I’m very nearly to the end of the complete, publication-order reread of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books that I started in September. I’m only about halfway through the final book, The Shepherd’s Crown, today, but I feel comfortable talking about the series as a whole, and the main thing I want to talk about is reading order.

Discworld is a huge series, with 41 books in the main sequence, published over 33 years, and it varies highly in quality. This has led to some ridiculous flowcharts for where to start reading it, which can be funny, but I don’t really think that’s the right approach. Instead I want to look at how to get the most out of reading it for the least investment.

Often when we talk about series fiction we talk about spearpoints, which is to say that you have significant events late in the series whose power is dependent on having read the previous works in the series, metaphorically the shaft of the spear. This is a really powerful tool for authors, who can give more emotional weight to a climax when the history of several books with the same characters and world is pushing behind it.

Discworld doesn’t really do this, outside of Raising Steam. One of the reasons there are lots of entry points to the series is that every book until the very last few is written to hold up on its own. That makes the series more accessible and possibly made it more successful, but one thing it means is that you don’t have to read them in publication order, or series chronological order, to get the most out of any particular book. 

So I wanted to create a series reading order that abandons overall chronology while still maintaining it locally in a few key places, in favor of trying to get the most punch out of the fewest books. The goal of the Reverse Spearpoint Order is that you can read as far into it as you feel is worthwhile, and then stop, without missing out on anything. No reading mediocre books to get to good ones. At whatever point in the RSO you’ve had enough of Discworld, you can have confidence that you will have read as much of it as you really want to, that there are no hidden gems waiting for you later in the sequence, and you can move on to whatever interests you next. 

Maybe this will be thirty-some books, maybe it will be one or five or eight. There are a few I really don’t recommend getting to unless you’re a huge completist, but maybe it will even be all 41.

The nature of the list also means that they will get somewhat more racist and sexist as you go along. For the most part these map well with other qualities of the books, so that the best ones in other terms are also the least racist and sexist. (The exception is the late set I’m calling The Summoning Dark, which could have been dramatically improved by dumping those things, and if you really don’t care about them you could move that set up to #5.) Pratchett in particular really likes gender essentialism and cheap jokes at East Asians, which may bother you quite early on. If they do, stop, it’s not going to get better.

Enough said, I think, on to the reading order. I break these up a little differently than the traditional subseries labels.

Anta Baku’s Reverse Spearpoint Discworld Reading Order

(1) The Tiffany Aching Books:

The Wee Free Men
A Hat Full of Sky
I Shall Wear Midnight
The Shepherd’s Crown

(2) Modernity in Ankh-Morpork:

The Truth
Going Postal
Making Money

(3) Lu-Tse

Small Gods
Thief of Time

(4) Mid-period Vimes
The Fifth Elephant
Night Watch

(5) Singles 1998-2003

Carpe Jugulum (This is a Witches book but it’s by far the best non-Tiffany Witches book)
Monstrous Regiment
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
The Last Hero

(6) Early Watch

Guards, Guards!
Men at Arms
Feet of Clay

(7) Death

Reaper Man
Soul Music

(8) The Summoning Dark
Raising Steam

(9) Witches
Wyrd Sisters
Lords and Ladies

(10) Deep Cuts
Moving Pictures
Unseen Academicals
Equal Rites
The Color of Magic
The Light Fantastic

(11) For the Completist Only
Witches Abroad
Interesting Times
The Last Continent


My own opinion would suggest that stopping somewhere in Group #5 is probably ideal for a recreational reader. I’m glad I read/reread them all, but a lot of that glad is tied to being a comic fantasy writer and having things to learn even from the books that don’t do it very well. 

It’s gotten to the point where I’m pretty tired of saying the same things about how things are going here. It’s still January, it’s still very hard for me to manage much of anything. I’ve been a little brighter the last couple of days, but I doubt that’s real progress. It might be a sign that I’m not headed steadily downhill, which would be a relief at this point. This has begun to remind me of the winter of 2018-19, when I didn’t really recover until August. If there’s any willpower that can stop that happening again, I will be deploying it.

