Technically the BBC’s list names the entire Discworld Series, but if you think I’m going to review each and every one of them individually, then I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. You will not, however, be disappointed if you read them all yourself.
For the uninitiated (and are there really many of them left?) the Discworld is a land where magic takes precedence over science; where the planet really is flat, carried on the back of four giant elephants who in turn stand upon an enormous turtle. Magic is real, all the typical fantasy creatures exist in more-or-less harmony, and million-to-one chances work out nine times out of ten.
But if you’re expecting Lord of the Rings, you won’t find it here. Sure, there are elves, dwarves, men and monsters, but there’s also humour, social satire and more footnotes than you can shake a stick at.(*) All that being said, it’s more than just ‘The Hobbit with jokes’ in the same way as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is more than just ‘Star Wars with jokes’. Discworld is a thing unto itself - it takes the themes and tropes we’re familiar with from fantasy, examines them through a very particular lens and then shows us the curious distortions that reveal more about ourselves than whatever we’re examining.
It’s hard to have a book (let alone a series of books) which have a social conscience and a message to relay without them being preachy. Pratchett does it wonderfully. As an example, one of the ‘standalone’ stories Small Gods discusses organised religion, tolerance, heresy and even the origin of belief itself in such a way that believers and non-believers alike can both identify with the protagonist.
Any beginner to the Discworld would no doubt balk at a list of 41 novels - and in fact it’s not always advisable to start at the beginning and just work through. Some of the early books are remarkably good, others are less representative of the main body of Pratchett’s work, but fortunately there is a very engaged fan base who curate reading order suggestions and are keen to help a new reader discover the selection of Discworld books that would suit them.
My own preference is the ‘City Watch’ subseries - following the hapless Night Watch (the division of the city guards where all the odd-balls and loners are put to keep them out of the way) as they overcome dragons, invasions and everything else a fantasy world can throw at them. If that’s not your cup of tea, follow the Witches and learn about true magic, ‘headology’ and never taking anything at face value. No doubt many fans would make impassioned defenses of their own favourites, and indeed it’s difficult to choose a preferences let alone suggest anyone should not read all the books.
Where Pratchett shines (in my opinion) is his characterisation. Every person you meet on the page is unique, with their own voice. You never run into a fantasy cliché (except to immediately subvert it) and the return of a much-loved bit-player never fails to put a smile on your face. I find myself returning to his work to try and tease out what makes his characters sing on the page so well, to understand how I can make my own creations have even a fraction of the life that his do.
Which is not to say his world building lacks brilliance - the entire Discworld feels like a real place, diverse and remarkable, and the main city of Ankh-Morpork feels so lived in that you are sure you’ve been there - but for me the people we meet on the journey are the stars of this series. Do yourself a favour, pick up a Discworld book and revel in the unsurpassable joy of a master author having an immense amount of fun.
(*) Even if you have a really big stick.