability and illness and it being played solely for laughs, which feels a bit obvious and risks becoming stale (Pratchett just about maintains it here, but by Interesting Times the joke has worn thin).

In overall terms, Lords and Ladies (*****) emerges as one of the strongest books in the series, and the second part of a formidable one-two punch after Small Gods. Pratchett shows he can play a story more strongly for laughs and even action, and still craft something as entertaining and memorable as that earlier, slightly more serious book about the exploitation of religious faith.

* Throughout the Discworld series Pratchett uses the more grammatically correct "dwarfs" rather than Tolkienian "dwarves" for the plural of that species, but even he had to admit that "elfs" looks weird and went with Tollers on that one.

Discworld #15: Men at Arms

Captain Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is getting married. It's an occasion of great happiness and joy, marred by a massive explosion at the Assassins' Guild and the theft of an unknown artefact. The Guilds don't want the Watch involved and the Patrician doesn't want Vimes involved, but bodies are soon piling up. Someone out there has a weapon that kill people instantly at a long, long range and its up to the City Watch and their new intake to stop them. Somehow.

When Terry Pratchett introduced the City Watch in the classic Discworld novel Guards! Guards! it always felt like he was deliberately setting up a premise and cast of characters who could go on to recur regularly through the series. It's a bit surprising that it took him seven novels to get back to the Watch and their adventures, but when he did, he did it with style.

Once again, Pratchett engages with amusing cliches - Captain Vimes is only three days from retirement and we all know what that means in a police procedural - and once again also undercuts a simple satire with some outstanding character and story depth. There's a harder edge to this story than most Discworld novels, with a somewhat higher body count (including among some of the sympathetic protagonists), all arranged around a genuinely intriguing mystery. There's a great nod to hardbitten detective stories, with Sam Vimes as the cynical, weathered old cop doggedly pursuing the case in the face of opposition, with Corporal Carrot as his enthusiastic young sidekick. As you'd expect, though, Pratchett subverts this setup early on and takes the story in more interesting directions.

The novel benefits from being the first one written with Stephen Briggs' Streets of Ankh-Morpork guidebook to hand, meaning that Pratchett could plot things like rooftop chases and the routes of various characters on a big map of the city. This immediately gives the city more of a lived-in feel. But the writing is far more important in giving Ankh-Morpork a lived-in reality to it. Previous to Men at Arms, Ankh-Morpork was simply a great setting. From this novel onwards - and to this very day - it simply became the greatest metropolis ever presented in a fantasy series, a city that absolutely convinces from the tip of the Tower of Art to the depths of the sluggish River Ankh and from the office of the Patrician to the lowliest criminals on the streets. For the backdrop to an ostensibly comedic series, that's quite an accomplishment.

On top of this, Pratchett brings a rich level of characterisation. Both Vimes and Carrot take a step up, and the troll-and-dwarf pairing of Detritus (returning from Moving Pictures, as does Gaspode) and Cuddy is absolutely fantastic. Angua is also a very fine addition to the cast. Pratchett also uses the novel to intelligently investigate ethnic tensions in a divided city as well as political intrigue between the guilds and the government, as well as analysing the dangers of those who live in the "glories" of the past rather than trying to help the present.

Pratchett also still brings the funny. As usual there is intelligent wordplay, some smart references (Detritus's swift promotion to a Full Metal Jacket-style drill sergeant is as terrifying as it is funny) and, when called for, some more straightforward gags peppered through the book.

The real success of Men at Arms (*****) is Pratchett taking things he'd previously been good at in isolation and here combining them into an outstandingly successful combination, furthering the run of the Discworld series' first "imperial period" of quality.

Discworld #16: Soul Music

Imp y Celyn, a musician from a druidic society, arrives in Ankh-Morpork to seek his fortune. Unfortunately, the entry fees to the Musicians' Guild are unaffordable and playing without their sanction is a good way of finding out if you actually need functioning hands or not. Joining forces with Glod and Lias (a dwarf hornblower and a troll drummer), Imp finds a strange guitar in a back-alley shop and inadvertently introduces the Discworld to Music with Rocks In. But the music wants to live forever, which means killing its creator. For Susan, the young Duchess of Sto Helit and granddaughter of Death (it's a long story), filling in for her grandpa whilst he takes a break, this presents her a tough quandary in her first week on the job.

Soul Music, the sixteenth book of the Discworld series, interrupts Terry Pratchett's imperial run of form in the series by not being stupendously excellent (after the one-two-three punch of Small Gods, Lords and Ladies and Men at Arms), instead settling for merely being pretty good. Pratchett is retreading old ground here, bringing rock music to the Discworld for study and satire in the same way he earlier tackled shopping malls (Reaper Man) and movies (Moving Pictures).

It's a solid formula and competently executed, but it still makes for something of a formulaic novel. Even the major subplot, in which Death takes some time off and mayhem results (for the third time in a dozen books), feels like we're in familiar territory.

Fortunately, formulaic and competent Pratchett is still pretty good by any standards. It helps that the novel's effective protagonist, Susan, is one of Pratchett's better characters, a sensible young woman who goes through life flummoxed at the sheer stupidity of many of her fellows and constantly trying to work out how to make things work out for the best. Susan does recur in several later novels, though she doesn't quite break through to the top tier of Pratchett characters like Vimes or Granny Weatherwax. There's also a surprising hard edge to her backstory, which relies on foreknowledge of Mort and makes the events of that novel somewhat bittersweet in retrospect.

The novel is funny, packed with references to classic rock singers, albums, lyrics and even cover art (the cover art makes a nod at Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell), though I wonder how some of these references have aged in 2021. Will as many people get the Michael Jackson, Blues Brothers, Buddy Holly, Sex Pistols and Who references now as then? If you do, then the book becomes genuinely a laugh riot as it riffs on real rock and roll events and history (both outright and subtly), gently but affectionately poking fun at the absurdity of the genre.

