Rating the Discworld – part three

Discworld_godsWe’ve hit gold this week. Every single book from here on is top tier Pratchett. From what I have learned since starting this project, Pratchett fans are split into two camps; those who favour the earlier, more fantastical Discworld, and those who prefer the marriage of magic with technology. I’m very much in the latter camp.

20. Reaper Man

This is probably my first truly controversial choice. People LOVE this book, and rightly so. It’s warm, very funny and full of imagination, from the Fresh Start club that helps the undead to the excellent Auditors of Reality. I am very fond of it.

So why is it nestled in the low 20s when most people would probably put it in their top 10? The ‘Death quits’ plot is something we have already seen in Mort and will see again in Soul Music, with diminishing returns. The sentient evil shopping mall, while a neat concept, doesn’t really fit into the wider book. At this point of his career, Pratchett was starting to get a handle on his disparate creations and make them work together. The various plot threads combine neatly, with the exception of that one.

Ultimately, this is where it starts to get really difficult. I may come to regret placing this here.

19. Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents

Pratchett’s first YA novel was smack in the middle of what I consider his golden age and this was a complete surprise. It’s dark as hell, brilliantly so for a novel aimed at young people, and Pratchett throws the anger, satire, philosophical puzzles and jokes that he is now seemingly juggling with ease. For a novel that purported to be a Pratchettian spin on the Pied Piper fable, it ended up something that took the reader to some grim places.

18. Jingo

Pratchett struggled with war as a subject, despite visiting it several times over the course of the Discworld series. Jingo was no different but what it did have was jokes, and plenty of them. As an exploration about how we can be manipulated into conflict and the spurious reasons given for war, it’s somewhat weak. As a collection of Pratchett’s deftest set pieces, it’s an absolute hoot. You’ll never look the same way again at trying to navigate a donkey down a flight of stairs.

17. Hogfather

I’ve complained before about the repetitive nature of the ‘Death quits’ plotline but you can’t really be unhappy with a novel that turns the Grim Reaper into Santa Claus. This is a stuffed to the gills, indulgent piece of sheer fun. The book buckles under the strain of Pratchett trying to bring everything Christmas related into the novel. But it is very enjoyable.

What’s interesting in retrospect is Pratchett’s attraction to Susan and Death. The first time I read this I wondered why Pratchett was persevering with two characters who were better in supporting roles. They next starred in Thief of Time and I loved that. Goes to show how much Pratchett knew and little I know!

16. Moving Pictures

Another comic masterpiece, Moving Pictures brings to mind the first few Discworld novels, where Pratchett threw everything he could at the subject. The book creaks under the weight of a plethora of movie references. The ones I missed could probably power a completely separate comic novel that would be just as entertaining.

This is also a landmark novel in the Pratchett canon. It is one that was published close to Good Omens, his stellar collaboration with Neil Gaiman. After working with the Sandman creator, Pratchett became darker and his books became delightfully atmospheric. I described the book as “screwball Stephen King” at the time and I still think that stands up.

15. The Truth

The first modern Discworld novel as Pratchett moves away from magic in earnest and explores technology and its effects on us. It’s a smart way of moving beyond Pratchett’s fascination with stories and their power. My own journalist background means I can overlook the slightly wonky main plot (the Patrician framed and he has no idea who is responsible? Impossible). But it’s there to hold together Pratchett’s fine exploration of the newspaper trade.

14. Witches Abroad

I love this book but there is plenty wrong with it. Actually, there’s one thing wrong with it but it was in danger of pulling down the entire book. It takes forever to get started. The actual ‘abroad’ part of the book is just the right side of tedious ‘foreigners, eh?’ whimsy.

However, the last section of the book, where Granny Weatherwax is confronted by her nemesis sister, is absolutely stunning, taking a scalpel to fairytales and scrutinising the dangers that some stories hide.

13. Guards! Guards!

All of sudden Pratchett pulls out of his hat the ability to juggle a cast of characters. Both the Witches and the Watch spark off one another and proof of Pratchett’s mastery of writing these troupes is how readers have a different favourite witch or Watchman (Weatherwax and Dorfl, in case you’re wondering). They are characters, rather than one dimensional faces used to service the plot. Just joyous.

12. Wyrd Sisters

As is this. The hints of what Pratchett was capable of in the early novels are finally realised here, in a wonderful spin on Macbeth. The first outing of the Witches of Lancre is an utter riot. While the first Discworld novels had their charms, this is the start of something really special.

11. Men at Arms

You could argue the seeds of The Truth, and the latter period Discworld, started here. A gun has gone missing and the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork is in its sights. This is an absolutely galloping thriller, a proper high-octane novel full of set-pieces, twists and some excellent jokes. The newly multi-racial Watch gives Pratchett the opportunity to explore race and all of our prejudices. Guards! Guards! was an excellent book but Pratchett is flying at this point.

