I wasn’t going to blog today, because I just sat two exams and my hands are tired and I’m tired and I want to celebrate the end of term. But I think my celebrations are going to have to wait a while until I feel more cheerful. Because after I printed off my second exam paper and went online to say that I’d finished, the first thing that greeted me when I opened Facebook was the news that Terry Pratchett has died.
I rarely cry over the deaths of people I’ve never met but this one got to me. Maybe it’s because I’m tired, maybe it’s because I’ve recently been overwhelmed by terror of dying more than usual — whatever the cause, I’m sitting here at my desk with tears on my face trying to remember all the positive things like, “He’s not in pain anymore,” or “He didn’t want this to drag on. This is what he wanted.”
I guess it’s true. I guess I shouldn’t be sad. It is tremendously selfish of me to be sad, since as a reader my relationship with him was solely one of “produce art so that I can read it” (usually in the form of library books, so I wasn’t even reciprocating with money — what a mockery that my library card for the local library in Cambridge should arrive today).
But Terry Pratchett’s work has been a huge part of my teenage years, and the Discworld books have served to shape my understanding of writing and life and fantasy. Some of them I count among my favourite books, and Good Omens is right up there in the top five. I loved Nation. I’ve read all but about two of the Discworld books. I read The Long Earth. I’ve read enough of his books that I kind of feel like I know what’s going on inside his head. I kind of felt like I knew him.
You know, in the way that any reader feels like they know a writer when they have read enough of their writing.
My first introduction to Terry Pratchett was via my sister, although she didn’t exactly know it at the time. Our bedrooms were next door to each other and one time I overheard her on the phone talking to a friend about a scene in one of the first two Discworld books, I can’t remember which. In this scene some of the wizards summon Death, who turns up irritated that they’ve pulled him away from a party.
The way my sister described this scene to a friend (I think she’d just read it and thought they’d like it) amused me so much that for a very long time after that, I wondered what book it was she was talking about. When she encouraged me to read her omnibus edition of the first two books a bit later, I was delighted to find the answer to my question. And then I read the rest of them.
Some of them, I got from my sister, who bequeathed me her collection. Some of them, I bought. While attempting to write a musical of Mort with a friend I bought my own copy so that I could annotate it, only to be later given my sister’s, so I now have two copies. You can see my collection in the background of most of my vlogs, at least those filmed in my room at home — they occupy part of a shelf right in the middle of my backdrop. But it is a smallish collection compared to the side of the series, as many of them I read from the library, requesting them from different branches and travelling around to find the ones that my library didn’t have. I read them in the wrong order. I read them repeatedly. I read them one after the other so that they all blurred into one.
I’m ashamed to admit it but for a long time I didn’t read the Tiffany Aching miniseries because they said they were aimed at ‘younger readers’, and I thought they would be patronising. I don’t know how I could have thought that of Terry Pratchett, because they turned out to be amazing, and some of my favourites of the whole Discworld series. I Shall Wear Midnight I immediately bought on Kindle after returning it to the library because I didn’t want to give it up.
The Discworld books are special to me because they subvert every fantasy trope without every seeming to mock the genre — they poke fun in a friendly way, and turn it on its head, and make it into something new, but not in a way that is spiteful. It’s not a cruel parody but a delightful friendly one.
A little while ago there was a post on Tumblr that said something to the effect of:
“imagine a fantasy novel where [subversion of trope here]”
yeah it exists it’s a discworld novel
And it’s true. The weird and the wacky are in there. There are self-aware characters who know that as a palace guard their main job when a hero comes along is to get knocked out. There’s the Luggage, a sentient suitcase with legs which may have influenced a few of my weirder collaborative stories on Protagonize back in the old days. There are pointed remarks about the nature of a lot of fantasy, like that most books say witches dance naked because ‘most books about witchcraft are written by men’. There are female dwarfs who plait ribbons into their beards and nobles who run dragon sanctuaries and vampires who are addicted to coffee beans instead of blood.
One of my favourite Discworld novels is Monstrous Regiment, because I love a good cross-dressing narrative, and because it features so many of these subversions all at once.
But oddly my favourite of the novels were always the ones that most heavily featured Death: Mort, Soul Music, Hogfather. Within Terry Pratchett’s writing he was an amusing, entertaining figure; sometimes philosophical, often smart-talking. He rode a horse called Binky and tried to build a swing for his granddaughter. He took on a human apprentice and taught him to walk through walls. He was as developed as a character as any other.
And if that’s what’s waiting for Terry Pratchett now, then I shouldn’t be sad. I shouldn’t be crying. Because that Death is not unpleasant or bitter or unwelcoming. He’s just … a little different. And, ultimately, he’s well-written.
In memory of Terry Pratchett, please let me know which of his books are your favourite in the comments, and how you first came across them. If you haven’t read any of them, I recommend them. Good Omens is wonderful, but the Discworld series is utterly unique. While the earlier books may not have quite the same style as the later ones, it’s still worth starting from the beginning just to get a look at the scope of the series. (Plus it has sentient luggage. It’s worth reading just for that.)
I also recommend reading some of the top comments on the Facebook announcement of his death, because they are beautiful.