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Pick of the Week: Turtle All the Way Down

For the past several years, I’ve been working my way through one of the longest, best selling, best written, and certainly funniest series of novels in the English language: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. To provide an idea of the scope of this project, I started at the beginning and just finished book 26, which means I only have 14 volumes to go in the main series. That doesn’t count several companion works that have been published on topics such as the geography, biology, and physics of Sir Terry’s richly imagined universe.

To say that Discworld satirizes the genre tropes of fantasy fiction would be accurate, but profoundly incomplete. Yes, there are wizards, witches, trolls, vampires, and Dungeons-and-Dragons-style dwarfs, and their antics are often hilarious, but Pratchett’s prose cuts much deeper than that.

Some of the books are deliberate deconstructions of other works, ranging from “Hamlet” to “Nightmare before Christmas,” while others pull themes from real-world geopolitical events, and still others have no obvious correspondence to anything, having sprung entirely from the author’s extraordinary imagination. None of the stories are strictly derivative, though. When Pratchett borrows a theme, plot, setting, or character, it’s for a reason. The plot of “Jingo,” for example, bears a strong resemblance to a certain brief military action of the late 20th century, but the book’s farcical conflict on a tiny, temporary island is a pretext for a much deeper meditation on power and the people who wield it. “Moving Pictures” stemmed from Pratchett’s own experience with Hollywood moviemaking, which he then spun into a sendup of the industry while asking fundamental questions about the nature of reality.

I could point to many more examples, but you get the idea. Pratchett suffuses his tales with humor while exploring serious themes. He wasn’t the first to have tried that recipe, of course, but he did it much better than most.

At least, he did once he got the hang of it. That’s why I don’t recommend beginning with the first book (“The Colour of Magic”). I did that, and nearly abandoned the series two volumes in. The only reason I didn’t was that I could see the author’s skill improving over the course of those two books, and wanted to see what came next. What came next was a major step up, followed by a steady progression as Pratchett found his voice and mastered his art. I’m not sorry I did it that way, but wouldn’t expect most folks to enjoy that approach. Instead, I have three different suggestions for three different types of readers.

If you’ve read a bunch of fantasy fiction, enjoy the genre, and want to dig into a three-volume introduction to Discworld, start with “Guards! Guards!”, then “Men at Arms,” followed by “Feet of Clay.” These are the first three books about the City Watch, the brave police force of the Discworld’s biggest metropolis. Imagine “Middle Earth Five-O,” and you’ve got an idea what this will be like. Once you’ve finished those, you can either continue along the City Watch arc, pick a different group of characters to follow, or take a more chronological approach. All of those options are outlined on the official reading order page for the series.

For those who aren’t big fantasy fans or don’t feel like embarking on a whole trilogy, I suggest “Small Gods.” It isn’t quite as funny as some of Pratchett’s other work, but it gives a good sense of his style, humor, and offbeat worldview without requiring any prior knowledge of his other stories. Set in the Discworld, but millennia before the events of the main series, “Small Gods” is Pratchett’s thoughtful and nuanced meditation on religion, told from the viewpoint of a down-on-his-luck god.

Finally, if you’re a journalist, read “The Truth.” Sir Terry got his start as a reporter, and his incisive commentary on the news business is both hilarious and prescient. As one of the Ankh-Morpork Times’ misprinted mastheads proclaims, The Truth Shall Make Ye Fret. And laugh.