Rating the Discworld – part four

discworld-postcard-2It’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.

10. Going Postal

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.

9. The Last Hero

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?

8. The Fifth Elephant

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.

7. Pyramids

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.

6. Small Gods

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.

5. Lords and Ladies

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.

4. Maskerade

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.

3. Feet of Clay

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.

2. Night Watch

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.

1. Thief of Time

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.

Advertisements

29 Comments

  1. Well done! And they’re all wonderful books.

    At least you did place them in order – some lesser beings would have just had a no-particular-order clump. 🙂

    I’d really like to hear your views on Good Omens, given you only came to it recently.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  2. Great top 10. I have enjoyed your whole ranking process but this is the 10 I most agree with. With the exception of “The Last Hero” which I enjoyed, but not as much as you my list would be nearly identical. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  3. I don’t agree with your positioning of certain books, but I don’t think you’re wrong, if that makes any sense at all.
    And yet again, as it’s been every week when I read one of your posts and am reminded that there’s no more Discworld, there’s a tear in the corner of my eye and a sadness in my heart.

    Like

    Reply

  4. Sigh, oh I wish I had discovered your “Pratchett Job” earlier. I shall now endeavor to go through the earlier posts. I agree with Phuzz in that while I don’t agree with your ranking, I can hardly fault it at all. Your comments on how the books cause reflection and deep thought are so true. In fact I shall now sit back and try to figure out just why I love the ones that I do ( which as one would correctly assume are mostly different than the ones on this list). Thank you so much for putting this list and your thoughts before us.

    Like

    Reply

  5. Unlike the commenter above, i DO think you’re wrong! (no offence… I mean, what are rankings for if not for disagreeing with?)

    The big issue for me is that, while it was much better than I remembered it being, ‘Thief of Time’ just had too many glaring flaws, and too little originality or interesting content. It really isn’t the best of the lot. I doubt I’d put it top ten, but I’ll have to wait and see.

    Conversely, Small Gods wasn’t as good as I’d hoped, but it’s a clear masterpiece and it has to be higher than sixth. Maybe not first, but not sixth! [I think the general public opinion is actually right for once: I’m not sure Night Watch and Small Gods are the best two books of the series (I might put Lords and Ladies higher), but I think they’re definitely the two indisputable triumphs, and need to be in the top three or four at least).

    Other than that it’s a respectable top ten – the big one I certainly wouldn’t put in there, going by memory, is Going Postal, but I’ve yet to re-read it, so maybe my memory’s doing it an injustice. We’ll see. The rest I might quibble with the details of but wouldn’t have a major issue with.

    And chapeau for putting Pyramids in your top ten. Not enough people would, I don’t think. In many ways it’s probably more interesting than Small Gods – more nuanced – and I think it’s his master-piece in the old sense of the word (the first book that marked him out as a master of his craft). Sadly, it tends to get overshadowed by Small Gods, and perhaps suffers in the polls from being either the silliest of his serious books or the most serious of his silly books (though this is part of why I think it’s so good).

    Like

    Reply

  6. On the matter of how incredible it is that he wrote so many incredible books… I know i’ve said this before, but it bears repeating…

    …Terry Pratchett, 1989-1992. Is this the greatest four-year period of any novelist in history?

    The obvious (and probably correct) answer is ‘no’. But not so hasty. Pratchett may not have written the greatest novel ever, but take a look at the books he wrote in those three years:

    – Sourcery
    – Wyrd Sisters
    – Pyramids
    – Guards! Guards!
    – The Unadulterated Cat
    – Truckers
    – Diggers
    – Wings
    – Eric
    – Moving Pictures
    – Good Omens
    – Reaper Man
    – Witches Abroad
    – Small Gods
    – Lords and Ladies
    – Only You Can Save Mankind

    Fucking hell! Four years, 16 books. OK, some of them are short, but even so.

    And it’s not like they’re just pulp, either. I’d put Pyramids, Reaper Man, Small Gods and Lords and Ladies into serious classic territory, and I know a lot of people say the same about Good Omens (which I haven’t read yet). Witches Abroad has some of Pratchett’s best work too, even if it is saddled with some fairly dire filler. Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards! are books that many people would list among their most cherished favourites – not just favourite Pratchett, but favourite fiction tout court. Truckers, Diggers and Wings together make a beautiful trilogy for younger readers, though I do need to go back and see just how good they were (I remember loving them). Eric is… well, light and disposable, but easily-digested fun; Sourcery is actually much better than people remember it being, even if it isn’t a classic. The cat book? OK, apparently it’s total fluff, but nobody seems to find it actually objectionable, and hey, if you can write 15 good novels in four years you deserve to be allowed to put out a bit of fluff for the christmas market…

    …oh, and he also wrote the short story ‘Troll Bridge’ in that time period, and that’s great too. [And at least four non-Disc short stories too]

    The really weird thing is, though… in the preceding four years he’d only written three novels. And in the following four years, he wrote a still-astonishing but not actually superhuman eight novels (plus contributions to two maps, two computer games and a companion). But for that four years? Sixteen books.

