Sunday, November 12, 2006

An Introduction to Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett is the astonishingly popular author-creator of the Discworld (TM) series; reportedly 1% of every book sold in the UK is written by Pratchett — that's all books, not just fantasy ones. He has also written some non-Discworld books as well, of which more later. First a brief explanation of Discworld for those who are unfamiliar with it. As suggested by its name, this is a flat world carried on the back of four large elephants, which are themselves standing upon the back of the giant, space-faring world turtle, Great A'Tuin, who endlessly swims through space.

For readers new to Discworld, a good starting place is Pratchett's marvellous "Discworld for children" series featuring the apprentice witch, Tiffany Aching: The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, and Wintersmith. Tiffany is the kind of child who, reading in her book of stories that Jenny Greenteeth has eyes the size of soup plates, measures a soup plate to check the size; she knows the meanings of lots of words (no one has ever told her that you're not meant to read the dictionary like a novel); she's the kind of child who, hearing stories about the "wicked old witch", wonders "Where’s the evidence?" In The Wee Free Men Tiffany encounters Jenny Greenteeth and this leads her to taking on the Queen of the Faeries herself (and this being Terry Pratchett, we’re not talking Tinkerbell fairies !); she also finds herself temporarily the Kelda (leader) of the Wee Free Men (aka the Nac Mac Feegle), 4 inch high blue men with an over-aggressive attitude (they love fighting, stealing and drinking, preferably all at once !), but astonishing loyalty. In the sequel, A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany goes to stay with Miss Level to learn to be a witch. Unfortunately, just before she leaves the Chalk (where she lives), she attracts the attention of a "hiver" a bodiless creature that likes to inhabit minds until the minds’ owners go mad and die. The manner in which Tiffany chooses to deal with this frightening and threatening creature is remarkably mature and unselfish, and the book itself is a compelling look at the power of storytelling (something which Pratchett discusses again and again in his books). In Wintersmith, Tiffany encounters the wintersmith, who has mistaken her for his counterpart, Lady Summer, after Tiffany listens to her feet and leaps into the Dark Morris, the dance that's done every year to greet the winter. The wintersmith is intrigued by Tiffany and sets about wooing her with, amongst other things, Tiffany-shaped snowflakes and Tiffany-shaped icebergs. When she tells him that she isn't interest in him, he decides to try to become a man. The consequences of Tiffany's impulsiveness in leaping into the dance are far-reaching and she must learn how to deal with the wintersmith, although she does not do so alone; she is aided by the senior witches Granny Weatherwax (whom Tiffany spent quite some time with in A Hat Full of Sky) and Nanny Ogg (whom she only briefly met at the end of The Wee Free Men).

Other books by Terry Pratchett that are written for children but which serve as a good introduction to his books for readers of all ages is The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, a Discworld parody of the tale of "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"; and non-Discworld books that include the Bromeliad trilogy (Truckers, Diggers and Wings) about a race of Nomes (beings akin to Lilliputians, but with far more advanced technology), and the YA Johnny Maxwell trilogy (Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb), featuring the sensitive and thoughtful teenager Johnny Maxwell, and his various misfit friends.

If you enjoy the stories above, you may like to try some of the "Discworld for Adults of All Ages" book, with which Pratchett made his name as a comedy fantasist. The Discworld books consist of a handful of stand-alone novels, and several character series. My personal favourites are those featuring the Witches (the aforementioned Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, and various colleagues) and the Ankh-Morpork City Watch (Commander Samuel Vimes and his various officers).

Granny Weatherwax is a tough-as-nails witch who has an advanced knowledge of psychology (known as "headology" on the Discworld), her friend Nanny Ogg loves a drink, a smoke and the company of men; she has a number of sons, daughters-in-law (whose names she can never remember), and grand-children, plus an evil-tempered, one-eyed, smelly cat named Greebo. The two are aided, or more often hindered, by various younger witches: Magrat is a soppy, New Age-ish witch, who suffers much from her misspelled name (her mother didn't know how to spell Margaret), yet nevertheless overcomes her various "handicaps" after a series of adventures in Wyrd Sisters (a humorous parody of Macbeth), Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies and Carpe Jugulum (which, given the title, unsurprisingly features vampires). A new younger "third witch", Agnes, is introduced into the series to take Magrat's place (after she moves onto other things), appearing first in Carpe Jugulum and then in Maskerade (the Discworld version of The Phantom of the Opera).

The City Watch series begins with Guards! Guards! (in which the twin city of Ankh-Morpork (a Discworld version of New York) is invaded by a dragon), Men At Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Nightwatch and Thud. The City Watch is initially portrayed as old, incompetent and/or a huge joke to the rest of the city, but the City Watch is revitalised in Guards! Guards! by the arrival of Carrot, a 6+ foot young man who has been raised by dwarves in the distant mountain mines, and who believes great things of the Watch. which they somehow find themselves striving to live up to.

Another of my favourite Discworld characters is Death, the 7 foot tall animated skeleton, who rides a pure white stallion named Binky (!) and TALKS IN CAPITALS LIKE THIS. The Death series consists of Mort, Reaper Man, Soul Music (which sees the introduction of Rock and Roll to the Discworld), Hogfather (in which Death takes over from the Discworld equivalent of Santa Clause), and Thief Of Time.

The final character series features the wizards of Unseen University. This series seems to have been merged with the Science of Discworld Series, as the wizards have featured in all three SoD books so far. The series consists of The Colour of Magic (the very first Discworld book), The Light Fantastic (which is a fairly direct sequel to The Colour of Magic), Sourcery (that's not a typo !), Eric, Interesting Times, The Last Continent, and the three Science of Discworld books: The Science of Discworld, The Science of Discworld II: The Globe and Darwin's Watch: Science of Discworld III.

Stand-alone Discworld novels include Moving Pictures (a satire on Hollywood), Small Gods (probably Pratchett's best ever novel - don't let the title put you off !), The Truth (the Discworld invents newspapers and tabloid journalism), Monstrous Regiment, and Going Postal (in which the Ankh-Morpork postal service is revived).


SSK said...

It's nice to see another Pratchett fan here. =)

Death and Sam Vimes tie for my personal favourites among the characters, and my favourite series is the Watch stories.

I've read almost all of them except for 'Guards! Guards!', which has somehow evaded me until now.

As for my fave books, it's kind of a toss up between 'Thud' and 'Small Gods'.

So, are you planning to look into 'Making Money' when it comes out? I know I am.

Michele said...

I shall certainly be getting that one as Moist von Lipwig is a favourite character of mine...

SSK said...

Yes, I especially liked his gift of 'reading letters that aren't there' in Going Postal. =)

SSK said...

Yes, I especially liked his gift of 'reading letters that aren't there' in Going Postal. =)

Michele said...

Oh yes !!