Still, greatness eludes the novel because it is so similar to previous books, not helped by Archchancellor Ridcully walking around giving metacommentary on how similar the events are to previous books. It also feels a bit odd, given their heroism and effectiveness in the prior novel, that the City Watch (here cameoing outside their own series) are treated as incompetent and ineffective buffoons here.

Soul Music (****) is entertaining and readable, especially if you are a classic rock fan, but still can't help but feel a bit of a letdown after the supreme quality of the books leading up to it. An animated version of the novel, produced in 1997 by Cosgrove Hall, is available on YouTube.

Discworld #17: Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

The remote and mysterious Agatean Empire has sent a request to Ankh-Morpork, demanding that the "Great Wizzard" be sent to them. After thorough research and exacting study (or about five minutes of asking around), the faculty at Unseen University determine this to be a request for Rincewind, nominal wizard and adventurer-at-large who once had dealings with a representative of the Empire. Rincewind is, reluctantly, rescued from his new home (a tropical paradise which doesn't seem to want to kill him for once) and transported to the Empire, where he finds the politest revolution in history is underway and the capital city is about to be assaulted by a horde of (seven) formidable barbarian warriors. Unfortunately, he finds his exploits and power have been "marginally" exaggerated by his old friend Twoflower...

Interesting Times, our seventeenth visit to the Discworld, marks the return of Rincewind and the Luggage for the first time since the mini-novel Eric, and the first appearance of Twoflower since The Light Fantastic, fifteen books earlier. Pratchett probably chose to revisit the OG Discworld characters due to a sense of occasion: the novel was largely written during the tenth anniversary of the publication of The Colour of Magic, at a point when the series' profile and success were booming. There was also a feeling that recent Discworld novels had become fairly complex in terms of story and character depth, and Pratchett wanted to get "back to basics," as it were, with another Rincewind travelogue adventure.

The problem is that by this point in the conception of the series, Discworld had really moved far beyond being a series of knockabout comedy novels and a return to that format does it little favours. Pratchett does try to make this first visit to the Disc's equivalent of China more interesting, with a full-scale revolution in progress, but he shies away from using the setting to make the similar kind of points he did about religion and politics in the classic Small Gods. He does, laudably, mostly avoid any kind of lazy stereotyping of Chinese culture, though a few clunky lines slip through. Twoflower is fairly underwhelming and low-key on his return, and the Horde feels like the same joke that was already every effectively made in The Light Fantastic being regurgitated for the sake of it. Pratchett also seems a bit uncertain in tackling the Empire storyline, to the point that the book is almost a third done before we even get there, leaving events there also feeling quite rushed and its villain not really developed.

The book does have a few good points. There's some good humour from the meeting of minds that is Ridcully encountering Rincewind, and the Unseen University metastory gets a bit more development as we encounter Hex, the Discworld's first computer. The more sophisticated Pratchett of the mid-1990s does do a good job of making Rincewind a bit more fleshed-out as a character, although this does seem mostly achieved by making him a bit more unlikeable than he was previously. There's also some entertaining gags which do work quite well, like the literal terracotta army that's controlled by the exact same icon scheme as the classic 1991 video game Lemmings.

Interesting Times (***) is not quite the weakest Discworld novel, but it may rank among the most disappointing. Pratchett doesn't use the setting or story to illuminate wider themes, at least very well, and if it ultimately avoids being Carry On Up the Yangtze, it doesn't exactly use its setting to great effect either. Still, Rincewind gets some much-needed development, it is fun to see Twoflower and the Luggage again (if only briefly) and the novel passes the time before Pratchett gets his mojo back again.

Discworld #18: Maskerade

Agents Nitt, formerly of the secondary Lancre witches' coven, has relocated to Ankh-Morpork to become a singer in the Opera House, assuming her phenomenal natural talent would be enough, and so it proves...enough to become the real voice behind a much more photogenic but less-talented, would-be starlet. But a spate of murders has the opera company on edge. Meanwhile, Nanny Ogg has had her cookbook published, but Granny Weatherwax's keen eye suggests she has not been getting the promised royalties. They head to Ankh-Morpork to find the missing money and, just coincidentally, look for a third witch to replace Queen Magrat.

When I embarked on this Discworld re-readathon, Maskerade was possibly the book I was most intrigued to reach. Not because it's the best Discworld book (which it isn't), but it's possibly the most low-key, least-discussed book in the entire series. It's actually quite impressive how constrained it is a novel: almost the entire book (bar a couple of early vignettes as Granny and Nanny travel to Ankh-Morpork via stagecoach) takes place in just one building, with a very focused cast of characters. In fact, given that Discworld stage plays were already a regular thing when Pratchett wrote the book, I wonder if he'd deliberately kept the book restrained and focused to better accommodate stage versions of the narrative.

The narrow scope helps Maskerade improve on its immediate predecessor, Interesting Times, which might be the least-cohesive Discworld novel of them all. Here, the tight focus and clearer stakes makes for a more enjoyable read, though an imperfect one.

Ostensibly this is a book in the "Witches" sub-series, picking up after the events of Lords and Ladies, in which Magrat departed the coven to become Queen of Lancre after they saved the kingdom from an invasion of transdimensional elves (as you do). It is, refreshingly, much more focused on Nanny Ogg than it is on Granny Weatherwax, and seeing Nanny use her natural charisma and charm to infiltrate the Opera House and ingratiate herself with everyone is quite entertaining. Granny Weatherwax is surprisingly low-key, with several notably powerful moments but spending a lot of the book in the background as Nanny and Agnes Nitt take on the lion's share of the action. This may actually be the start of a trend where Pratchett has to bench some of his most hyper-capable characters for parts of the story because if they were properly involved from the off, they'd have the problem licked in five minutes.