    That scene where Hywel sits frustrated at his desk as the universe uses him as its personal dartboard for random inspirations? I’m guessing that for those four years, that scene was based on a true story…

    I just can’t get over how insane that output was, in both quality and quantity.

    Like

    Reply

    1. Meant to add: Moving Pictures is a perfectly decent fun book, and I really like OYCSM and wish it wasn’t so overlooked.

      The other thing about that list, though, is how much Pratchett changed in only four years. The guy who wrote Sourcery, and even Wyrd Sisters, was a very enjoyable, very distinctive, rather unpolished but still thoroughly good author. But nobody surely would have realised that within four years the same guy would have written Small Gods and Lords and Ladies! The leap in quality would be impressive over a career, but over four years it’s just astonishing.

      Like

      Reply

      1. I will, eventually. After I’ve finished Discworld, I’m planning on finishing off the rest of Pratchett too.

        Why would you have included Good Omens, though? Rather than, say, Strata (set on a disc world!), or the Bromeliad (a classic, and which Maurice and to a lesser extent Tiffany seem to draw on)?

        And read/review the short stories, man!

        Like

      2. There’s a considerable change in Pratchett’s style after the book was published. It’s not a Discworld book in the slightest but it played a vital role.

        Like

      3. Really? I have to feel that’s a correlation without causation!
        Because I’d point out:
        – Pyramids came out before Good Omens
        – Moving Pictures came out the same year as GO (though I’m not sure which was actually printed first, or indeed written first)
        – as I say, that was a four-year period of astonishing development and fecundity, with GO in the middle of it. Take GO out, and you’ve got what seems to me to be a very natural progression – Sourcery to Guards! Guards! (/Wyrd Sisters) to Moving Pictures and Witches Abroad, to Small Gods and Lords and Ladies. The only books that to me stand out of that progression as unusual are Eric (intentionally going backward) and Pyramids (which preceded GO). So I’m not sure what the role of GO would be in that scenario.

        What I WOULD see as important outside the discworld in that period is the Bromeliad, which both moves toward more serious themes and begins an era (followed by the Johnny Maxwell trilogy) in which Pratchett was simultaneously writing adult discworld and children’s non-discworld novels… which I think may have been important in encourage him to focus on the more sophisticated elements in his adult books.

        But, maybe I’ll change my mind when I read it.

        Like

      4. Wait to you read it and see what you think.

        For me, the change in his writing was mainly a stylistic one. He became much better at the atmospherics and tone of his books post Good Omens. I think Gaiman is excellent at that so I am jumping to the conclusion Pratchett learned from the experience.

        This, of course, assumes Moving Pictures was written at a similar time to Good Omens – as you note, they were both published in the same year. But I’ve been assuming a lot all the way through this so why stop now?

        Like

      5. Well, I’d have thought the Bromeliad was a very effective use of tone and atmosphere!
        I’m also not sure of the mechanics of this learning – Pratchett had, after all, read Gaiman before. I guess there may have been some discussions about writing theory between the two of them at some point?

        Finally – WAS Gaiman particularly excellent at atmosphere and tone? Here, my lack of knowledge of minor late-eighties graphic novels undermines my argument. At the point of Good Omens, Gaiman had written ‘Violent Cases’, ‘Signal to Noise’, ‘Mr Punch’ and ‘Black Orchid’ – I don’t know any of them, but afaiaa none are considered classics. Are they really much better in tone and atmosphere than the Bromeliad, o Pyramids (a novel that i already thought had a great atmosphere and a much more solid grasp of tone than his earlier works)? Gaiman may also have written the very beginning of Sandman, which started coming out the year before Good Omens… but to be honest, I’d be more inclined to point in the opposite direction! That is, I though Sandman markedly improved (including in its atmosphere and tone) over the course of its first year or so, the time Gaiman was collaborating with Pratchett.

        But, as you say, I need to read it and see what I think.

        Like

      6. Definitely a good book. Good Omens , for me , became a preview of what was to come in Sir Terry’s later Discworld books although some of the ideas needed to be heated until white hot and then to be beaten vigorously with a wordsmith’s hammer to get them into shape. Alternatively, Good Omens could, in my humble opinion, stand alone and upright in the fantasy genre.

        Like

  7. Thank you for a nice little journey through one of my favorite author’s bibliography. Of course I don’t agree with some of your comments 🙂 but we both agree that Sir Terry was a great writer.

    I also felt a bit sad when I saw a gradual change in his books after the embuggerance. Nevertheless I enjoyed those books, especially the Tiffany Aching ones. And I didn’t mind much when he wrote a Vimes book too many because he is my favorite Pratchett’s character. I guess I am a Vimes fanboy.

    I liked the Rincewind books. I feel an empathy to the poor guy and enjoyed his adventures. After you mentioned it though, I agree that the depiction of the Asian culture in Interesting Times was a bit tactless. Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few decades someone founds the Religion of Cowardice and the prophet is called Rincewind the Wizzard.

