Three Terry Pratchett Books that made me a better Geek
Last week, the world (particularly the ‘Geek World’) lost one of its greatest writers and wits, Sir Terry Pratchett. While undoubtedly more famous here in the UK than elsewhere, his books nevertheless crossed oceans and countries and I’ve been fortunate enough to find them in places as far apart as Plymouth and Phnom Penh.
I, like many people, have felt the loss hard despite never meeting the great man himself. The ‘Discworld’ books, his most famous series, were probably the first things I ever really geeked out on. I still have the dog-eared copy of ‘Guards, Guards!’ that I stole off of my brother when I was still a kid and which I have read at least a hundred times in the course of my life.
The genius of Pratchett’s work, or rather one of the facets of that genius, was the way he could seamlessly weave in real-world satire and commentary in to a distinctly British fantasy world replete with Time-Travelling Monks, Sarcastic Witches and a Grim Reaper with so much personality he needed his own font. All of his books have had some influence on me at one time or another, but I’ve tried to pick here three of those that made the biggest impression on me so that other people may get to experience the same joy I did discovering this world for the first time.
The Turtle Moves.
This is the book that has probably had the most impact on shaping my world view. On the surface it’s pretty basic; a sort of buddy comedy about a god who falls to the mortal world as a tortoise and the simple minded ‘prophet’ who can hear him.
However, start reading and it quickly becomes apparent that there’s a running discourse about the nature of belief vs religion, as well as Pratchett’s lovingly antagonistic view of deities as a whole.
The titular Small Gods are my favourite part of this book (they also become a recurring background joke in more Ankh-Morpork centred stories). Essentially, they are tiny magical beings that live in the desert and issue would-be prophets with visions and temptations in the hope of attracting one to their cause and thus increasing their belief. Belief in Discworld is like a currency to the gods, the more you have the more powerful you are until eventually you can join the greatest gods on Mount Dunmannifestin.
This idea of belief being more important than the religion itself stuck with me and, while I still hold to a religion, helped a much younger me appreciate that who or what you worship doesn’t matter, being a decent person does.
You might get other messages from this book, or indeed any of Pratchett’s writings, but whatever you take away from it, it’s definitely worth the read.
Sam Vimes, the hard-bitten commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, is my favourite Pratchett character by far. For anyone not familiar with the city on the Ankh, it’s essentially an eclectic mash up between Ancient Rome and Victorian London, with a bit of steampunk thrown in for good measure. As you can imagine, policing this (sometimes literal) melting pot is a thankless and difficult task, but watching Vimes and the other watchmen (among them a human who thinks he’s a dwarf, a troll who carries a siege weapon as a crossbow and Nobby Nobbs…who is impossible to describe otherwise) wrestle with it and grow over the course of several books is a joy.
While I have probably read other books in this series like ‘Jingo’ or ‘Night Watch’ more than ‘Thud’, I think it is by far the more meaningful book.
In short, it is the story of Dwarves and Trolls fighting each other; but in true Pratchett style this is only scratching the surface. The racial animosity between the ancient enemies serves as a convenient backdrop for Pratchett to expertly skewer racial tensions in general (particularly in the UK) with groups like the ‘Deep-Downers’ acting as stand ins for the very real fears and tensions rising around groups like London’s Muslim community.
Like all the best Pratchett stories there are a lot of laughs and brilliant moments along the way, but it’s the ending, which I won’t spoil, that really makes this book stand out for me. It’s heartwarming and meaningful without becoming overly sappy. Really can’t recommend this book enough.
P.S This also has, for my money, the best appearance of Death in all of Discworld. This time he appears to Vimes after his latest near-suicidal escapade and bemoans having to have another ‘NEAR-VIMES EXPERIENCE’.
The Wee Free Men:
This was one of Pratchett’s later works and, while it is still set on Discworld, it feels more like a tribute to his childhood growing up in the somewhat idyllic surrounds of the post-war English countryside. The story is entirely set around a shepherding community and the supernatural force assailing it and the Chalk Downs described echo strongly with southern England. The beauty of it in places made me appreciate living here all the more.
Storywise, it’s a book that feels lighter on themes then some of his other books (it is, after all, essentially a young adult story) but has some powerful messages about family, female empowerment and the usefulness of an iron skillet as a weapon.
It also introduced the world to the Nac Mac Feegles, or Wee Free Men of the title. A race of fairies who speak in a Scot-Highlanderesque gibberish and were taken out of the big book of fairies for doing a rude sign.
The Feegles are unfailingly entertaining and they fight, drink, steal and curse their way through the story alongside our heroine Tiffany Aching, an eminently sensible girl who may just be a witch.
While the Feegles provide the book its hectic, comedic soul Tiffany deserves special mention as a brilliant female protagonist who spends more of her time rescuing the book’s incompenent male characters (her brother and the Lord’s son) then worrying about boys or clothes.
In fact, ‘Wee Free Men’ is a strikingly female-driven story with most of the major plot points being driven by female characters; either Tiffany herself, her venerable Granny, the villainous Fairy Queen or the Feegles Kelda who sets them to help the girl along.
I would recommend this just on the strength of the Feegles, but with all the other points above you owe to yourself to check it out.
So there we have it, three books that had an impact on me when I read them. If none of them sound appealing though I’d still recommend checking out any of the Discworld novels, with over 40 written there’s more then likely something to grab your fancy and whatever you pick up, the world atop Great Atuin is always, at the very least, entertaining.
For now I wish Sir Terry all the best as he walks through the door and across the great desert beyond.
‘Making you a better Geek, one post at a time!’