It's a funny book, riffing hard on The Phantom of the Opera but easily-missed lines lampoon everything from Shakespeare to Cats to "a play about a miserable guy called Les." It is, once again, "Pratchett does xxx but in Discworld," where xxx is the opera, having previously been rock music (Soul Music), religion (Small Gods), shopping malls (Reaper Man) and the cinema (Moving Pictures). This format has resulted in some of the best Discworld books but can also get formulaic, with Pratchett settling for making funny references rather than using the satire to inform more powerful points. Maskerade probably tilts more towards the more formulaic end of the spectrum, but formulaic Pratchett is so much better than a lot of authors on their very best days, that that's not much of a criticism.

The book rattles along until a very amusing, meta-fictional big curtain call, taking in (and riffing on) every famous musical and operatic tradition you can think of. There is a bit of a missed opportunity here, though, as the City Watch gets involved in the story but only through a new character and cameos for Nobby and Detritus; Sam Vimes does not show up in person, which could have been entertaining in a Javert kind of way. Of course, that could have led to an Avengers-style team-up between Vimes and Granny Weatherwax, arguably Pratchett's two most popular and competent protagonists, but alas that is not to be. A subplot about Greebo occasionally reverting to the humanoid form he last inhabited in Witches Abroad also feels somewhat underdeveloped.

Maskerade (****) is the Discworld series at its most relaxed, reliable and laidback. It's not challenging Night Watch or Small Gods' claim on being the best book in the series, but it is a fun read and a good time. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Discworld #19: Feet of Clay

There has been a murder in Ankh-Morpork, which at first glance is not unusual. But the nature of the murder intrigues Commander Sam Vimes and Captain Carrot of the City Watch. Their investigation of the case, aided by new forensics expert Cheery Longbottom, exposes an ambition that could plunge the whole city into chaos. Once again, Sam Vimes and his officers are the thin blue line between order and chaos in a city where it's hard to see where the one ends and the other begins at the best of times.

Feet of Clay is the nineteenth Discworld novel and the third to focus on the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, following the excellent Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms. Once again, the City Watch must rally to solve crimes and stop a threat to the safety of the city, through a combination of Commander Vimes's cynicism, Carrot's good-natured optimism, Colon's stoic experience, Detritus's massively impractical siege weaponry, Angua's nasal intuition and, er, whatever it is Corporal Nobbs does. The Watch is here reinforced by new arrival Cheery Longbottom, a dwarf forensics expert with something approaching a secret.

You might expect the novel to be predictable - the City Watch sub-series is, at least in potential, Pratchett's most procedural sequence of books - but as usual Pratchett takes some delight in wrong-footing expectations. This is still a funny book, as Colon's close encounter with a psychotic lunatic of diminutive size and then a very angry bull can attest, but there's more of a serious side to it as well. Existential debates on the rights of sentient beings when no one can agree if they're sentient form a key part of the story as well, as Pratchett introduces the Discworld's golems, here used almost as robot slave labour until it turns out that they can think and feel, after a fashion, which raises thorny ethical questions.

The book is also marvellously, intricately constructed. Some other Discworld books feel like Pratchett has aimed an Idea Cannon at a wall, blasted out whatever came to mind and then assembled the resulting narrative morass into something resembling a coherent plot. That worked extremely well for some novels and not as well in others, but Feet of Clay definitely feels more pre-planned and structured. There are more distinct character arcs, not just for Vimes but for Carrot and Angua's relationship, new recruit Cheery whose quiet confidence over gender expression rapidly sparks a cultural revolution among the city's dwarfs, and even for series stalwarts and standbys Nobby and Colon. The former gets drawn into what feels like a Game of Thrones subplot, whilst Colon - distressingly several weeks from retirement - has a solo mini-adventure that he was not expecting.

There's even foreshadowing at work here, as Vimes visits his childhood neighbourhood and we get the feeling of unspoken secrets about his background. These will, eventually, give rise to one of Pratchett's great masterpieces in Night Watch, but that's still quite a few books off.

Feet of Clay (*****) is one of the best Discworld novels, if not quite at the absolute-best tier of Small Gods and Night Watch. It's well-constructed, naturally funny whilst supporting more serious ideas, and as marvellously characterised as Pratchett at his best. It deepens the worldbuilding of Ankh-Morpork, the Greatest Fantasy City of All Time™, and sets the stage for intriguing developments to come. The novel is Pratchett at his best: erudite, thoughtful and smart, creating a work where fantasy, satire and detective elements meet perfectly.

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Discworld #20: Hogfather

The Discworld is preparing to celebrate the great festival of Hogswatch, when young children receive presents from the Hogfather. However, someone has marked the Hogfather's card and given the task to the Assassins' Guild of Ankh-Morpork to carry out. Bewildered at the idea of executing a mythical being, they give the task to their most creative and ruthless inhumer, Mr. Teatime. As the plan unfolds and the Hogfather goes missing, Death steps in to fill the void, commanding his granddaughter Susan to, under no circumstances, search for the missing Hogfather.

Hogfather is the twentieth Discworld novel and the Big Christmas Special of the series. Pratchett had occasionally mentioned the festival of Hogswatch in previous novel and with his Discworld novels usually being published at the end of the years and being an annual Christmas gift in some households, it was a reasonable move to actually write a novel about Christmas, or at least the Disc's typically idiosyncratic version thereof. Christmas therefore joins the various other topics - like films, rock music, crime, fundamentalist religion and Shakespeare - that Pratchett has covered over the series to date.

