In the past I’ve designated certain books in the Discworld books as ‘quintessential’ Discworld books or the ‘standard’’ Discworld books, but on thinking a little more about this, it’s a downright insane statement to make, mostly because there’s a clear and distinctive difference between new Discworld books and Old Discworld books, to the point where reading The Colour of Magic and Raising Steam is like reading a completely different series. With such a difference in tone and presentation, how can there be any one ‘typical’ Discworld novel?
The Answer, like so many oddities concerning Discworld, stem from the History Monks.
One of the principle strengths of the Discworld series has always been its flexibility in reading order. There are different categories of novels, some Discworld stories are City Watch stories while others are Witches stories, and they all have their own little continuities and in-jokes for those who read them all. But generally speaking, you could pick up any Discworld novel no matter the order, and read quite comfortably without ever having read another Discworld book.
The first Discworld book I ever read was a Rincewind omnibus, featuring Sourcery,
Faust eric, and Interesting Times (well technically the first Discworld book I ever read was The Last Hero, but in terms of completely prose novels, the Rincewind Omnibus was the first). I hadn’t read the Colour of Magic or the Light Fantastic, but I didn’t need to. My Fourteen year old brain, polluted and seldom used as it was, still laughed at the jokes and understood the characters.
And as I read other books in the Discworld series, it became fun to look back and spot the references and connections between the different continuities.
But in time I realised something.
Plot points, details, entire characters even, could change radically from book to book. Death in the first two books is malicious and intimidating, compared to the benevolent and compassionate figure we know him as in later Discworld books. Vetinari in Sourcery is not a particularly important character, and displays none of his customary intelligence or cunning. Even in Guards Guards, Vetinari is still capable of being embarrassed, flummoxed and downright unperceptive.
In fact Guards Guards is rather rife with these, Commander Vimes of the later books would never leave a fresh-faced copper to fend for himself in the Mended Drum out of cowardice, now would he ever kowtow in the face of the Palace Guard.
And while some of these details could be explained away by character Development, it’s a little more difficult to explain other things.
Like how Didactylus and Urn are still alive by the time of Pyramids when Didactylus was an old man in Small Gods, or where Susan’s love of chocolate sprouted from, or how Hwel setting up a stationary theatre in Ahnk-Morpork is so revolutionary if the Opera House has been there for decades at least? Or why Perdita was just a subconscious frame of mind for Agnes in Maskerade before becoming a full-blown split personality in Carpe Juggulum?
But that gives away to some basic and rather jarring tonal differences.
Like the relative scarcity of young Witches mentioned in Witches Abroad compared with the thriving community seen in the Tiffany Aching books. Or the decidedly sombre tones of both Monstorus Regiment and Night Watch compared to several of the more light-hearted earlier novels? Or the formula of resisting new developments in favour of the status quo seen in Soul Music compared with the progression of technology seen in the most recent Discworld Books?
The most obvious one that comes to mind is Ahnk-Morpork burning to the ground in The Colour of Magic, an act which was played for laughs at the time, but which the author admits he couldn’t do in a later Discworld Book.
Which really highlights one of the central distinctions between Discworld books, Old and New.
There is no question that the earliest Discworld Novels are profoundly different beasts compared to their younger relations, but where marks the split?
Some might say Small Gods, where the plot and characters are played far less for laughs, and the ending is nothing short of pure dramatic genius (Fair warning, when I get around to Small Gods, half of the review will be gushing over the ending).
Others might say it started with Mort, where Death attained his current form and the tone of the Discworld series began to solidify.
Still others will point to The Truth, with Ahnk-Morpork finally embracing a change in its infrastructure and beginning to move out of its pseudo-medieval roots.
But there are some, who point to Thief of Time, mostly on the strength of its answer to Discworld’s long running continuity errors.
Thief in Time is one of the mostly densely packed novels I’ve ever come across, in that there are several world-changing subplots in the same book. One of the more significant plot threads presents the imminent danger posed to the Discworld by the Glass Clock. If completed, it would imprison Time itself and shatter into pieces, essentially bringing the entirety of creation to a halt.
But the part that marks this book out as a significant entry in the Discworld Canon, is that a glass clock has been constructed before, time was shattered before, and all of the continuity errors and inconsistent characterizations are the result of the History monks trying to fix the damage done by the cataclysmic clock.
And so Discworld doesn’t just have an unstable magic field, narrative causality and world shaking catastrophes every Tuesday, it also has multiple pasts.
At this point I really do have to express my admiration for the Discworld Fandom as a whole, as any other fandom would have mostly likely imploded with rage and confusion at such a concept being applied to a canon of work.
If the constant jokes, self-contained stories and vague almost deliberate inconsistencies weren’t enough, Thief of Time confirmed once and for all that each Discworld Novel was its own little continuity where character traits and continuity were dictated by the jokes, not the other way around.
Certainly that explains away the inconsistencies of many a Discworld text, and there is a certain charm in knowing that you can effectively pick and choose which areas of canon you can adhere to. The idea of multiple universes is certainly not a new one to Discworld fans, and so the idea that every Discworld novel is its own self-contained adventure with selective repercussions on the rest of the Discworld canon is certainly a plausible position to take.
But the great irony of this situation, and the reason I’d regard Thief of Time as the true divide between old Discworld novels and new ones, is that Discworld books afterwards have established a clear and closely observed continuity.
In addition the later Discworld books place more emphasis on the plots, though without sacrificing the distinctive and memorable humour (even if it may fade into the background in works such as I shall wear Midnight or Night Watch), marking a change from previous Discworld books where the plot would stop and restart in service to whichever joke or idiosyncratic train of thought was passing through the text at the time.
In freeing itself of any obligation to continuity, the Discworld series embraced it all the more strongly, though not to its detriment. The new Discworld books are still certainly Discworld books, the humour and skewed perspective on the world preserved, but with a new presentation and purpose.
So, is there a single ‘typical’ Discworld book?
Well yes and no.
On the one hand every Discworld book, as we have discussed, has the potential to be considered its own body of work with its own continuity, and elements of the texts such as tone and characters can change so dramatically from book to book that it seems futile to single any one text out as a representative of the entire Discworld series.
But at the same time, we can arguably define a divide between older Discworld books from before Thief of Time, based on their relation to Plot and continuity, so might there be a new opportunity to select certain texts from the Discworld canon as definitive examples of the styles of both eras.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps the only typical Discworld Text is the entire Discworld canon itself, a shifting story that rises from humble beginnings with inconsistent traits which eventually solidify into an epic spanning the centuries.
Either way, I’m not nearly done talking about these incredible books, and I hope you’re not done listening to me.