Firstly, a disclaimer. I don’t know why they ask me to write this stuff – it’s like they want people to hate me. There are at least five whole sub-series of Discworld books, so unless you choose one from each, there are going to be whole sections of the fanbase that are thoroughly annoyed with any “Top 5.” Just so you’re aware – I know!
And, as ever, any top 5 you compile has to be based on purely personal taste. So by all means, disagree as much as you like – it’s all entirely valid.
But here, for what it’s worth, is the run-down of the Mass Movement Top 5 Discworld novels, in ascending order.
Coming in at number 5 is – number 25. The 25th Discworld novel takes us to Ankh Morpork and brings us the birth of moveable type (previously frowned on by wizards). It’s the story of the Disc’s first investigative journalists, William de Worde and Sacharissa Cripslock, but more than that, as became his trademark, in The Truth, Pratchett found ways to examine the whole of his subject – from chequebook journalism to the invention of tabloids, to the role of the press in both seeking justice and being used as a tool by conniving politicians.
As a former journalist himself, Pratchett brings a degree of eyebrow-raised skepticism to the practice of what can be a noble art and, as ever, enriches his story with a fundamentally believable version of human beings, and how new things affect them.
Perhaps one of the most stand-out things about The Truth though is that, while Pratchett had played with the coming to the Discworld of things in our own experience before, notably in Moving Pictures (a book that absolutely ranks highly among our also-rans), Men At Arms (of which, more in a moment), and Soul Music, The Truth is a kind of prototype for what would later become his “Industrial Revolution” books, which usually featured Moist von Lipwig (and don’t think it doesn’t annoy us that there’s no room to fit some Moist novels in this list!).
It was the first real time he played with world-changing inventions that weren’t the result of some sort of magic, or curse, or ancient slumbering evil rising to swallow the world – again. Sure, Men At Arms is all down to engineering, rather than science, but it’s thought of by the chief antagonist in the story as a kind of magic. In The Truth, there’s no hint of that, and it makes the book fresher and more exciting than many, because in a sense it’s Pratchett daring to put his satire out there, without any particular fantasy trappings to hide behind.
In fact, Pratchett even takes the mickey out of his own propensity to have magical sources for his plots in The Truth. He puts the Patrician of Ankh Morpork, Havelock Vetinari, in a room with William de Worde, and has the politician quiz the journalist. There’s magic behind what William is doing, isn’t there? Surely? A mysterious building that pops up overnight and then is never sen again, perhaps? (referring to the source of the plot in Soul Music).
But no. Journalism and newspapers are just that thing – a potentially very dangerous, but also, potentially incredibly useful invention of ordinary, and occasionally extraordinary, people.
The “Industrial Revolution” books – bringing a post office, telegraphy, modern banking, football, and even eventually the steam engine to Ankh Morpork and the Disc, would undoubtedly still have been possible without The Truth to act as a precursor. But The Truth broke the magical mould and showed that that kind of storytelling, of transformative natural ideas, rather than supernatural stories, could be told on the Discworld, and for that, among so much else, it makes our list.
There are two Witches stories on our list, and it feels weird to deal with the later one first, but Witches Abroad is nevertheless a masterclass.
Having first delivered Granny Weatherwax back in Book 3, Equal Rites (a book that only fails to feature on our list because it occupies a time before Pratchett had really figured out how to deliver endings to all his stories), he expanded her world significantly in Book 6, Wyrd Sisters, a kind of Hamlet-cum-Macbeth dark comedy of royalty, ghosts, the responsibility of rulers and what exactly witchcraft was about.
But one of the most notable things about Wyrd Sisters is that it’s all fairly contained and constrained to Lancre, the kingdom in which the witches live.
Witches Abroad, as the title suggests, puts paid to all of that, and takes the three archetypal Pratchett witches (with apologies to Mistress Aching), Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick out into the world, for the Pratchett equivalent of a road movie.
Along the way, it also provides a scalpel-sharp dissection on the nature of stories, and how they’re fundamentally different from reality (Stephen King wrote On Writing. Pratchett wrote Witches Abroad – On Writing with a lot more gags in it). And as the story unfolds, it’s also a parable on fairy tales and family, the importance of self-truth, the roles of siblings and the idea of dreams that may or may not come true, and why it’s a bad idea to try and force a happy ending on anyone.
The trick with Witches Abroad is that it manages to be all that and do all that and still be mercilessly funny along the way. That combination of strength of character, sharp observation and ridiculously loud laughter is what puts the 12th Discworld novel on our list.
And now, to deal with what feels like an absolutely pivotal book in the Discworld chain.
Here’s the thing. Discworld books 1 and 2 – The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic are more or less Pratchett having fun, exploring the conventions of standard and epic fantasy and poking them with funny sticks. Plot, in the case of those first two books, has buggered off on a tea break. Really speaking, if Pratchett were a new author in the 2020s, he wouldn’t get a look-in if he tried to pitch those two books.
Book 3 – Equal Rites – is the first Discworld book that’s actually about something, and it delivers a good story about a girl with the power of a wizard, who the world says can’t be a wizard because she’s a girl, but who also can’t be a witch because it’s the wrong flavour of magic that’s in her. This is where we first meet the wonderful Granny Weatherwax, but here she’s very much a lone witch. And, with the best will in the world, the ending is very weak.