The novel also acts as the fourth novel to focus on the character of Death, and the second on his granddaughter of Susan Sto Helit (following Soul Music). Death's character has been explored pretty thoroughly in three previous books, so Pratchett splits the story here between Death and Susan, with more focus on Susan as she explores the mystery of why the Hogfather has disappeared and why someone would want to kill him. It's a sold spine for the book, and it's fun following the path of clues which eventually leads to the solution. Susan remains one of Pratchett's more underrated and capable protagonists, as he puts it, a "Goth Mary Poppins," so it is surprising she makes so few appearances (aside from this novel, she only appears in Soul Music and Thief of Time).

One of the biggest surprises about Hogfather is how dark it gets. Pratchett's reputation for comedy and laughter belies the fact that he can get quite venomous and biting when he wants to, and it's probably not a coincidence that his darkest novels - Small Gods, Night Watch and Nation - are among his very best. Hogfather doesn't go that far, but it does feature an unpleasant gang of criminals with rather unpleasant habits and tics. In Mr. Teatime it also features possibly Pratchett's most psychologically damaged and unhinged antagonists, someone who is not a nice guy and who isn't going to be won over by witty speech by the lead character. This gives the novel a surprising amount of bite for what is supposed to be the Discworld Christmas Special.

The book does falter a bit in its pacing. Once again, the presence of the Unseen University faculty slows things down to a drag. There are some nice gags here - Death communicating with the primitive AI, Hex, and the Senior Wrangler going on a date - but once again the Bursar's mental illness being played up for laughs and the other faculty going through their routines is something that was played out in Reaper Man, at the very least, and should have been retired by now.

Beyond that problem, Hogfather (****) is a very solid novel with some of Pratchett's most accomplished and unpleasant villains, which normally would be a good thing but I'm not sure it works within the context of a Christmas story. Great characters and a nicely knotty plot overcome pacing problems and some repetitive story beats to make for a rare Christmas fantasy novel that is worth reading. The book is available in the UK and USA now.

The book also has the distinct honour of being the first Discworld novel adapted for the screen in live-action (animated versions of Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music were produced a decade earlier). Sky produced a two-part TV adaptation of Hogfather in 2006, starring Ian Richardson as Death, Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) as Susan Sto Helit and Marc Warren in a very memorable role as Mr. Teatime.

Discworld #21: Jingo

An island has appeared in the Circle Sea, roughly halfway between Ankh-Morpork and the great empire of Klatch. This of course makes it Strategically Important, with both Ankh-Morpork and Klatch eager to use force to back their claim. One problem: Ankh-Morpork has no army (standing or otherwise), no money to hire mercenaries and no equipment to use (because they've sold it all to Klatch). For Sam Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch and now a reluctant noble with the right to lead a company of men (and misc.), this is just the first problem he has to overcome. But not to worry, it'll all be over by Hogswatch.

Terry Pratchett brought many subjects under the microscope of his forensic satire during his long career. Small Gods, possibly his single finest novel, angrily but intelligently dissected the evils of religious fundamentalism and how it perverts faith into a force of destruction. Seeing Pratchett bring that same kind of analysis to war - the "last refuge of the incompetent" as Isaac Asimov said - is an interesting prospect.

Unfortunately, Pratchett isn't quite able to marshal the same level of eloquent, witty rage in this novel, the twenty-first in the Discworld series. This is mainly down to the book's structure. For the first two-thirds, it proceeds as a City Watch procedural in much the same vein as its three excellent predecessors, Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms and Feet of Clay. Whilst the war drums are beating, a crime takes place in Ankh-Morpork and Vimes and his officers hit the streets, following a trail to solve the crime but also hopefully stave off the war. However, in the latter third of the novel it turns into a road trip to the front, which is where the narrative starts wobbling.

There are some nice ideas in this latter part of the novel - the Patrician, Nobbs and Colon making for the most unlikely buddy team-up ever - but it does feel disjointed, like a Rincewind novel has crashed and merged into a City Watch novel towards the end. This isn't helped by some potentially amusing one-page gags (Nobbs going undercover in a harem as a woman) getting drawn out past their natural lifespan to the point of tedium. It also doesn't help that, for once, other people are ahead of Vimes and he ends up being very reactive to events through the book, only regaining his equilibrium when the book is pretty much over.

I suspect part of the problem is that once he'd hit on the "Discworld goes to war," theme, Pratchett didn't really have anywhere to take the idea. War is bad, sure, but that's pretty much obvious, and of course the situation is often more nuanced than that: defending yourself from an aggressor is a necessity. Pratchett is specifically calling out pointless wars over strategic spits of land that don't remotely justify the blood spilled, and once that point is (eloquently) made, he doesn't have a huge amount more to say, resulting in the book becoming a succession of knockabout, madcap scenes. Some are funny and work well, some not so much.

Jingo (***½) is two-thirds of a great Discworld novel about the City Watch, but that story runs out of steam and transforms into being a knockabout travelogue adventure. The main theme of war being bad is very effectively explored, but Pratchett's deeper, more thoughtful examination of his central idea is here missing. The book is fine, but disjointed.

Interesting Times does have some bad stereotyping and kinda racist portrayals. Such as Sumo Wrestlers being not only fat, but stupid, always hungry and needing to be fed with shovels. Plus shots at tea ceremonies and how everyone is worse than England.

Discworld #22: The Last Continent

The Unseen University Librarian has fallen ill, a magical malady that can only be fixed by someone who knows his real name. Unfortunately the last person to know that, Rincewind, vanished some years ago. The Unseen University faculty set out to find him. Meanwhile, Rincewind is up to his neck in danger on the remote continent of EcksEcksEcksEcks (XXXX, aka Terror Incognita) and is trying to find his way home.

