Terry Pratchett is one of the most famous British writers and his Discworld series has been read by millions. He has been praised by many as one of the funniest writers and master of the fantasy genre. His books have been hailed as literary classics and it has even been said that Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Might Be The Highest Form of Literature on the Planet.
So naturally hearing such praise (and being a fan of Douglas Adams and fantasy), I gave it a go. While I found them enjoyable, I wasn’t blown away. They were good but nothing great. So, I thought maybe I was missing something and wasn’t appreciating him fully (Pratchett hardly has critics so the problem must be with me). Or maybe I just haven’t got to the best book yet. So, I kept reading and in total, I’ve read 13 Discworld books, 7 in the City Watch series (up to Thud!), 3 in the Death series (up to Soul Music), the first 2 of the Moist von Lipwig books and Small Gods (also Good Omens which half counts).
Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely brilliant elements, clever ideas and hilarious moments. I have a taste for absurd humour and I love political commentary, so there’s a lot I did like about the books. Yet, I began to suspect that Discworld might be overrated. Such a thought is blasphemy, so I kept it to myself until I read enough books to see that while there are some very good books, there are also plenty of mediocre ones.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Pratchett valued quantity over quality when it came to the series. To produce 40 books is an amazing achievement that few writers achieve and is all the more impressive as he produced a book every single year and often twice a year. Unfortunately, it seems he was able to do this by repeating plotlines and jokes. There’s hardly a plot that isn’t repeated at least once and several books are just copies of previous ones. For example, the first Death book, Mort, is about what happens when Death leaves his job, causing chaos. The second book, Reaper Man, is about the chaos that happens when Death leaves his job. The third book, Soul Music, is yet again about Death leaving his job. I haven’t read the fourth book, but I can guess what it is about.
Likewise, the City Watch (and Moist) books are very repetitive and follow the same formula: they always begin with a murder, a secretive villain, have some mystery, racial conflict, a fight/chase scene, before a final showdown. A lot of the jokes get recycled too, like every time Colon and Nobby appear, we hear yet again that Colon is slow and old fashioned, while Nobby is dirty and dishonest. Funny the first time, but the time I was on book 7 and had heard it a hundred times, I was sick of it.
Whatever you say about Pratchett’s writing skills, there’s no denying that his endings are terrible. He can keep the plot moving quickly and build up the suspense of a mystery, but usually fails when it comes to payoff. The ending of Mort still baffles me. They’re usually a rushed mess with a half-baked solution covering the gap. Or characters just act inconsistently and undermine most of what happened in the book. For example, in Soul Music, Death doesn’t intervene at the beginning of the book to stop the deaths (because some things can’t be changed), yet when facing the exact same situation at the end of the book, he does. Or at the start of Going Postal, the Patrician declares he can’t just act like a tyrant and arrest people without evidence, yet that is what he does at the end.
One of the frustrating habits of Pratchett was to spend an entire book building up a character and getting to know them, only to then completely ignore them. Mort has his own book and then completely disappears until he is killed off in a ridiculously casual way that evokes no emotional response. Golems and Dorfl are the focus of Feet of Clay, yet Dorfl completely disappears for the rest of the series. In fact, each City Watch book focuses on a new recruit who then fades into the crowd for the rest of the series.
To be honest, most of the characters are pretty flat and one-dimensional. Apart from Vimes, do the rest of the Watch have any depth? After 7 books you would think that they would be fleshed out as characters, but they’re really still just plot devices to set up jokes and tell Vimes what’s going on. Worse still, what little personalities the characters do have is rarely consistent, as they can act completely different depending on the book and the needs of the
After a while even Vimes began to annoy me. Pratchett constantly tells us that Vimes is honest and strictly observes the law, yet this strikes me as hypocritical. Vimes constantly harps on about the law applying to everyone yet sees himself as above it. We are told twenty times that Vimes is super honest but the next page he casually jokes about how Detritus beats the troll prisoners (but they’re only trolls haha) or how Nobby & Conlon regularly steal and take bribes (the kind of thing he would be furious if anyone else did it). Vimes is supposed to bravely stand up to the powerful, yet he closes streets and hijacks carts just so he can get home quicker (wouldn’t he be furious if anyone else did that?)
At the start of every book, he begins by declaring his dislike of a species, be it trolls, dwarves, vampires etc. When other characters do it, they’re the villains being ignorant, yet Vimes somehow gets a pass. At the end of each book, Vimes has accepted the new species, yet nothing happened to change his mind. There’s no arc or transformation, it’s like a switch is flipped. When a new species faces discrimination, the best approach apparently is to laugh it off (I wonder if Pratchett thinks all racism could be solved if only the victims had a better sense of humour).
Shallow Racial Discussion
Discworld often receives praise for its discussion of racism and prejudice, yet I’ve always found it very shallow. Each Watch book begins with a species (werewolves, vampires, golems) that is feared and hated and ends with them being accepted. Yet not much happens in between, there’s little to explain how and why people change their mind. There’s no insight as to why people are racist in the first place or why they might not like other species. The Discworld approach to prejudice is basically “Hey, why don’t you try not being racist?”