Book 4 – Mort – is generally regarded as the book with which Pratchett finally hit his mark, being the adventures of Death’s human apprentice. And book 5 – Sourcery – finally establishes the wizards of Ankh Morpork as definitively funny. They’d appeared in the first four books, but it’s not until Sourcery that they become a kind of Tom Sharpe-ish source of academic pomposity and fun.
And then there’s book 6.
If Sourcery establishes the wizards as an endless source of fun, Wyrd Sisters does the same for the witches. In fact, it’s the first time we realise in a more-than-theoretical way that there are witches, plural, in Lancre, and by this point in his writing career, Pratchett was firing on all cylinders. Granny Weatherwax’s unbending nature and her understanding of what a witch was, we’d learned in Equal Rites. Seeing her in Wyrd Sisters as the unofficial leader of a coven of three is pure joy, and adds Nanny Ogg (a much more family-orientated witch, with a talent for love potions, a drink made from “mostly apples” and singing appalling songs about hedgehogs), and Magrat Garlick, a young witch whose identity is summed up by Granny as “a wet hen.”
The three of them together provide endless character and archetype comedy, and make Wyrd Sisters a joy. Beyond which, there’s fun with royal assassinations, smuggled babies, the nature of what a kingdom will and won’t stand for, and why comedians have a tendency to be depressed. It’s Hamlet meets Macbeth from the witches’ point of view, and it is endlessly human, empathetic, and glorious, while never forgetting to be funny along the way. It’s the book that made Granny Weatherwax a fully rounded and viable character with whom comedic adventures could be had, and for that on top of everything else, Book 6 takes our number 3 spot.
Men At Arms
Men At Arms (Book 15) is the second novel about the Ankh Morpork City Watch, and while the Watch essentially established itself as a great source of humanity and comedy in its debut, Men At Arms was important, because it was that most tricky of things, the difficult second album. Where both the wizards of Unseen University and the witches of Lancre took a good few books to really land, the City Watch, under Captain Samuel Vimes, was an instant hit, facing dragons large and small in Guards! Guards! The question was whether it could bottle its lightning a second time.
Men At Arms comprehensively put that question to bed with the emergence, or re-emergence, of one of the most terrifying pieces of non-magic ever to surface on the Disc – the gonne. A weapon that, in the right kind of minds, could change the world more swiftly and effectively than any spell, any potion, any dragon.
It delivered a complicated plotline that actually gave the Watch some detecting to do, rather than just being front and centre in a time of disaster, and it also showed what happens when an organisation that’s previously been thought of as a joke starts to get respectable. If Sam Vimes is a kind of Marlowe figure in Guards! Guards!, it’s Men At Arms that shows how the Watch can evolve into something at least moderately respectable while still containing Fred Colon and Nobby Nobbs.
It also shows the Watch expanding, adding Angua the werewolf to its number of officers, as well as bringing in Detritus the troll, a longstanding Ankh Morpork favourite who’s trying to go straight to please his lady, and deals with the bloodline of Corporal Carrot, who could technically be King if he so chose – but who vehemently, strenuously doesn’t choose.
Men At Arms opens up all these avenues of expansion and change, as well as Vimes’ marriage to Lady Sybil Ramkin and his elevation to the nobility, and that gives the Watch somewhere to go in future adventures, when a mishandling of the second Watch novel could have led it down a closed-off alleyway and a meeting with the Assassin’s Guild.
What, like this surprises anyone?
Guards! Guards! (Book 8) is a ridiculously good novel, as well as being a ridiculously funny one. It introduces us to Captain Samuel Vimes of the City Watch, an organisation long defunct in Ankh Morpork, which has practicalised its crime and punishment through a guild system and scrupulous receipt policies.
When a foe arrives in the city that can’t be bought off or written up – when, in fact, a great big buggering dragon arrives to terrorise the city, not just the Watch, but Vimes in particular, find themselves charged with straightening up and flying right, or watching their city burn to the ground, or be ruled by an actual reptile – rather than just a politician. Oh, and of course there’s a king waiting in the wings, to complicate matters. Because isn’t there always?
It’s a classic, mythic story, but told from the point of view of the poor sods who usually get called in as cannon fodder in classic fantasy. It’s a story that talks about responsibility, stories, the nature of expectation and societal pressure, the power of the collective imagination, and how to do the right thing, even in the face of impossible odds.
But it also has hilarious comedy in it about organizations like the Freemasons, why you should always look out for unassuming underlings, and how enormous forces, like Fascism and dragons, can be relied upon to come back and bite you in the arse if you try to use them to your own advantage – or burn it to a crisp, depending on what you’re dealing with.
And it introduces some of the Disc’s most vivid characters – Vimes himself, Lady Sybil Ramkin, aristocrat and dragon-keeper, Nobby Nobbs, the apology note scribbled by humanity to the rest of the world, Fred Colon, the universal Sergeant, and Carrot Ironfoundersson, the six-foot dwarf with a very shiny sword and a destiny as The Man Who Wouldn’t be King.
Guards! Guards! is perpetually re-readable. It was a large part of the source material for a Discworld game, and the main thrust of a somewhat questionable TV series. It’s the book that Pratchett thought, if ever any of the Discworld novels were made into a movie, would probably be first in line.
And any time you re-read Guards! Guards!, you’re guaranteed to find new things in it that make you howl with laughter.
Which is why there’s a ruddy great dragon at the top of our Discworld tree.