The Last Continent is the twenty-second Discworld novel (carrying us into the second half of the series) and sees Pratchett checking back in with Rincewind, the original Discworld protagonist. As the series has gone on, Rincewind's appearances have become more and more sporadic, mainly because the gag with Rincewind, that he's a coward who always runs from danger, has long since run out of gas. Rincewind's tendency to turn up in remote corners of the Disc does make him a useful character for exploring other cultures, however.

Having last used Rincewind in Interesting Times to explore a China analogue, Pratchett uses him here to investigate a fantasy version of Australia. This is quite unusual, with Australia rarely showing up in a fantasy setting. Unlike China, which Pratchett had little experience of and so shied away from in-depth cultural ideas, he had far more hands-on experience of visiting and spending time in Australia and is more comfortable satirising its culture and stereotypes whilst also touching base with more serious ideas like the impact of colonialism on the indigenous population (although only briefly).

This is all fine, but it does feel like he really had too few ideas to explore fully in The Last Continent. The novel is split almost exactly in half between Rincewind trying to escape and the Unseen University trying to find him and getting marooned on a tropical island in the process. The book flips back and forth between the two storylines, which are so completely disconnected that they feel like two 200-page novels that have been merged into one 400-page one. This structure is unsuccessful, mainly because the Unseen University wizards really work best as supporting characters in someone else's story (as in, say, Moving Pictures). Making them the focus of half the novel really only reveals how shallow they are as characters, and we don't really learn much more about them that's interesting here. Ridcully is blustering but much smarter than he lets on, Ponder Stibbons is smart but easily exasperated by his less intellectual fellows and the Bursar keeps having funny turns and needs to eat dried frog pills. This is all stuff that was well-explored ten books back in Reaper Man. There's some interesting stuff on evolution and time travel in this storyline, but it's buried under a lot of repetitive, played-out running gags.

There are some interesting twists in Rincewind's story, with nods to the idea of how dreams and reality can get mixed up, but it can all be bit vague, not helped by a lack of interesting supporting characters. Rincewind was always helped in his early appearances by an entertaining back-up crew, whether that was Twoflower or Cohen the Barbarian, but here Rincewind is mostly flying solo and most of the characters he meets are below Pratchett's usual quality, being whacky or just mad for the sake of it. Even the Luggage is reduced to barely a cameo, which is disappointing (especially given its low profile in Interesting Times).

The Last Continent (***) is an odd book, with a structure that doesn't quite work and a lot of ideas that don't really come together. But, below-par Pratchett remains capable of spinning out some interesting ideas and some good gags. There's an interesting line on how people suddenly decide that war is a great idea during a time of peace and plenty, and there's some thoughtful musings on evolution and predestination paradoxes. But in terms of plot and character development, this is one of the weaker entries in the Discworld series. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Discworld #23: Carpe Jugulum

King Verence of Lancre has welcomed travellers from across the Disc to the naming of his daughter and heir. Amongst the visitors are Mightily Oats, of the Church of Om, and dignitaries from Uberwald who like their drinks glasses to be warm and filled with blood. This sounds like a case for the Lancre witches, but young Agnes is suffering from divided attention and Granny Weatherwax has gone to ground, prompting a search by Nanny Ogg. The undead have come to Lancre, and don't seem keen to leave...

Carpe Jugulum, the twenty-third Discworld novel, returns to the Kingdom of Lancre and the adventures of the witches' coven led by Granny Weatherwax, one of the most popular sub-series within the larger series. It's a book that has a straightforward narrative, boiling down to vampires vs. witches, but also uses its straightforward story and structure to tell, in the best tradition of Pratchett, a more complex story about good, evil, morality and responsibility.

In the novel we meet "reformed" vampires. Through years of mental training against superstition and stereotypes, they've overcome many of the weaknesses of their kind. They've also trained themselves to "sip" from victims, keeping them alive for repeated use rather than killing lots of people. The vampires claim that this is progress, and they have overcome evil in pursuit of the common good, with the best results for both vampires and humans. However, it quickly becomes clear that this has just provided them with another form of control and oppression. The overt, cliche-ridden face of evil has instead been replaced by a bureaucratic, over-explained form of it, which feels even worse. The vampires beg the question, is slavery better than murder, and if so, does that still make slavery a good thing?

This leads to one of Pratchett's best encapsulations of the nature of evil and sin: people treating other people not as complex individuals worthy of respect, but as things, reducing them to statistics and not caring about their own volition; talking at people rather than with them. It's one of the Pratchett's most powerful arguments and it resonates through the novel as he explores it from different angles.

Pratchett is at his best when he is angry about something, as he was with fundamentalist religion in arguably his best novel, Small Gods (here echoed in the character of Oats, who is also a member of the Church of Om which was central in that book). His anger here is somewhat cooler, but he makes his point extremely well.

This overcomes a potential weakness of the book in terms of its basic plot and structure. "Vampires show up, take over Lancre, and get into a struggle with the witches and their allies," is extremely close to "Elves show up, take over Lancre, and get into a struggle with the witches and their allies," which we've already seen in Lords and Ladies. Although the specific plot points are different, the overall feeling of the novel is familiar. But still, if you can't tap yourself for ideas and inspiration, who else can you? And it helps that Pratchett uses a familiar structure to make an important thematic point about morality.

There's also some nice continuity moments in the book, like the first appearance of the Nac Mac Feegle in force (a solitary example appeared previously in Feet of Clay) who go on to play a major role in later books. The book is also quite amusing, with Pratchett satirising many elements of the horror genre, and the vampire genre specifically, without relying on the most obvious (and long-exhausted) gags. If there is another weakness, it's that the book dabbles with the idea of characters with split personalities, but doesn't engage with the idea as fully as perhaps it could.