Pratchett is remarkably inconsistent when it comes to racism. He’ll give a big speech about the need to overcome prejudice and welcome new species, and then mock diversity promotion as a sham. One scene that particularly annoyed me was in Going Postal when Moist rejects the suggestion of a diversity programme, despite having just hired the first ever golem postman.
A major failing of Pratchett is his writing of women who are some of his weakest characters. He seems to only know two types of women: middle aged biddies and super-tough un-emotionless warriors. Sybil is a particular catastrophe of bad writing, she basically disappears after the first book and does nothing else other than nag Vimes and make him sandwiches. It’s never even explained why they married and their relationship has the warmth of ice. Even in Night Watch, Vimes goes half the book before he embarrassingly remembers that he has a wife and that she’d about to give birth.
Adora Belle is another poorly written character whose main personality trait is that she smokes a lot. Seriously, could he not have tried harder? The fact she’s just a love interest for the protagonist is extra clear in Making Money when she doesn’t even appear until half the book is over and then mainly just to have men call her beautiful. Angua too, is very tough and that’s about all the character development she gets. Pratchett probably thought he was writing strong female characters, but reducing them to being bossy, angry and humourless is just as bad as having them helpless and reliant on men. Do any of the women actually have fun in the books?
There’s always a romance thrown in and I mean literally thrown in. Perhaps Pratchett felt they were needed but they’re never given much thought and one person being male and the other female is about all the connection needed. If two characters of the opposite sex spend time together, then they usually end up being pared off. Don’t even get me started on the gender “humour” that went out of date decades ago, that usually involves stale jokes that end with the men groaning “oh women” and the women groaning “oh men”.
Although Discworld started as a comedy, after a while the jokes started to fade away. The books became less and less funny and the absurd brilliance that made the books so special was gradually stripped away. Instead the plots and moral lessons got heavier, the joy disappeared and characters began giving long speeches on the state of society. The Patrician in particular becomes just a microphone to ramble about human nature. Perhaps I would have welcomed a maturing of the series away from the wacky comedy and towards more nuance, but as mentioned above, the unsubtle lessons on racism are little better than “trolls and dwarves don’t like each other but they should”.
Series occasionally shift their tone or even genre, but the problem with dropping the jokes from Discworld is that they weren’t replaced with anything good. They lose their fun feeling and instead the tone becomes more grouchy and Pratchett almost seems like a grumpy old man complaining about a changing world (like in Soul Music and the later City Watch books). The jokes get replaced with mystery and action, but those aren’t Pratchett’s strengths and a having Vimes constantly running and fighting a villain can’t replace the hilarity of the early series. The Fifth Elephant is just a long series of chase scenes that leave the reader as exhausted as the characters.
Not of the people, but above them
Pratchett is sometimes depicted as a hero of ordinary people, yet it seems that he looks down his nose at them. There isn’t a single ordinary person who is the least bit likeable. The people are often little more than an unthinking mob, easily swayed by whoever shouts loudest. They’re easily manipulated fools looking for an easy solution to their problems, be it a king (Guards! Guards!), nationalism (Jingo), blaming other species (most of the Watch books), but good thing Vimes is here because he knows better than those fools.
In Night Watch, there is criticism of the powerful who abuse their position, but anyone who tries to change it is mocked as an idealistic buffoon. The rebels receive a pile of ridicule even though they’re fighting a repressive dictatorship that kidnaps and tortures them. The people are depicted as petty, gullible and easily distracted, and almost deserve a dictator. Instead of fighting for what’s right, the book takes a “Giant Douche v Turd Sandwich” approach to politics and its hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s no point trying to make things better, because it won’t work.
I found that even books considered to be classics, like Small Gods, are unexceptional. There’s a few novel ideas, like having Gods get their power from people, but then there’s things like showing that the Inquisition was bad, which I’m pretty sure we already knew. Even as an Atheist who loves a good critique of religion, I didn’t find much insight other than ‘sometimes religion does bad things.’ Maybe that was considered sharp religious analysis in 1992 or maybe I’m become embittered by the Church scandals here in Ireland, but it struck me as very tame. I mean plenty of religious people would agree that they sometimes don’t live up to their standards and need to return to the pure basics. In fact, the book could be considered as much a defence of faith as a critique. Plus the characters are forgettable.
This isn’t to say that I hate Discworld or that they’re terrible books. There are plenty of good jokes and ideas, even if they are spread a bit thin over too many books. These certainly deserve praise and recognition. But there are also books like Making Money where the plot is incoherent, most character arcs go nowhere and I hardly smiled at any point. Yet it seems that almost no one wants to breathe a bad word against the legend (even his worst books get rave reviews).
This post isn’t meant to drag Discworld through the mud, but merely to offer a bit of balance to the constant praise. Maybe I deserve to be burnt at the stake for sacrilege, but I can’t help but feeling that Discworld books are overrated.