And only gets better from here. So what will my number one be? Have I been ridiculous in my placement of Reaper Man? (Probably) What am I going to do once The Shepherd’s Crown is published? Find out next week.

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5 Comments

  1. Agreed. Men at Arms really is an incredible slab of fiction.

    Edward D’Eath is a curious little creation also… the way he gets lost in books and long-dead bloodlines is like a warning of what Pratchett (or any avid reader) could’ve become if he hadn’t kept himself well grounded.

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  2. I’ve always loved Men at Arms, but found myself disappointed with it on re-reading – too much of it is lazy jokes that aren’t funny and don’t cohere. It only really comes together at the end, I think.

    Similarly, Witches Abroad – great final third, but two thirds of it is really wearisome.

    I’m a bit surprised you rate the early books (like G!G! and WS, and indeed MP, which I know a lot of people don’t like at all, though I did) so highly.

    And I really couldn’t rate Jingo so highly, although I admit that it was much better than I remembered.

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    1. vacuous wastrel

      I’ve just read through your Pratchett reviews, and appreciate your rigorous rating system [https://vacuouswastrel.wordpress.com/2013/11/11/a-complete-discworld-re-read-project/]. I think it serves the books better than trying to rank them in order as G is doing, which implies that the quality varies quantally. When some times the difference in quality is so narrow that the reader’s mood might determine which would be the better book on a given day. And other times he is trying to compare apples with oranges (or rather; Achings with Orangutans).

      I like Jingo myself (while acknowledging its flaws), especially the malfunctioning dys-organiser bit. Also with Witches Abroad, I think that the slow road-trip makes the ending seem that much more intense. My problem with G’s ranking is that; The Truth, seems placed way too low, and that; Maurice, is somehow ranked higher than any Tiffany book (I assume because he wanted to keep them all in the same quartile). But then, this is G’s blog, and he can do what he wants…

      Anyway that leaves us:

      Lords and Ladies
      Maskerade
      Pyramids
      Small Gods
      Thief of Time
      Night Watch
      The Fifth Elephant
      Feet of Clay
      Going Postal
      The Last Hero

      I certainly don’t envy him his task in trying to rank these in order of merit.

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      1. Thank you – but I must confess, I’m going to rank them when I’m finished too!

        I do think that my more complicated way of scoring books is more useful than a plain list-in-order-of-merit, but that doesn’t mean the latter has no use either. As the man says, ranking things is just a human instinct.

        Rankings are, of course, subjective, and you’d be mad not to realise that and accept that people will differ in the details. But there are also limits: if people disagree with me TOO much, then I think they’re just plain wrong, and if they disagree with me even more than that, or too often, then they are not worth listening to…

        For instance:
        – whether Small Gods is better than Night Watch or vice versa, I may come to an opinion about but I give that opinion very little weight. They are both brilliant books (though neither is an all-time-greatest-work-in-history), and putting one above the other comes down to taste, and perhaps how I’m feeling on the day
        – whether Small Gods is better than The Fifth Elephant, I do have a clear opinion about, but I could well be wrong. If i’m over-valuing one, if I’m under-valuing the other… I put one as ‘brilliant’ and one as only ‘very good’, but if you put them the other way around you might be right. I don’t think you are, but you might be. That’s very reasonable.
        – whether Small Gods is better than Moving Pictures… sorry, if you say it isn’t then you’re wrong. Or at least: either you’re weirdly, terribly wrong or I am. Either you’re really missing something or I am (or you have an overwhelming personal bias (eg toward cinema) or I have. [Note: ‘better’. I can totally accept that you might like MP more than SG, or enjoy it more, or want to re-read it more often. But ‘better’? No!] But I’m not going to make too much fuss, everyone has weird lapses now and then (and it still MIGHT be me…)
        – whether Small Gods is better than Eric… well, if you say it isn’t – and I mean seriously, sensibly, having read both of them recently and thought about them – well then I don’t understand you at all. I would strongly suspect you were nuts. [Which isn’t saying much – I think a surprising number of people are secretly quite mad, at least on small topics and issues specific to them] I certainly wouldn’t put any value in your literary opinions in future…

        …so you see, I think you can reconcile ‘all opinions are subjective, all comparisons are fundamentally incommensurable’ with ‘some things are better than other things – so let me rank them’. As long as we appreciate that a ranking is, as it were, probabilistic (or related to confidence levels) and non-linear rather than unquestionable and binary.

        [I am extremely ‘confidant’ that SG is better than Eric. I am not very confidant that it is better than NW. What my confidence consists in exactly I am not yet certain… but for an approximation, try ‘I am confidant that an average Fair-Minded Reader would prefer SG’]

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