    I am also feeling sad again. We are expecting the last Discworld novel in a few days. The last one. After that no more Discworld. At least we can hope that Sky continues with the Discworld TV Movies.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  8. I have to agree with you that Small Gods should be ranked higher. Particularly when you combine it with the court scene from TSOD 4. (Or perhaps the enirety of TSOD) The two books combine to define round world religion is Pratchett’s eyes. Then again, i would rank night watch higher than you also, partly because it and thief of time are interconnected. I really like the call outs and call backs that Sir Terry put throughout his bibliography. I also like the challenges such as, was the drunken Vimes of guards guards trained by Vimes or by Keel?

    That said, i really enjoyed your series and am consoling myself on the loss of new discworld novels by reading your blog. He’s not rwally dead yet and the turtle moves.

    Like

    Reply

  9. We had been waiting for this one. And although we may disagree with the arrangement of the top ten, we agree that most of those books deserve to be there and one of us totally agrees with Thief of Time being at number one. It is a fabulous book which can be picked up over and over again and yet add something new to one’s understanding.

    Like

    Reply

  10. I tend to think of the Discworld books as a bunch of tangentally related series rather than individual books, or one long story arc. I certainly wouldn’t try to read the entire collection of books in published order; compressing decades of writing into months of reading (which does seem to have lead to a bit of Pratchett burnout in G’s case).

    So taking these rankings and converting them to series averages scores, I get:

    1/ Foreign /Gods (Pyr 7 +SG 6 +ToT 1): Averaging 4.7
    2/ Captain Vimes (GG 13 + MaA 11 + FoC 3): 9.0
    3/ SirSamuel Vimes (Jng 18 + tFE 8 + NW 2): 9.3
    4/ Magrat Witches (WS 12 + WA 14 + LL 5): 10.3 [+ ER 23: 13.5]
    5/ Agnes Witches (M!!!!! 4 + CJ 22 [+SLF not rated]): 13.0
    6/ Industrial/ Faculty (MP 16 + tT 15 + UA 40): 23.7
    7/ Death’s Family (Mrt 24 + RM 20 + SM 36 [: 26.7] + HF 17): 24.3
    [(HF 17 + ToT 1): 9.0]
    8/ Young/ Tiffany (tAM 19 + WFM 27 + HFS 28); 24.7
    9/ Tiffany Witches (W 21 + ISWM 29 [+ tSC not rated]]): 25.0
    10/ Minion Moist (GP 10 + MM 33 + RS 35): 26.0
    11/ Rincewind’s Return (IT 32 + tLC 38 + tLH 9): 26.3
    12/ Rincewind’s Travels (CoM 25 + tLF 26 + Src 39 + Erc 31): 30.3
    13/ Duke Vimes ( MR 30 + Thd 34 + Snf 37): 33.7

    Of course, my grouping of these series won’t meet universal agreement. In particular, SM seems to be either; the conclusion of the Mort storyline, or; the start of Susan’s, depending on how you look at it. ER has to go with the MW trilogy, but fits awkwardly and drags the score down below the AW novels. I think if; The Sea and the Little Fishes, story had been rated if would have come in somewhere around Eric, so I’ve cheated the list a bit there. The link between tAM and WFM is tenuous but within the story, not just because they were both published as YA books (don’t let this put you off reading them if you’re older!).

    Over on part 2 of these ratings, I posted a Discworld reading order link from the lspace web (which displayed as an image, so I won’t take up the space to do so again). They use; Ancient Civilisations, for what I’ve called; Foreign/ Gods (I used the “/” in 3 trilogies when they included nondirect sequels). One caveat is that this is a re-reading grouping of trilogies, if you haven’t read them the first time, then the later books in a series should be read in sequence (eg if you haven’t read any of the Susan books; SM, HF & ToT, don’t start with ToT even though it’s highest ranked).

    Like

    Reply

  11. Since being introduced to the discworld and its inhabitants at the ripe old age of 11 (in 1984) by my mum, I have had the distinct pleasure of reading them (mostly) in chronological order of release… Have tried to get my children into them (epic failure)… But I digress, I can neither agree nor can I disagree with your ranking, for me reading STP’s books for the first time has been an unmitigated pleasure and have never been disappointed and each book just got better and better. Some were funnier than others, some more sinister and dark, and other’s made you question your sanity. I’m glad someone has taken their time to try and rank these excellent additions to the world if literature whether I agree with it or not, it has been a pleasure reading your thoughts on DW,

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  12. I am Spanish person who learnt English with Pratchett, whom I discovered through the videogame Discworld Noir. But I digress. I have read (almost, not Faust/Eric) all of the Discworld books + Good Omens. More ore less in chronological order of publication, which may create habits and expectations and therefore influence how much I enjoy subequent ones. That said and of the top of my mind I have to say: Small Gods, Night Watch, Pyramids, I remember those MORE fondly. And Good Omens. And of course, Nation. Nation is superb and like Simpsns v. Futurama, good proof that the fantasy part is superfluous in my opinion to craft excellent stories.
    Nice place!

    Like

    Reply

  13. These posts are so interesting. I am new to Discworld. My daughter’s English class read Small Gods this spring, so I decided to check it out too. Wow. Now I’m interested in starting at the beginning and immersing myself in these books for the next few months. 🙂

    Like

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s