It’s quite a daunting thing to start reading a 41-book series, especially when the only rule is that you don’t start with the first book.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series was born in 1983 with the publication of its flagship book, The Colour of Magic. Set on a flat disc resting on the back of four elephants, who are, in turn, standing on a turtle travelling through the endless depths of space, it has become one of the most popular fantasy series of all time. While initially a parody of classic fantasy tropes and books such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Discworld eventually took on a life of its own, sprawling across different character arcs and locations.
I picked up my first Discworld book when I was 16 and never looked back. It’s my favourite book series of all time, and if you have ever had a conversation with me longer than five minutes, you’ll probably be made aware of this fact very quickly. I have two Discworld posters that take up an entire wall of my bedroom. I am currently collecting the clothbound ‘Collector’s Library’ Discworld editions, much to the chagrin of my bank account. I refer to Ankh-Morpork, the Disc’s most populous city state, as my home away from home. And more than anything, I could easily give a spontaneous TED Talk on why Pratchett’s books, with their classic British humour and clever commentary, have meant so much to me.
But something people often ask me and other Discworld fans is: ‘Where do I start?’ The series is so big and expansive, following a confusing publication order with different subseries and characters. There are actually no rules when it comes to reading Discworld – you can pick up any book and it’ll make sense on its own, even if there are some references to other books. None of them end on a cliff-hanger, except for the first one. Generally, us Discworld fans don’t recommend beginning with The Colour of Magic. Even Pratchett himself advised at the very least starting with Mort, the fourth book, as his writing style came into its own and the plots began to feel more developed.
It’s all very confusing, I understand. Essentially, what you need to know is that the Discworld series is split into various subseries: The Wizards, Witches, City Watch, Death, and Industrial Revolution, along with a few other books that don’t really fit in anywhere. There are many charts online that will help you with reading orders and which books go where (I should know, I have one saved to my phone and on my laptop just in case I ever need to explain Discworld to someone on the spot. No, really). But they don’t tell you what each series is about. So let me, Discworld Enthusiast Extraordinaire, give you a little rundown.
Starting book: The Colour of Magic
What’s to love: disaster wizards; a magical university with terrible administration; an orangutan librarian who only cares about books and bananas; plots that feel like a rollicking D&D campaign
Okay, okay. I know I just said don’t start with The Colour of Magic, but if the Wizards series is really where you want to begin, that is completely fine. The Wizards series, for the most part, follows Rincewind, a ‘wizzard’ whose main skill is running away from his problems. In the first two books, he serves as a reluctant tour guide to the terminally cheerful Twoflower, Ankh-Morpork’s first ever tourist. But as the series progresses, a great deal of these stories simply consist of Rincewind attempting to wriggle his way out of other people’s problems. It’s just a shame he’s so good at solving them.
To some extent, we also follow the magical Unseen University’s senior staff – a bunch of incompetent yet somehow likeable wizards who are very silly and extremely hellbent on not getting any wizarding done. These characters often have cameo appearances in almost all of the different Discworld series.
Starting book: Equal Rites or Wyrd Sisters
What’s to love: sassy grandmothers; girlbosses; old friendships with a grumpy/sunshine dynamic; Shakespeare retellings done with generous doses of humour
Depending on where you start, the Witches series follows a slightly different cast of characters. Many recommend starting with Wyrd Sisters as it’s considered the first ‘proper’ Witches book, but others will remind you that Equal Rites is technically the first published Witches book. That being said, it’s generally agreed that Equal Rites was published before Pratchett was considered to have hit his writing ‘stride’. Either way, the central figure of these books is Granny Weatherwax, a forbidding witch who is incredibly intelligent and doesn’t have time for other people’s foolishness. She is aided and abetted by her close friend Nanny Ogg, who doesn’t let her old age get in the way of a good time. Their contrasting grumpy/sunshine dynamic makes for some very funny reads. Whilst the Witches series can just be read as a set of fun adventures battling supernatural creatures, it’s ultimately also a commentary on ageing, and what it means to be a woman within the context of fantasy literature.
Starting book: Guards! Guards!
