Like many renting millennials, I’ve temporarily moved back home to luxe out lockdown with access to a garden and a fully stocked fridge. I’m lucky to be surrounded by family, but can’t deny the many unexpected ways I’ve regressed into a version of my former adolescent self. Notably, in the books I’m reading. I traipsed all the way back from London with a suitcase, filled with the latest contemporary fiction – but, eight weeks in, it languishes untouched in the hall. Instead, I’ve found myself seeking comfort in the nostalgia of a past literary love: retreading the dark, and very dirty, streets of Terry Pratchett’s fictional capital city, Ankh-Morpork.
My dad is a voracious reader, and huge Pratchett fan; those colourful, illustrated covers were a familiar sight on our family bookshelves. Consequently, I picked up my first book, The Colour of Magic, long before I was old enough to understand much of what was happening. Not that it mattered: I might not have fully appreciated the smart puns or the masterful way Pratchett satirised familiar fantasy clichés, but pre-adolescent me was hooked. What’s undeniable - and transcendent - is the heart and humour with which Pratchett weaves everything together. His books are infectiously silly, full of adventure and magic. They are steeped in a peril that feels genuine but never despairing.
The Colour of Magic is the first of Pratchett’s 41 Discworld novelsl. Published between 1983 and 2015, it’s a sprawling and chaotic land that feels familiar (there’s a postal service, a heaving capital city, talk of pensions) but also fantastical (the world is flat and rests on the backs of four giant elephants, who in turn are standing on the back of a ginormous turtle, of gender unknown, as it hurtles through space).
What starts as a light-hearted fantasy spoof evolves into something deeper. Gently cynical about society, Pratchett’s books don’t shy away from difficult subjects, tackling (among other things) sexism, racism, war and death, all with a compassionate touch.
In Making Money, loveable conman Moist von Lipwig is tasked with reviving Ankh-Morpork’s failing banking system. It doesn’t sound like the basis for a laugh-out-loud riot, but it genuinely is. That a story in which the chairman of the bank is a dog and the chief cashier a potential vampire can still — somehow — raise interesting existential questions on the nature of capitalism, and the unfailing trust we place in banks, just shows what an exceptionally talented writer Pratchett was. Of course, it feels oddly prescient reading it now, with the UK economy on the precipice of a sharp decline due to the Covid-19 crisis. But don’t worry: Pratchett’s thoughtful exploration offers hope, too.
Then there’s everyone’s favourite character, Death. Again, the grim reaper might not initially strike you as a hopeful character for our times, but his BOOMING ALL-CAPS voice and pithy remarks are surprisingly cheering. The Discworld novels don’t need to be read chronologically, and the strand that focuses on the scythe-wielding cat-lover and his quest to understand life is a great place to start. ‘I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, BUT I COULD MURDER A CURRY,’ he says in Mort, which precedes Reaper Man, Soul Music, Hogfather and Thief of Time, and follows his disastrous attempt to hire an apprentice.
Listen to Terry Pratchett talking about Disworld
But what struck me most while delving back into this universe after a decade-long vacation, was how gleefully unpredictable the plotting is. There’s a charming, deliberate nonsense that underpins everything. The characters regularly contradict themselves – and our expectations – often within the same sentence. ‘Everything was going right, which was precisely how he knew that everything was wrong’, Pratchett writes in Making Money, a sentiment that feels eerily familiar in this upside-down world we currently inhabit. It’s rare to find a novelist that can hold a mirror to our current, dystopian reality while still providing pure, endlessly optimistic escapism. Starting such a mammoth series may seem like a daunting endeavour, but I guarantee you won’t regret it.