STUMP » Articles » Weekend Books: RIP, Sir Terry Pratchett » 29 March 2015, 12:12

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

Weekend Books: RIP, Sir Terry Pratchett  


29 March 2015, 12:12

I have been sitting on this for a while, since Terry Pratchett died a few weeks ago.

Yes, it had long been known this had been coming, given the Embuggerance making him cancel appearances last year. But, as when somebody asked me if it was worse to have a death come as a total surprise (as with my dad’s death from a heart attack at age 38) or having seen it coming from far away (as with my Aunt Pat’s death at age 43 from the ravages of Type I diabetes), I said: it sucks either way.

Those are the words of Death, a character that shows up in every single Discworld novel, even if death isn’t necessarily visited on a particular character.

I came to Terry Pratchett’s work relatively late, but it was at a time I really needed relief. I was going through a rough patch in my own health and job at the time, and I knew Pratchett was popular. I thought I’d give him a go.

I’ve never regretted it.

I don’t want to get into much literary criticism right now, because it still upsets me Pratchett has died, but my main problem with Fantasy as a genre (for adults) was how seriously it takes itself. Or, rather, how seriously it took itself before Pratchett. Some of this is Tolkein’s fault, I think, but part of it is the fault of adults wanting their genre taken seriously. So Fantasy novels tended to be about Saving The World and Everything Being Super-Important.

While there is some serious content in Pratchett novels, it’s the lightness one sees in Shakespearean comedies. Pratchett started Discworld with a novel that was a pastiche of very famous Fantasy series (most of which I had read before), having some fun upending the assumptions in each of those specific Fantasy worlds. It doesn’t work too well unless you’re deep into Fantasy fandom. It took him a while to learn the strength of his Discworld creation, but it didn’t take him too long before he hit his stride.

Oh, here’s another thing about the Fantasy genre that annoys me: the standard of making it what is essentially a really long book, in making a series. You never tie off all the plotlines, to get readers to come back for more. Also, you kind of have to read the books in order for certain things to make sense. This is the narrative structure you see in Harry Potter and in The Song of Fire and Ice (aka Game of Thrones). Yes, I love being in the middle of story all the time – that’s why I love Dickens’ long novels – but dammit, can I have some closure once in a while?

Pratchett doesn’t do that to the reader. Pretty much every novel can stand on its own. You can start almost anywhere in the “series” without much trouble. There are various reading order guides to Pratchett, but I don’t think it’s really that important to follow any particular line. (That’s not even up to date on the novels)

So I’m going to recommend a few entry points to Pratchett. First, there are the TV movies made of Discworld stories. I recommend Going Postal and Hogfather

While I like the “leads” of Going Postal, Richard Coyle and Claire Foy, a lot, what is really a draw is Charles Dance as Lord Vetinari (love that casting choice, even if his coloring doesn’t match the book version Vetinari) and especially David Suchet as the villain of the piece. It’s so much fun. As for Hogfather, you may recognize the lead actress Michelle Dockery, from Downton Abbey. Both productions are family friendly (if you can deal with some smoking, which some people seem to find so offensive). Both productions are excellent and I found them highly entertaining. I like the books, too, but if you’re the type of person who prefers visuals, this is a good way to go.

Really all the Pratchett books are family friendly. The sex and drug jokes are really oblique. Yes, there are murders, but nothing terribly explicit, and you don’t have to worry about having to read about rapes, as one might with so many other popular fantasy series (rape seems more common in fantasy novels than on a modern college campus). Even so, Pratchett did write some Discworld and non-Discworld books specifically targeted to tweens.

I will pick three Discworld novels as good places for the Discworld newbie: Small Gods, Thief of Time, and The Wee Free Men.

Small Gods is a standalone novel, not directly tied to any of the other novels, though set in the distant past for many of the other novels as the religion and main character of the novel are mentioned. Also, Ogg Vorbis is named after the main villain of the novel. No, Pratchett was obviously not a Christian, but he has a lot of understanding of religious people, I think. As a Christian, I found the ideas in this novel a reminder about how one lives one’s belief and the nature of belief.

Thief of Time is a kind of time-travel novel, but not really, and it works just fine. I like this one as it treats with some of the problems of being a part-human fantasy character, and dealing with being divorced from humanity. Those who feel different from the “normals” may find something of comfort here.

Finally, the Wee Free Men is part of Pratchett’s young adult series following Tiffany Aching, finding her way as a witch in the countryside. What’s interesting about Tiffany Aching, and all of the Witches novels, is that it comes through that Pratchett is a man of the country and not so much the city (just as Dickens was his best in covering London scenes, and not so well with the country.)

Really, pretty much anywhere is okay to start, but those three are some of my favorite ones. In fact, the City Watch subseries are my favorite, but those do somewhat require reading in order, as certain details about certain characters change enough from book to book, that you may get a little confused reading them out of order.

Of course, I read them out of order, but I have been bad about that in general.

Some tributes to Sir Terry:

What’s all this “Sir Terry” stuff, you may ask. I am an American, after all, and don’t hold much truck with such titles.

But Terry Pratchett was British, and he was a big fan of titles and armaments:

Sir Terry Pratchett, who died today aged 66, had a fondness for history and heraldry that extended beyond his books.

In 2010 he was granted his own coat of arms (below) and, later in the year, he decided that if he was to be a knight he also needed a proper sword.

So Sir Terry gathered deposits of iron he found in a field near his home in Wiltshire and smelted it himself in the grounds.

“Most of my life I’ve been producing stuff which is intangible and so it’s amazing the achievement you feel when you have made something which is really real,” he said of the sword.

The author dug up 81kg of ore to produce it, smelting using a makeshift kiln built out of clay and hay.

To add a trademark element of fantasy to it, he threw in “several pieces of meteorites – thunderbolt iron, you see – highly magical, you’ve got to chuck that stuff in whether you believe in it or not.”

He knew how to do things in style.

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