What’s to love: sarcastic protagonists; redemption arcs; found family; social justice commentary
I will be completely honest here and admit that I am quite biased when writing about the City Watch as it’s my favourite Discworld series. In it, we meet my favourite fictional character of all time, Samuel Vimes, who is the washed up, alcoholic captain of Ankh-Morpork’s city watch. Throughout the series, we watch Vimes slowly overcome his demons and unlearn various prejudices, all served with his trademark cynicism and sarcastic humour. On the surface, the novels are merely a cross between a fantasy murder mystery and a police procedural. But it’s really a story of redemption, of learning self-worth, all the while tackling broader themes of social justice: responsibility, fighting ingrained beliefs, and choosing between what is right and what is easy. The City Watch is also home to a loveable cast of characters from various backgrounds, all of whom make the Watch feel like a found family.
Starting book: Mort
What’s to love: the personification of the Grim Reaper just trying to be a cool dad; explorations of existentialism and family; rock music
This was the Discworld series I cut my teeth on. Like the City Watch, Death is one of the most popular subseries, mainly due to its titular character. A great deal of this series follows Death as he tries to better understand the ways of humans – why and how they do the things they do. This includes taking time off from his job reaping souls in order to become a farmer, as well as trying to impress his no-nonsense granddaughter, Susan. He is also rather fond of curries and cats. While I think Discworld as a whole is a very human series, I think that in some ways, the Death series is ironically the most human of all.
Starting book: Moving Pictures, The Truth or Going Postal
What’s to love: all standalones with different stories; commentary on a myriad of topics, such as freedom of speech, war and embracing change
Industrial Revolution is a difficult series to recommend since all of these books can be considered jumping off points (with the exception of the last two, Making Money and Raising Steam). Additionally, each book follows a different cast of characters who often end up making cameos in other stories. And yet, I think that the standalone nature of almost all the books in this series means they’re another great starting point for beginners. All the Industrial Revolution books follow a different form of technology as it is introduced to the Disc, and we get to see how these impact upon the inhabitants’ lives. For example, The Truth is about Ankh-Morpork’s first ever printing press, and Raising Steam looks at what happens when steam trains are brought to the Disc.
One of the most popular entry points is Going Postal, which follows convicted conman Moist Von Lipwig (yes, his name is really that excellent), who, as part of his sentence, is tasked with restoring the Ankh-Morpork Post Office. Another tale of redemption with a tightly plotted storyline, it’s a rare Discworld novel in that it actually has numbered chapters.
The ‘Gods’ series: Not really a series, but since these don’t fit in anywhere else, they’ve sort of been given a series of their own. It consists of two standalone books, Pyramids and Small Gods. The latter is often cited by Discworld fans as an excellent starting point. Both books deal with ancient civilisations in some way, exploring themes of religion and mythology.
The young adult books: Although aimed at a younger audience, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents and the Tiffany Aching series can be enjoyed by all ages. The former is a Pied Piper retelling of sorts, and the latter is about a young witch-in-training. These books are also a rare exception to the ‘no chapters’ Discworld rule. However, if you plan to start with the Tiffany Aching series, I would strongly recommend starting with the Witches series first as the two are linked in some ways. It will also make what happens in The Shepherd’s Crown – both the last Tiffany Aching book and the last ever published Discworld novel – a lot more poignant.
At the end of the day, have fun with it. There really is no right or wrong way to read Discworld. Almost every fan has read the books in a different order. If one series doesn’t really work for you, try out another one. You can even ignore everything I’ve just said and read them in publication order. Personally, as long as I’m sticking to the reading order within the subseries, I like to weave in and out of all of them as I see fit. I can’t help myself, I’m a mood reader.
Lastly, some things I wish I’d known before reading Discworld. One: with the exception of a few books, there are no chapters in almost all of the novels. There are paragraph breaks, but no numbered chapters as such. Two: there are footnotes, which aren’t usually too excessive (*cough* looking at you, Jay Kristoff *cough*), and they are often hilarious. Three: the humour is exceedingly English (in a Monty Python or Blackadder sort of way) and can often be very clever, but sometimes Discworld humour is also just the silliest pun you’ve ever heard. And four: it may or may not change your life.