It’s staggering how good every single one of these books are. You could argue that each belongs in the top slot. You’d drive yourself mad doing so but you could. Separating these was incredibly hard – Pyramids looks too low down the list but what the hell would I replace it with?
I realise I have mentioned this several times throughout my Pratchett project, but between 1983 and 2015, he wrote 41 Discworld books. Over a period of 29 years (The Light Fantastic to The Shepherd’s Crown), he wrote 40. This is before we take into consideration the various tie-ins such as the Science of Discworld books, The Long Earth series, Good Omens, Dodger or Nation. His hit rate was astounding and the fact he has at least 10 books that can be considered great is a staggering accomplishment.
Actually, it’s better than staggering. It’s practically superhuman. Consider the output of your average author, who writes a handful of books over the course of their career. That’s impressive in itself, hell, being able to get your book snapped up by an agent, skip through the minefield of the acquisition, editing, marketing and publicity processes before spotting your novel in your local Waterstones makes you The Big (Wo)Man in my eyes.
Pratchett did this repeatedly. Several times a year for many years. While working on countless other things, raising a family, having hobbies. How? Seriously, how?
And that’s before we start discussing the quality of his books. This top 10 is Pratchett’s zenith. Imagine being in the position where you are writing Small Gods and know you have something golden on your hands. Then doing it again. And again.
Moist is the great missed opportunity of the Discworld. He got one novel before Pratchett’s health began to wane but what a book this was. A riotous mix of angry social commentary, screwball comedy, and gleeful playing around with the ‘conman goes straight’ trope, Going Postal is simply wonderful.
While a latecomer to the series, Moist seamlessly fits into the modern Discworld. The book may be an examination of the post office and its workings, but its haunted residents, banshees and golems mean it doesn’t stray too far away from its fantastical roots.
This is probably the greatest example of what the Discworld actually is. A masterful revisiting and update on the Discworld’s early themes about the power of stories and joys of creativity, it is boosted by some stellar artwork from Paul Kidby.
It is that oddity for me as well – a Rincewind book that I actually enjoyed. Whatever next?
Pratchett changes gear here dramatically with this tale of Discworldian geopolitics and trade routes. This makes it sound an absolute bore but The Fifth Elephant reads like a runaway thriller as The Watch investigate the theft of The Scone of Stone.
The book’s strongly political, and rather serious, themes do not mean Pratchett has abandoned his roots. The B-plot of the out of his depth Colon trying to run the Watch is the author at his slapstick best.
Remarkable. My favourite Discworld book as a youngster remains one of my favourites as a grown-up. This is Pratchett at his best, juggling humour, intelligence and brain bending strangeness with a dizzying ease.
Everything about this book is incredible, from its breakneck beginnings on the roofs of Ankh-Morpork to its spectacularly inventive ending, where the villain of the piece (sent back in time. Naturally) helps found the country he was trying to take control over.
As I said at the time, Pratchett gets things so very right that he has no need to revisit the world again. I’d have loved to have read about Pteppic again, but part of the book’s strength is this is it. This is his only story.
As is this, another ‘one and done’ from Pratchett, as a character makes his debut and then disappears at the novel’s end. This and Night Watch are seen as his two best and with good reason. This could easily have been a straight anti-religion screed, as sledgehammer subtle as a Richard Dawkins tweet. Pratchett’s bravery and intelligence helps craft something much greater, a thoughtful examination of religion and belief, its pitfalls and benefits.
This is where all my Big Man on the Internet posturing about ‘oh, rating things is great’ starts to fall apart. Why is this sixth when it is clearly a work of genius? In any of these top 10 books, there is practically nothing that I disliked about them.
I’ve always found that being able to explain why you didn’t like something is easier than something that you did. You can pick apart things that are clunky, stilted or just don’t work. Being able to explain how and why something works, and works brilliantly, is much harder. I’ve found it the toughest task of this project and have probably fallen short numerous times.
Given how Pratchett has been pretty central to my reading and writing during the past year, I have spent plenty of time thinking about this. It was one of the main reasons I started it – why do I like what I like? What makes something good in my eyes? Separating the minute difference between the books at the upper end of the Discworld has been the most difficult part of this. Why Feet of Clay but not Small Gods? Why Witches Abroad but not Wyrd Sisters?
It’s the cheapest cop-out but all I can say is it falls into personal, and inexplicable, preference. Small Gods perhaps lacks the chilly fear of Lords and Ladies, the melodrama of Maskerade, the thrills of Feet of Clay, the horror of Night Watch and the, um, everything of Thief of Time.