Carpe Jugulum (****½) has a familiar and somewhat predictable structure, but Pratchett uses that to his advantage to relay a powerful message about the nature of good and evil, develop his characters (especially Granny Weatherwax) and trigger some good laughs along the way.

Discworld #24: The Fifth Elephant

To the distress of Sam Vimes, he has been appointed the new Ankh-Morpork Ambassador to Uberwald, a position he feels as well-suited to as a herring to the role of architectural consultant for a non-fish-related building. At the Patrician's insistence, due to Uberwald's vital role in the international fat trade, Vimes heads off to witness the coronation of the new Low King of the dwarfs*. Of course, there is a crime and, of course, Vimes can't leave well enough alone. Meanwhile, the werewolves of Uberwald have their own crisis going on, drawing in Angua of the City Watch and her boyfriend Carrot. This leaves the Ankh-Morpork Watch under the command of Sergeant Colon...which may not be the idea situation.

The Fifth Elephant is the twenty-fourth Discworld novel and the fifth to focus on the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Arguably, this is the most popular of Pratchett's sub-series due to its large cast of colourful, well-characterised characters with emotional and character arcs that unfold across multiple books, with the cynical Commander Vimes as one of Pratchett's most popular protagonists. The Fifth Elephant is also one of the more epic books in the series, adopting a multi-stranded, multi-POV approach more reminiscent of epic fantasy than most other Discworld novels.

The book divides itself into three main plot strands: Vimes as the Ambassador to Uberwald, getting entangled in political intrigue that would make George R.R. Martin at least somewhat nod in approval; Carrot, Angua and Gaspode the Wonder Dog getting into hijinks with the werewolves and non-were wolves of Uberwald; and Sergeant Colon being promoted beyond his ability and leading the City Watch into abject disaster at home. Pratchett's done multi-stranded plotting before, but rarely as accomplished as he does here, rotating between these three primary storylines and several significant subplots: Nobby forming the Disc's police union; a complicated vampire/werewolf/dwarf rivalry; Cheery Longbottom's ongoing crusade to allow dwarf women to be women; the onward march of the Igors; and the mysterious activities of Vimes' newly-appointed attache. There's a lot going on in The Fifth Elephant, maybe more than in any Discworld novel before it, and it's to Pratchett's credit that he juggles these ideas with skill and in a very disciplined 450 pages.

It's also the book that brings in one of the biggest worldbuilding changes to the series: the clacks. Discworld started off as a medieval-aping series, with Ankh-Morpork an effective carbon copy of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar. Since then, the setting has shifted down the timeline (although, fortunately, guns have not caught on). The introduction of the clacks - a continent-spanning semaphore system - starts to shift the setting more into the early 19th Century, with the Discworld steadily gaining a more steampunk, industrial feel to it which sets it apart from other fantasy settings. Pratchett handles this shift with subtle ease (to the point where you can forget the setting has advanced about 500 years in far less than a human lifetime), and it's fun to see it starting to happen here.

There's also a tremendous amount of successful worldbuilding here. We got a taste of one small corner of Uberwald in the previous novel, Carpe Jugulum, but the enormous country is covered and explored in more detail here. In particular Pratchett delves into the society and culture of his dwarfs more than in any previous book, and more than in most fantasy setting, where they're just kind of hanging around without a lot of development.

On the negative side of things, there's perhaps a few too many ideas being fired off here, with several promising plot strands and side-characters underserved due to the concise page count. This might be the Discworld novel most deserving of being longer so Pratchett could explore more ideas in more detail. I'm also not particularly convinced by the idea that even Sergeant Colon could nose-dive the City Watch into the ground within just a couple of days of being left in charge. Whilst never the brightest spark in the plug, Colon has never been the vindictive idiot he's made out to be here. It's particularly bizarre that his fall from grace happens so fast after his successful work alongside the Patrician in Jingo.

That aside, The Fifth Elephant (****½) is a triumph, with Pratchett delivering a large-scale, epic storyline spanning multiple characters and subplots and doing it extremely well, with some of the best worldbuilding in the series to date. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

*Pratchett has no truck with the cooler-looking, but ungrammatical, spelling "dwarves" in his setting.

Discworld #25: The Truth


William de Worde runs a seasonal newsletter for the well-to-do of Ankh-Morpork and other cities, but due to unusual circumstances he suddenly finds himself running the Discworld's first newspaper. As he tries to get to "the Truth," he finds himself the subject of seething rage from those who are unhappy with the stories he prints, those who want him to print their stories (and nobody else's) and those are desperate for him to print stories about their humorously-shaped vegetables. But there's also a Big Story going on, and William finds his interest in the truth of that story might be hazardous to his health.

The Truth marks a couple of notable moments for the Discworld series, being both the twenty-fifth book in the series and the first published after the new millennium. This may be be more subjective, but it also feels like there's a shift in the series at this point, with the series becoming a tad more serious in its pursuit of subject matter. It still has gags and jokes, but they now feel much more focused in support of the story, whilst in some earlier novels the two did not always work in tandem.

The Truth can be described as "Discworld does journalism" in the same way that Soul Music was "Discworld does rock music" and Moving Pictures was "Discworld does the movies" (the Disc inventing movies before newspapers kind of sums up what kind of place it is). However, this is an area which Pratchett has first-hand experience, as he worked in both newspapers and as a press officer for many years. He famously noted how he saw his first dead body about three hours into his very first day working for a newspaper, "work experience" meaning something back in those days. As a result Pratchett brings considerable knowledge to bear on how printing presses work, how journalists talk to people and the widely-ranging responses people have to journalists, from showing off, lying or exhibiting extreme hostility.