But for the moment, I want to talk about Thud!, which I finished yesterday. This is the first place I’ve really felt like reading all the Discworld books in order gave me a significantly different estimation of a single book. So far the exercise has been really useful in terms of thinking about series things, and authorial improvement things, but the individual books haven’t really been especially thought-provoking to reread.

Thud!, though, is very weird in its context. The sentence-level writing and the focus on Ankh-Morpork multiculturalism both fit in very well with the later run of Discworld books. But the character development and the plotting are in some ways throwbacks to the early days. Up until this point, Vimes’ character development has been building further in each Watch book, but in Thud! it more or less vanishes. We have Vimes becoming a father, and his attitude toward Young Sam, which kind of stand in for character development without offering any real depth. The story is eventually shown to be about Vimes being a pawn, but Vimes is very much a pawn within the story as well, one being casually moved around by Pratchett just as he’s moved about by Vetinari. 

The other Watch characters have a similar fate. The plot with Nobby’s girlfriend is bizarre and goes nowhere except for giving Pratchett a chance to take cheap shots at pretty girls. The new lance constable, the vampire Sally, is plot-relevant but as far as character development goes doesn’t stand up to the introductions of Cheery, or Angua, or even someone more minor like Reg Shoe. The only Watch character bits that really hang together compared to the previous books are the co-option of Vetinari’s auditor and Detritus’ adoption of the drugged-out troll Brick, which doesn’t get as much time as it deserves. 

The plot more or less works, and makes Pratchett’s point, but it feels a lot less sophisticated than the run of recent books, and a lot more like characters are being moved about like game pieces. Which I suppose is appropriate for a book with a game as a core metaphor and occasional plot point. Thud the game, itself, is interestingly vague from a game player’s perspective, but at the same time not developed enough to really hold its own as a metaphor within the book. Nor is there as much parallelism as is usual in such things. No one’s standing in for the dwarves, or the trolls, and Vimes’ personal importance to the plot is completely opposite the mechanics of the game, which doesn’t differentiate even between roles except for “dwarf team” and “troll team.”

I was left more curious about how Thud worked, and less interested in what was actually happening, which isn’t really the goal, and something Pratchett got a lot better at avoiding as his career went along. This was very much the sort of feeling in, say, Pyramids, where I can tell you very little about the characters despite having reread it just a few months ago, but the spatio-temporal mechanics were interesting. That could have easily been a weakness of the Lu-Tze books or the clacks-focused books, but it wasn’t, and it felt like it was a flaw that Pratchett had gotten beyond at this point. 

And I guess I can see that the dwarf-troll conflict needed some level of resolution, and this book is maybe more about getting to that than it is about any of the characters. I’m not sure if this is the point where Pratchett’s grappling with mortality became real. That could easily be what’s going on, that this book is more about providing a certain amount of resolution, rather than having as much internal motivation as the previous stories. It will be interesting to see where that thread goes as I move through the last seven books. I don’t remember much at all about Snuff, the last Watch book, so I’ll be hitting that one almost cold in a couple of weeks.

Things have not been improving here. I’m getting more into the stage where I’m resigning myself to the idea that they may not improve until things warm up again. With the original vaccine estimates, I thought there was some chance I might be able to travel to somewhere tolerable in February or March, but that’s looking virtually impossible now. So either I will find some way to improve things in the cold, or I will be waiting for a while until things thaw again. 

Pretty much all of my time now is spent working through my coping devices. This isn’t unfamiliar, though it’s especially frustrating to have finally found a solution to this problem last year, and this year have it unavailable to me because of Covid. I’ve been periodically trying to convince myself that there’s some method of travel that makes sense, but it never really comes through. I really don’t want to get seriously ill away from home, and that seems like a major risk no matter how I would do things. 

So instead I’m just trying to make it through, when I’d really rather be trying to make things. I’m still pretty confident that this is finite, that I will be able and interested to continue the work here when my brain is once again capable of it. But it’s very frustrating for me to be unable to keep putting out work, and I’m sure it’s no fun for my still-small readership either. But at this point it’s pretty clear that what I can manage is being kind to myself about it, and pick things up when I’m able to do so again. 