That’s the best I can do. Most Pratchett fans would probably have the same difficulties coming up with their top 10, and it would likely be completely different to my own.
tl;dr – I’m probably going to regret saying Small Gods is the sixth best book by Terry Pratchett.
The main difference between early Pratchett and brilliant Pratchett is him becoming formally a much better writer. His very best books are those that have the foundations of solid plotting and strong structure.
But he didn’t just use formulaic plots and pile on the jokes and fantasy. Lords and Ladies is probably his most technical book. The Act 3 climax of good guys versus bad is brought forward to around the halfway mark. Instead of the book reading in a lopsided fashion, the second half is made all the more thrilling because it has space to breathe.
It’s an epic ending to a trilogy of sorts featuring the Witches of Lancre, featuring some of Pratchett’s more atmospheric writing and best character moments.
Pratchett’s best books are a glorious jumble of intelligence, philosophising and critical thinking. But some of his books are just fun. Maskerade is an overblown riot of a novel – it’s intentionally absurd and a great deal of fun to read.
There is nothing in it that makes it objectively a better book than Small Gods. But I just could not help cackling with glee as Maskerade lurched from one ludicrous plot twist to another. It’s deeply enjoyable and extremely silly.
A lot of Pratchett’s best books read like thrillers and this is his purest example. I just tore through this, deliriously flicking ever onwards to find out just who was poisoning the Patrician and why (Vetinari being Vetinari knew all along, of course).
It’s another example of Pratchett reusing an old plot of his, but he burnishes this one. There is a wonderful darkness at the heart of the book, as you learn about the city’s golems and the lives they lead. Pratchett wonderfully draws attention to how free will is a terrible burden for all of us to bear, but dresses it up to read like a story you would devour on the beach.
When my brain occasionally meanders along my ‘what if Pratchett….’ train of thought, I think of what I would have liked to have seen from Vimes. Because the pompous Vimes of the later books is not how I like to think of him. Vetinari’s terrier was as unorthodox a copper as the Patrician was a leader, but his complexities and how the reader warmed to him was part of the fun.
I would have loved to have read about Vimes’ wilderness years, especially after reading Night Watch. This thrilling representation of doomed rebellion in Ankh-Morpork gives us a glimpse of the wet behind the ears Samuel, the boy who became the booze-drenched watchman and latterly the Duke of Ankh.
Night Watch is a joy for Discworld continuity nerds, as it hints that the death of Keel, who is really the Vimes of now (Discworld!), killed off the young Vimes’ optimism and started him on the road that led to the bottom of a bottle.
None of this explains why this is the second best Discworld book, but if you are reading this you hardly need me to help you realise this. It’s an incredibly angry book about revolution and how people can suffer because of the political whims of others. It’s really not very funny at all, which underlines the seriousness of the material. The Discworld is funny. The absence of humour (for a lot of the book) brings the anger to the fore, anger at our leaders, at our prejudices and anger at ourselves.
You are almost 30 books into the Discworld. You are rich, well loved and acclaimed. Your characters are adored the world over and you are writing novels at a prodigious rate. So where do you go next? With a time-bending kung-fu romance epic that is a paean to, and warning about, the joys and dangers of chocolate, as well as an examination about what makes us human. Plus a lot of jokes and widescreen set-pieces. Simples.
For me, this is peak Pratchett because it features everything I love about reading him. It’s hilarious, it’s deeply intelligent while forcing the reader to think rather than just listen to the Great Author’s pontificating, it plays around with some fantastic concepts and it weaves a subtle love story into proceedings, a rarity in Pratchett’s work.
My opinion on it hasn’t really changed since I first read it. It was such a rich and satisfying read that AS Byatt’s claim it should have made the Booker longlist wasn’t all that preposterous. You can, and probably will, disagree about this choice but when you get to your absolute favourites, it gets hard to rationally explain what separates x from y. At least I can’t as well as I’d like to.
Thief of Time is the best of Pratchett to me. I can’t put it simpler than that.
I’ve very much enjoyed reading your reaction to these posts. They have been somewhat divisive – I believe my favourite comment was either someone who said merely ‘why’ in response to my first top 40 blog, or the person who dismissed it as “pointless”. Both made me laugh a great deal.
But I have genuinely enjoyed reading your defence of my lesser Discworld books and your criticisms of the ones I really love. It’s helped me to think about these in a new light and these conversations are part of the fun of reading.
Next week, I turn my attention to you, dear reader. I will collate the most popular Discworld books according to what posts you have read the most. So come back on Monday for that.
AND THEN, I will post my write-up of The Shepherd’s Crown, which is only six days away from being released. It will go up as soon as I have read it and got my thoughts together. I can’t wait to hear what you thought of it.