There are 41 books in the Discworld universe, the first book, The Colour of Magic, was published in 1984 and the final book, The Shepherd's Crown, was published in 2015 (a few months after Sir Terry passed away). The series has been translated into 37 different languages and over 80 million copies have been sold worldwide. I imagine that this makes the series a pretty daunting prospect for someone who has never picked up a Discworld book.
If you are completely new to Discworld then I am so so jealous of you - I started reading them when I was about 11 and have loved them ever since. I wish I could experience them for the first time again! I often see people in bookshops or on the r/fantasy subreddit recommending the Discworld to people which makes me happy, but then the person recommending the books completely fails to point the Discworld novice in the direction of the best books to start with. This post aims to help with that.
First off, some initial points to bear in mind when deciding where to start:
- The Discworld is a flat planet balanced on the backs of four elephants which in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle - Great A'Tuin. The star turtle swims through the galaxy with it's planetary backpack and on the Disc magic, gods, humans, trolls, dwarfs and many other weird and wonderful species get on with their day to day.
- The genre that is usually ascribed to the series is 'Comedic Fantasy', however please don't regulgate this as a genre as something fit only for teenage boys named Kevin. Pratchett is an unrivaled master of observation of the human condition and can often be found holding up slightly skewed mirror to the world. He understands how stories work and each book of his will contain something that you recognise from our world but viewed through the prism of the Discworld. I could go on with praise, but we would be here all day, I'll just finish with telling you that his puns and word plays are sublime.
- There are clusters of Discworld characters and each cluster generally has a few books - a sub-series if you will. Such sub-series don’t have to be read in chronological order, but probably should be in order to be fully appreciated.
The sub series are generally known as the following:
- City Watch
- Tiffany Aching
- Industrial Revolution
- Ancient Civilisations
This image shows how the sub-series interlink and their chronology.
So, which book do I pick up first??
If you type in “Discworld where to start?” into Google the top hit (mashable.com) recommends starting with The Colour of Magic. I do not agree with this recommendation. Yes this is this first book in the series, but Sir Terry was still very much finding his feet at this point. It’s not a bad book, but it is not going to grab you by the throat.
To my mind there is no particular book that you should start with, however it would make sense for you to pick a book at the start of a sub-series or one of the stand alone books. To that end I think it would be useful for me to go through the above list and give a quick pracy of the first book in each sub-series.
Rincewind is the Disc's most useless Wizzard (the extra 'z' is important) who has almost no magical talent, but he does have a remarkable knack for two things - languages and survival. He craves a boring life, but unfortunately for him he is often drawn into dangerous situations by accident. Each time you can rely on him to be ready with sarcasm, irony and his running shoes. Most of the time he saves the day but he never gets any thanks and usually ends up in a worse situation than where he started...
You first meet Rincewind in A Colour of Magic and then again in The Light Fantastic, and while those books are good, if you are unsure about the genre of comedic fantasy, then I think that you would have a better cherry popping experience by starting with Sourcery. You can go back to the other two later.
Sourcery is the fifth Discworld book and the story is essentially that for the first time in 100s of years a Sorcerer is born. The Sorcerer is extremely overpowered and, deciding that he should be the archchancellor of the Unseen University (aka head wizard), embarks on a violent and magic filled campaign to achieve this. Meanwhile Rincewind is dragged into the escapades when a thief who has stolen the very talkative Archchancellor's Hat offloads it onto him after finding out he is a wizard. Once again Rincewind must try and survive / save the world...
These books centre around the small mountainous kingdom of Lancre and its inhabitants - particularly the witches who call it their home. Witches in Lancre are very respected, nobody wants to be responsible for upsetting a witch. The three main witches that Pratchett writes about are Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick, each has a set place in the coven with Granny Weatherwax as the unofficial official head witch.
Equal Rites is the first book in the sub-series and the third book published. I tend to lump this one in with the first two books - good but not excellent. I don't usually bother to re-read it, instead I usually jump back into the witches books with Wyrd Sisters (though it is worth going back to read Equal Rites). This book is basically a retelling of MacBeth with lots of Discworld oddities thrown in. When the king is murdered the coven get themselves embroiled in royal politics and mayhem ensues. The story weaves in lots of Shakespeare references and turns many of old Will's ideas on their heads. The three witches take centre stage and I love every minute of it.
I enjoy all the witches books, but Carpe Jugulum is probably my favourite.
I recently re-read (via audiobook) all the City Watch books. This sub-series kicks off with Guard Guards which introduces you to the night watchmen of the city of Ankh Morpork (think London in the 1800s but smellier). The Nightwatch are pretty shit to be honest, led by the alcoholic Mr Vimes and consisting of just Vimes, Sgt Colon and Corporal Nobbs. They spend their time on night duty avoiding trouble and in the case of Colon and Nobby mumphing free beer and curry. The watch is shaken up when Carrot, a fresh faced young man from the countryside joins up which a book containing the laws of Ankh Morpork and buckets of enthusiasm. The shambling Nightwatch are further thrown into disarray when a dragon arrives to terrorise the city...