These elements all work well, are interesting and can be quite funny, but The Truth also feels distressingly prescient. Pratchett presents the responses to the arrival of newspapers as hyper-exaggerated events for comedic purposes, such as the setting up of rival newspapers that just make stuff up and enraged people trying to track down journalists for revenge, or accusing journalists of lying when they simply don't like the story that's being told. What was grossly-exaggerated in 2000 fells distinctly less so in 2022. This is an area where the book has perhaps become both less funny but also much more prophetic and interesting. The book's motto of "a lie can spread around the world whilst the truth is still putting its boots on," feels even more resonant today then it did at the time.

Beyond that, The Truth works as a great mystery in its own right. It's interesting that the City Watch is investigating the same crime but since this is not a Watch novel, we don't have any insight to what they are doing. Instead we catch glimpses of their investigation through William's story, and Pratchett juggles having to keep William as his protagonist without suddenly making the Watch into idiots who can't solve the crime themselves. It's a fun balancing act which he pulls off with typical aplomb. The book is also an important piece of Terry Pratchett's worldbuilding growth of Ankh-Morpork, which over twenty-five books (and the following sixteen) has grown from being a Lankhmar knock-off to being the greatest, best-detailed fantasy metropolis in the history of the genre.

The novel is also notable as having arguably Pratchett's greatest tip of the hat to his good friend and collaborator, Neil Gaiman. Mr. Tulip and Mr. Pin feel like a homage to Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar from Gaiman's TV series (and later novel) Neverwhere, and it's fun to see Pratchett but his spin on those kind of charismatic but evil villains.

The Truth (****½) might be the Discworld novel that's aged the most depressingly, with its hyper-exaggeration of fake news and reporting having become surprisingly accurate. However, it's also Pratchett working at the top of his game, delivering a strong mystery with great villains and some of his most quotable dialogue.

Discworld #26: Thief of Time

In Ankh-Morpork a young clock-maker is given the challenge of making a very special kind of clock, one which can measure time so finely that it can find the gaps between moments. Thousands of miles away, a troublesome apprentice joins forces with a monk to investigate a phenomenon which suggests big trouble is coming and, as so often, Ankh-Morpork will be at the centre of it. Death also gets the call-up alerting him to ride out for the apocalypse, which he cannot interfere with...but he knows a relative who can.

Thief of Time is very much one of those Discworld books where Pratchett came up with a killer central idea and then never really developed much follow-through. In his best books, Pratchett would develop a great idea which characters and more ideas and themes would develop organically around but, once in a very rare while, this creative alchemy would not take place and the book that he ended with was just okay. There's a neat idea, there's some funny gags, but the spirit and energy of the best Discworld books is wholly missing.

This is the issue with Thief of Time. It doesn't help that Pratchett is taking on a fairly cerebral idea here - of how time itself works and how people messing around with it can cause problems - but trying to explore it in the context of his Discworld comic fantasy series is not a comfortable fit. We've seen a lot of the gags about the Four Horsemen before (in Sourcery) and the Auditors of Reality are among Pratchett's dullest bad guys (even if he does here come up with a way of giving them more character). Novel co-protagonists Jeremy and Lobsang are somewhat undercooked, and even the usually-magnificent Susan Sto Helit (here in her swansong as a major, and underused, character) and her superb can't-be-dealing-with-the-world snark is absent for vast stretches of the book.

It's not all bad, and by this point Pratchett had developed to the point where he could turn almost anything into an amusing read. There's some nice jokes and the idea of a Fifth Horseman who left the group before they came famous is quite well-played. Nanny Ogg also gets a series of enjoyable cameos, a bit oddly, given that most of the Ankh-Morpork Regulars are missing from this novel when most of it is set in the city.

But the novel mostly feels a bit autopiloted onto the page. The pacing is quite poor - this is a 300-page book at best stretched out to closer to 500 - the more subtle character and thematic points Pratchett is making in other novels around this time aren't really there and an apparent romantic subplot that is supposed to be developing is just absent to a lack of chemistry by the characters, to the point it's genuinely weird that it comes up on the closing page.

Thief of Time (***) isn't the weakest Discworld novel and it has some excellent ideas and a few good gags. But in terms of character and story, it's well below-par for Pratchett in this middle part of the series when he was otherwise producing some extremely good books.

Discworld #27: The Last Hero

Cohen the Barbarian is one of the greatest heroes in the history of the Disc. He has defeated many enemies, found much treasure and conquered several empires. But his well-earned retirement of riches and power is a bit on the boring side, so he's now come up with a new idea: to return fire to the gods and confront them on their home ground of Dunmanifestin, atop the ten-mile spire of Cori Celesti at the very heart of the world. Unfortunately, this will destroy the Disc and everything on it. Fortunately, the wizards of Unseen University are ready to join forces with Leonardo da Quirm and the Ankh-Morpork City Watch to save the day. Or at least try to.

The twenty-seventh Discworld book is another departure from the standard format of the series. Like the earlier Eric, The Last Hero was written and designed as an illustrated project. Unlike Eric, The Last Hero was never designed to be reissued without its illustrations, and they are more dynamically and essentially integrated into the book.

The Last Hero could be best-described as Discworld: Avengers. Pratchett takes advantage of the enormous cast of characters he's built up over twenty-six previous novels to come up with a story and cast of characters to form a team to save the world. Unfortunately, given the competence rating of the average Pratchettian protagonist is usually in minus figures (especially given the absence of Granny Weatherwax and Susan Sto Helit, and Commander Vimes only gets a cameo), this is not quite the slam-dunk solution it should be. Leonardo da Quirm, Captain Carrot and Rincewind join forces at the not-so-subtle behest of the Patrician and the Unseen University Faculty to stop Cohen's plan, and in the process have to build the Disc's first rocket ship and be the first people to set foot on the Disc's very small moon.