Reading-wise, my Discworld tour continues, as this week I finished Monstrous Regiment, read A Hat Full of Sky, and have read most of Going Postal. If I can’t be writing funny fiction at least I can be reading it and thinking about it. After 32 early Discworld books it’s very nice to finally get back to Moist, who is clearly a step above the other protagonists in the world. Vimes has matured nicely in his last couple of books, and Tiffany is of course lovely for YA, and in some ways has dragged Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg along with her. It’s unfortunate that Pratchett didn’t write a later witches book, because Granny has definitely matured as a character in A Hat Full of Sky, and my memory is that she and Nanny both continue to do that in the later Tiffany books. Similarly, I’m a little sad that Susan of Sto Helit’s last book came just before Pratchett’s last major point of improvement, because it would have been nice to see her move forward in a similar way to how Vimes has. 

But I am glad he decided to work with new characters in this century, rather than just riding the old ones, because Moist is a great deal of fun and Tiffany is excellent. Having five of the eight book remaining centered on those two characters makes me feel like this read is on something of an easy downhill, which is very much what I need right now. I’m not sure I’m getting as much out of them as a comedy writer as I did from thinking about the older, weaker books at a time when my brain was working more fluently, but hopefully stuffing them into my subconscious will lead to insight into the future. 

I’ll check back in again next week, probably a few Discworld books closer to the end, if nothing else. I hope you’re having a better January than I am. 

So, another week, another lack of writing. I managed to get good sleep in there once, on Sunday, and today was all right. That’s a certain amount of progress, I guess. In the first half of this week I was able to sit down and figure out what the next Cell Phone Towers of Elfland story is going to be, tentatively titled “Ian and the Lost Princes” unless I come up with anything else. It has a setting and a theme and a plot, but actually writing it seems like it’s probably a ways away still. Just doing that much used up my available mental energy for those days very quickly. But it’s a certain amount of progress, albeit slow progress, and more importantly it means I’m continuing to try to move forward at this rather than just slipping into survival mode until spring. That could still happen but I’m holding it off so far.

In other news, since September I’ve been rereading the Discworld books in order, and catching a few that I missed in the kind of haphazard way that seems unique to that series. There are so many of them and they’re so diverse that reading them in order, or even looking for completion, doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you’re doing what I’m doing now: trying to learn what you can about writing comic fantasy from them.

They’re very reassuring, in some ways. I find it really inspiring how Pratchett was able to consistently improve over the lifetime of the series. The first ones really are not all that great, but I found three distinct places where he clearly leveled up along the way, as well as making smaller bits of progress more regularly. There are big steps up at book 13 (Small Gods), book 23 (Carpe Jugulum), and book 29 (Night Watch). Small Gods is better than several of the books after it, but even so they’re a step up from the ones before. 

One of my issues with the whole writing process is being motivated to put the work in over the long term. That’s part of why I set up into this particular format of working with series and arc plot, because it puts me into a better position for working on the next thing, when I know there are good plot points and character development and just funny moments to work toward. A series has momentum in a way that writing a bunch of individual stories doesn’t for me. If I were doing that I’d have to work up motivation from scratch every time, and eventually it would fail and I would go long periods without writing anything at all. With these series in place, now I have a ready default, with large chunks of the motivation already invested, and it makes it easier to keep going even in times like the present when everything is very difficult.

Where Pratchett comes into that is that it’s very easy to see where he benefited from putting the work in in the long term. I’ve gotten, now, to the Tiffany books, and shortly will get to the Moist books, and reading them all in order makes it very clear how he got to the point of being able to do those by writing a couple of million words in that world beforehand. It makes me more inclined to write a couple of million words in mine, in hopes that afterward my work will be that much better than what I’m doing now. It’s an excellent example of the learning and improving process really working, and that makes me more motivated to invest heavily in my own.