On reading the Discworld…

I’ve been in a reading slump lately. Ever since I finished Terry Pratchett’s Jingo around Christmas last year I’ve been reading only non-fiction, and slowly at that (I started a book on Quantum Theory a month ago, and am not even halfway with it yet). Among all the novels on my shelves I just couldn’t find anything I felt like reading.

Then Sir Terry died, and the next day I got Dodger at half price. I finished it on Friday (review to come), and picked up Mort (with which I’m almost done). I’ve decided to make my way through the whole Discworld again, or at least through those titles I already own, which brings up the question of which order to read them in.

Now, when Terry Pratchett set out to write the Discworld novels I don’t think he planned to write a serial, meaning one book following on the other. He reportedly also used to be writing on several novels at once, so the publication order isn’t necessarily the order in which he wrote them.

But in the end the books did form several serials within the Discworld universe. While each novel is written as a stand-alone story and you can jump in at any book without having to wonder what’s going on, they are grouped around certain collections of characters with a bigger story arc tying each group together.

Discworld Reading Order Guide
Discworld reading order guide by Krzysztof Kietzman. Released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 4.0 licence. Latest version as of April 2014 from the portfolio of Jakub Oleksów. Click on image to see full-size.

And so we have the Rincewind/Unseen University novels, the Witches novels, which include the young adult novels featuring the young witch, Tiffany Aching (the last of which Pratchett apparently finished last year before his health deteriorated and which is due out later this year), the Death/Susan Sto-Helit novels, the Sam Vimes/City Watch novels, and the Industrial Revolution novels which later become the Moist von Lupwig novels. Then there’s also the two Ancient Civilizations novels, Pyramids and Small Gods, but there’s no greater arc nor common characters tying them together.

When it comes to reading them, it’s up to you whether you want to read them a series at a time, or in order of publication. If you read them in order of publication you’ll read each series in the correct order as well, while mixing up the characters so you don’t get sick of them (as if that’s possible 😉 ). I’m planning to read them series by series this time around, as I’ve read almost all the Sam Vimes novels during the past two years, so I’m saving them to re-read last. I also own only two of the Rincewind novels, which means there will be significant gaps if I try to read in publication order.

But whichever reading order you choose, I’d advise against starting with The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, and even Equal Rites. The first two novels differ significantly from the rest of the Discworld canon – Graeme Neill in The Guardian called them “a collection of vaguely related comic set pieces rather than a novel,” and I tend to agree with that assessment – and the third features a Granny Weatherwax who differs so significantly from her later incarnation that I barely recognised her when I finally got my hands on that novel. So I suggest you save those three for later, lest they put you off the Discworld before you get to the really good stuff (but do read Equal Rites before you get to the Tiffany Aching novels; trust me on this).

For the sake of doing this properly, you can always also try to read the novels according to the Discworld’s own internal timeline, which you can find over on The L-Space Web (if you want to know what L-Space is, read Guards! Guards!).

P.S. If you want the ability to have the “GNU Terry Pratchett” hidden message appear in your site’s header, rather than the workaround I posted a couple of weeks ago, go add your support in the ideas forum thread on this topic. If enough of us ask for it, we might just get it. One can hope.


By the way, I see the official Terry Pratchett website is back up, so I’ll be updating my previous posts on him during the week.

20 thoughts on “On reading the Discworld…

  1. I sometimes think we expect too much from writers, putting them on unrealistic pedestals.
    I have never ever been able to get into the first two novels, yet think the Truth one of the best books written.
    It is not easy to hit such high points, and based on peoples’ tastes what I love others will hate. Which is, of course, brilliant!
    It means, intentionally or not, the writer is catering for a wide variety of tastes.
    I thought I shall Wear Midnight a superb novel, yet a friend in Durbs thought it was hackneyed and drawn out.
    Takes all sorts.

    1. I think what puts many people off from the Tiffany Aching novels is that they’re marketed as “children’s books”. I think that triggers some subconscious barrier in some people who believe adults shouldn’t read children’s or YA literature.

      What I do think is a shame is all the people who will never pick up a Pratchett because they don’t read fantasy. I’m not saying everyone should like fantasy – tastes differ, as you say – but these novels are so much more than just fantasy. They’re a unique and disturbingly accurate reflection of ourselves that one rarely finds in other genres and forms of literature.

      1. It took years of nagging from my kids! The first I read was Fifth Elephant then NightWatch. I was hooked.

        And you’re right about Tiffany. She is a marvelous character and deserves
        to be lifted solely from the ranks of Children’s Literature.

  2. I just picked up a copy of The Long Earth, which Pratchett wrote with Stephen Baxter. (All praise to the pure randomness of used bookstores.) Not sure what they’ll be like together, but it’ll be interesting.

    1. I enjoyed it. Not as much, perhaps, as I enjoy the Discworld novels, but The Long Earth has an interesting idea and I think they did it well. Let me know what you think of it.

  3. Curious to see what you think of “Dodger”. I absolutely hated it – couldn’t finish it – if that had been my introduction to Terry Pratchett, I’d never have picked up another book by him again. I really do hope his various “writing colleagues” allow the poor man to stay decently buried!

  4. This is a super awesome post! I got my biggest blog visit day ever on my RIP Terry Pratchett post.
    I am breaking your rule, going with publication date. The second time through (in 5 years or so), I’ll do them like this, or that, or another way.
    I sure wish I had that poster.

    1. Going with publication date is fine. I just recommend first-time readers skip the first three and only read them later. Of course, part of my reason for not liking the first two books could just be that I’ve never much like Rincewind…

      If you click the picture you can download the full-size poster by right-clicking it and selecting Save Image As. Then you can print it out (or have it printed out) yourself. The Creative Commons licence actually allows you to do that.

      1. I actually read them hotch potch at first. You are right: those first 3 are a bit of a surprise. I started with the Watch, then Rincewind–both have the abilityt to suck you in!
        I wonder if a person could get the poster decently printed…. Thanks for the link!

      2. For me it was the Watch and the Witches. Sam Vimes and Granny Weatherwax have been my favourite characters ever since, with Carrot a close second.

        The full-size image is a pretty good resolution, so I’m sure if you take the file to a professional printer they’d be able to do it for you. And if you need a higher resolution you can always contact the artists to find out if they can provide it to you. Their email addresses all appear at the bottom of the image.

        You might want to wait until the last Discworld book is published later this year, though – someone is bound to update the reading order guide once that book is available.

      3. Carrot is pretty incredible on a number of levels, but I didn’t get him at first. It takes a couple of books first, I think (or his first book).
        And Death…
        The resolution is quite huge. Thanks! I have colour printed and will wait for it all to finish.

      4. His absolute oddness is what attracts me to Carrot, I think. In contrast to the other two he is completely unrealistic in human terms, but he is done so well he somehow works.

        And Death is arguably Pratchett’s greatest creation. It’s a shame he didn’t write more novels specifically featuring Death, but even Hogfather and Thief of Time are already more about Susan than about Death, so probably he couldn’t think of any more stories for the not-so-grim Reaper.

  5. Thanks for the advice. I think I’ll go by publication date when I do start reading them. I’ll feel as if I’m doing it correctly. For some reason, I tend to feel confused when I realize I’m reading or watching something against its publication order, like when I tried to watch the Underworld movies in the order of events.

    1. I was lucky in that with both the Witches and the Sam Vimes novels I read the first one in the series by pure coincidence. Ever since, apart from specifically the Tiffany Aching and Moist von Lupwig books, I’ve read them in whichever order I was able to borrow or buy the books, so this is actually my first time reading them in order.

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