Almost a year ago Sir Terry Pratchett passed away, and fantasy lost one of its most beloved authors and fiercest advocates. Pratchett was brilliant, clever, and fundamentally kind; he understood people on a level that few authors can ever hope to aspire to. So many have told me that his books, especially Discworld, kept them laughing through hard times that I can’t even begin to count them. I very firmly count myself as a part of that list, so I understand, at least somewhat, the hole that the publication of The Shepherd’s Crown as the last Discworld novel leaves.
Now, I came to the series later in life, so I still have plenty of Discworld novels to work through; the people who have been reading Pratchett from early on, though, are not so lucky. I’ve even noticed some people saying that they don’t want to read The Shepherd’s Crown because they don’t want the series to end for them. So where to look next for hilarious, heart-wrenching, and surprisingly wise?
While Pratchett has written a solid list of non-Discworld novels, I’m willing to wager that die-hard fans have also read most of those books already. And, as I discovered while trying to make this list, comic fantasy may be a fairly common genre, but it’s hard to find anything that has quite the same feel that Discworld does. There’s a reason I only have three books here.
So let’s get into them: what they are, why I like them, and how I think they might start to fill the Discworld gap.
The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice by Tom Holt
Orbit Fantasy, 2014, 359 pgs., Youspace Series #3
“There is, he said, a better way. It’s a way that leads us out of the mines. A way of prosperity, of security, of independence, of freedom for ever from the greed and oppression of the wizard. It’s the way, the only way, that goblins can be free and still be, to the very roots of their souls, goblins. It’s the way of basket-weaving.”
This one feels so much like Discworld to me that I almost found myself surprised that there weren’t any footnotes. It has all the classic hallmarks: a traditional fantasy world that has nods to pretty much everything you could think of post-Tolkien, a send up of modern social issues made funnier by the transplant into a completely inappropriate setting, and heroes that only halfway count as heroic.
It’s funny. It’s irreverent. It’s about how introducing a market economy into medieval setting ultimately leaves the trappings of that setting nonsensical. If you liked the Moist von Lipwig books, I’m willing to bet there’s something here for you, whether it be the no nonsense heroine, the economic discussions, or the long con that’s going on in the background. If your Discworld tastes run elsewhere, you may like the conceit of reality infecting and disrupting typical narrative flow. And beyond any of that it is, again, really funny.
If I find one thing missing from this book, it would be, for lack of a better phrase, the sense of morality that Pratchett had. Good doesn’t always triumph on the Disc, but Pratchett rarely lets his real villains get away completely clean. This one takes a somewhat more cynical turn towards the end. It’s nowhere near enough to ruin the rest for me, though.
One last note: though this is the third in a series, I had absolutely no problem reading it on its own. I could sort of pick out places where the world might have been fleshed out elsewhere, but it functions just fine as a standalone.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Harcourt, 1973, 308 pgs., standalone
“And the precise rating of kisses is a terribly difficult thing, often leading to great controversy, because although everyone agrees with the formula of affection times purity times intensity times duration, no one has ever been completely satisfied with how much weight each element should receive. But on any system, there are five that everyone agrees, deserve full marks.
Well, this one left them all behind.”
Putting this on here feels like almost as much of a cheat as putting Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would have been; everyone knows it and quite a lot of people have already made the connection. I’m only letting myself off on this one because most people know the movie. Far fewer people know the book, with its equations for kissing, anachronistic timelessness, and “abridging” inserts.
It’s those constant little, clever details that make it feel like Discworld for me. It may have more of Disney than Tolkien in it and the humor may feel far more like New York stand up than Monty Python but it has that same fundamental understanding of the way classic stories work. And, like Discworld, it’s willing to poke fun, even while continuing to revel in those mechanics.
It’s less sharp than your typical Discworld novel, a little more sentimental, and there are clearer delineations between the humor bits and the fairytale bits, but if what you’re looking for is the playing around with narrative conventions then I’d recommend this book to anyone.
Goblin Quest by Jim Hines
DAW Books, 2005, Kindle edition, Jig the Goblin Series #1
“Look where it had brought him. Had he died with Porak and the others, at least it would have been a fast death. Why in Shadowstar’s name couldn’t things go right for him, just this once?
Why in my name don’t you quit whining and do something for yourself, just this once?
Jig froze. ‘Who said that?’”
If Holt and Goldman are the wit of this list, then Hines is the heart. His books are never exactly laugh riots, for all that they have good jokes, but in spite of this they have a core sensibility that’s very similar to Pratchett’s. His heroes trend toward the clever and the pragmatic, rather than the special chosen ones, and he likes to tell the stories of the underdog mooks, the characters our heroes normally slaughter with impunity.
Even when the characters do find themselves with powers of some sort, they only go so far. Knowldege, adaptability, and a willingness to get their hands dirty and do things are all requirements for survival in these books.
Hines writing is far more standard than that of the other authors on this list, and the other two novels in the series trend more towards typical fantasy quest the further they go along. I’d say it’s worth it even for the initial question of why the “villain” races in fantasy are seen as disposable, though. This is ultimately a series about one goblin’s attempt to break from his defined narrative role, first for himself and then for his entire species.
No one will ever quite replace Pratchett, and I don’t mean to even try. But if you find yourself missing Discworld and needing something that captures a little bit of the magic, you could do far worse than starting with one of these three.