Compared to the form of thematic depth and rich characterisation Pratchett had hit in the mainline novels by this time, The Last Hero is lightweight and, even by Discworld standards, a bit implausible. The buildup and backstory of most Discworld novels is largely missing, and events unfold at very high speed given the epic scope of the story. But the book also works very well in its first aim, which is being a bit of disposable, knockabout fun of the kind we haven't seen since the early days of the series, and even better in its second, which is to act as a showcase for the artwork of Paul Kidby.

The original Discworld artist, Josh Kirby, passed away around the time this book was published. Kidby, who'd been working on art projects related to the setting for a few years already, had already been set up as his successor-in-waiting and this project was already underway at the time. Kidby would go on to illustrate the covers from Night Watch (the twenty-ninth book) onward, so The Last Hero can be read as a statement of confidence and intent here. And it works very well. Kirby's madcap art had a wit and charm of its own, but fans had long complained of a lack of fidelity to the text. Kirby's Rincewind was decades older than the thirtysomething character in the novels, and his constant depiction of Twoflower with literally four eyes rather than wearing glasses was quite odd. But Kidby's artwork is much truer to Pratchett's text and also much clearer and easier to parse, whilst still retaining its own, unique stylised energy.

The artwork throughout the book is excellent, often eliciting a giggle by itself. Many of the pieces in the book have become familiar art pieces for the setting individually, and these range from epic depictions of the view of the Disc and its supporting elephants and turtle from its moon to more intimate portraits of the characters and creatures. Kidby does a particularly great job at capturing Carrot's charismatic heroism and Rincewind's world-weary fatalism.

The story is thin and a little disposable, but fun. Pratchett layers in some melancholy thoughts about aging and feeling obsolete in your work as you get older, but also some traditional comic references to history and science.

The Last Hero (****) won't rank as many people's favourite Discworld book due to the lack of depth in its story, but the exceptional artwork elevates the work beyond being a mere curiosity or Christmas stocking-filler.

Discworld #28: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents

A band of travellers from Ankh-Morpork have arrived in the town of Bad Blintz. The band consists of a boy with a flute named Keith, a tomcat called Maurice and a lot of rats. A lot of very smart rats. However, as the town suffers from a curiously well-timed rat infestation and Keith and Maurice prepare to enact 'the scam', it becomes clear that something else is at work in the sewers and tunnels under the town. Something that takes an interest in the curiously smart rodents...

Discworld occupies such a huge part of Sir Terry Pratchett's output that it's sometimes easy to forget his other career, that of a bestselling children's author. Thanks to the animated TV show, Pratchett was as well-known for his Truckers trilogy of children's fantasy as he was his adult Discworld series for a while, and his other books aimed at children were also huge successes. His Johnny Maxwell trilogy was the first of his works adapted for live-action television.

It's therefore interesting that it took twenty-eight novels for Pratchett to write a Discworld book for children, and it's also quite remarkable the impact it had on his career. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents was published in 2001 and won the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction. Although a British award, it seems to have had a strong impact in the American market, with Maurice being the book that apparently finally broke through and established Pratchett as a solid-seller in the US after years of very patchy performances for the earlier books. Pratchett's performance in the UK also seemed to pick up, and indeed his already-incredible sales performance in the UK (1% of all books sold in Britain in the 1990s were apparently Pratchetts, which was remarkable at the time) would have likely broken even more records had he not also been overtaken around the same time by a certain other fantasy series about wizards and magic. Pratchett no doubt cried about this into his handkerchiefs made of £100 bills.

The Amazing Maurice is an an interesting novel, most notably because Pratchett makes almost exactly zero concessions to his apparently intended audience (his other books are not exactly awash in nudity and swearing). The novel is written in the same manner as his adult books and in fact is actually among the most disturbing Discworld novels, with the revelation of the antagonist in the book being one of Pratchett's more revolting moments. It may have talking rats in it, but the tone is closer to Watership Down (complete with some pretty savage fights and deaths) than to Beatrix Potter. Pratchett seems to do this deliberately, with the rats' belief in a utopian future of animal cooperation stemming from reading a children's book called Mr. Bunnsy Has An Adventure, which becomes a totem of their tribe. Pratchett paints the internal divisions of the rat gang and each character in some detail, with his traditional economical-but-effective storytelling. The book has a darker tone than most of his novels, and whilst there are still a few laughs here, it's a more intense book than many of the Discworld series.

The novel also has some great riffs on folklore, on the allure of storytelling and the inhumanity of humans to both other humans and the natural world. Pratchett is at his best when he's angry about some injustice, and he fires up his anger quite nicely here, particularly on how people treat animals.

It's also quite snappy, coming in at a breezy 270 pages, avoiding the bloat some of the later Discworld books intermittently suffered from. Pratchett sets up his plot and characters, tell his story with impressive depth and characterisation and gets out all in the time that some more traditional fantasy authors are still using to clear their throats and get the protagonist out of his starting village.

There aren't many negatives aside from one, which was outside the author's power: at the time of his grossly premature passing in 2015, Pratchett had a sequel to this novel planned, in which the Amazing Maurice becomes a ship's cat. It's a grievous shame we'll never read that story. But the book is getting another chance to shine, with an animated film based on the novel scheduled for release in late 2022, starring Hugh Laurie, Emilia Clarke, David Tennant, Gemma Arterton, Himesh Patel, David Thewlis and Peter Serafinowicz.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (****½) is Pratchett at his most impressive, telling a darker story than normal but with his trademark wit and skills at character-building. It's also a complete stand-alone, with no connections at all to the rest of the Discworld series and can be read completely independently.

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