Sam Vimes is an extremely popular character (my favorite) and over the course of the City Watch books has an incredible character arc. The Fifth Elephant and Nightwatch are my particular favourites but please please do read the books in this sub-series in the order in the above picture - you will get much more out of them!
The character of Death features in most of the Discworld book - even if he only gets one or two lines. Death is an anthropomorphisation of the concept of death, he is a very tall skeleton in a robe who carries (and knows how to use) a scythe and rides a big white horse called Binky. He also likes cats, TALKS LIKE THIS and despite representing a concept that humans are generally terrified of is really very sweet.
Mort is the first book in this sub-series and follows the story of young and awkward Mortimer who becomes Death's apprentice. Mort quickly gets in over his head when he is tasked with escorting the soul of a very pretty teenage girl into the afterlife... This book has a great story and Death is a brilliant character.
There are five books in the death sub-series, Hogfather is my favourite which is a mashup of Death and christmas (there is also a pretty good film adaptation).
These books are written for a younger audience, however don't let this put you off. There is a definite lack of teenagers mooning over the opposite sex and lots of classic Pratchett humor and adventure.
Tiffany Aching is a girl who lives on a farm in the area of the Disc known as the Chalk. The first book, The Wee Free Men sees Tiffany venturing into fairyland to try and get her little brother back (very Labyrinth). She is aided and abetted by the race of small blue men known as the Nac Mac Feegle, who are pretty much Scottish and who were kicked out of fairyland for being drunk and disorderly. As you may guess from the above picture, the Tiffany books are linked to the Witches books and you will encounter a few familiar faces if you read them.
This sub-series is usually recommended to children who want to read Discworld, though to be honest I started to read the standard Discworld books when I was 11 so don't feel shackled to this recommendation!
The books in this sub-series are pretty much standalone apart from Going Postal, Making Money and Raising Steam which both revolve around one character and should be read in order. The above picture puts the books into chronological order, however you don't need to stick to this to enjoy them.
Here is a very brief summary of each:
- Moving Pictures - Cinema is invented and Ankh Morpork goes crazy for the stars of the "Clickies", however deciding to build the clickie town of Holywood on a patch of dangerously thin reality may not have been the best idea...
- The Truth - Stop the Press! Ankh Morpork gets its first newspaper. The story follows the reporter William De Word as he tries to get to the bottom of a plot to kill the ruler of the city and bring the expose to the ungrateful masses...
- Monstrous Regiment - This one takes place in the little known country of Borogravia a highly conservative nation, whose people live according to the increasingly strange (and harmful) decrees of its favored deity, Nuggan. You follow Polly (and her squad of misfits) as she pretends to be a man in order to join the army and find her brother...
- Going Postal - Moist von Lipwig is a conman who has been caught and when faced with the choice of a long walk down a short path or taking over Ankh Morpork's decrepit post office chooses to become the Postmaster. Moist is a loveable rogue and great fun to read...
- Making Money - Moist is back and this time he is put in charge of the Ankh Morpork Royal Mint...
- Raising Steam - The steam locomotive is invented and railway mania hits Ankh Morpork, once again Moist is tasked with looking after the city's latest darling...
The Truth is my favourite out of the above list, also very poignant given the current trend of internet clickbait and free speech. Brilliant stand alone book to start your Discworld adventure.
These two books are standalone and a good place to start if you don't fancy commiting to a series. No need to follow the order in the picture.
Pyramids is set in the tiny kingdom of Djelibeybi, the Discworld counterpart to Ancient Egypt and follows Pteppic who is forced to return from his finishing school in Ankh Morpork in order to become Pharaoh when his father dies. His modern ideals don't go down well back home and this is further complicated when the massive pyramid that they are building to house his deceased father warps the space time continuum and pulls the kingdom out of alignment with the rest of the Disc. This is a fun read, especially the mathematician camels!
Small Gods follows Brutha a novice in the church of Om and the great Om himself in a journey of religious discovery. In recent years the church of Om has become increasingly conservative and the terrifying Quisition has its work cut out keeping the country on the straight and narrow. Om screwed up a planned manifestation and ends up indefinitely trapped in the body of a tortoise. It turns out the Brutha is the only person left who truly worships Om and as a result is the only one who can hear Om talking / screaming. This is a brilliant book and I highly recommend it as a starting point - no prior knowledge of the Discworld required.
If you haven't guessed it by now I am a huge Discworld fan and have good things to say about all the books. This post turned out a tad longer than I expected, so if you made it this far, thank you for bearing with me!
Link to publishing chronological order:https://www.terrypratchettbooks.com/book-series/discworld/
Link to the Discworld Wiki:https://discworld.fandom.com/wiki/Main_Page