I’ve said that the correct place to start with the Discworld books is to grab one that looks interesting and go for it. There is no need for the continuity of the story for it to work for you, they’re all contained stories that work well on their own and hold together without the need for knowing exactly what comes before and after. You don’t have to treat these books like they’re part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a reading order to tell you what you can or can’t handle.
This is not, however, to say there is no continuity in the Discworld. Instead, that continuity is much more about tracking the narrative path that follows something in the setting, whether it’s a character or organisation or country, seeing the way they change from one story to another, the way they grow or suffer, the ways their choices and jobs and circumstances shape them. It can be something like watching the Omnian Church arc from inquisatorial fundamentalism to its eventual representation by Constable Visit-the-Infidel-with-Explanatory-Pamphlets.
One of these stories is about a nine year old girl, and her arc from wisp to witch. It’s the story of the what it’s like to grow up and want to wrestle with the incomplete world the adults have given you, about how being smart isn’t the same thing as being good, and how being good is a thing some people have to practice. It is a young reader’s set of stories that come together to form darkest, most intricate Smurfs fanfiction you’ve ever read.
I want to talk to you about the story of one Tiffany Aching.
I’ve wanted to talk about the Discworld books for some time, but the challenge always stays the same: Any individual book is so deep and rich with roughly six stories worth of story, and the way those stories are enhanced by their relationship to other stories, means that almost anything about them is going to be too in-depth or too distant.
Rather than a deep, academic treatment then, of these stories, I’m just going to describe each one of these stories, and why they absolutely kick ass and why I think, if you like how it sounds, you should read them.
Tiffany’s story starts out by the side of a river, where the youngest daughter of a family of seven with one younger brother watches a monster from the river that the adults are sure isn’t there. A practical young woman, she ties her brother to a stick by the river, waits until the beast surfaces to steal him, then hits it with a skillet from the kitchen. It is this enduring sense of practicality that defines Tiffany Aching; an intelligent girl whose family don’t give her much attention, and who is just smart enough to occupy herself but not quite smart enough to realise that being smart is not an inherent good.
Then that little brother gets stolen by the faeries.
And then she makes the acquaintance of the Nac Mac Feegles, small woad-blue little Scottish hooligans, or ‘Pictsies,’ which take her into their barrow of old gold and show her the world is bigger than she thought, and adopt her as their witch.
What follows is an ‘adventure’ for Tiffany to go into the faerie realm and rescue her brother, where she also accidentally rescues, basically, a prince, and oh yes, contend with the question of whether or not she’s a good person. Part of the story involves confronting her feelings that she isn’t a good person, what with how she’s selfish and kind of thinks herself superior to most people around her, and her memories of her Grandmother, a serious and down-to-earth shepherd, who wasn’t good at loving loudly, but loved deeply.
This … creature was trying to take her world.
All witches are selfish, the Queen had said. But Tiffany’s Third THoughts said: Then turn selfishness into a weapon! Make all things yours! Make other lives and dreams and hopes yours! Protect them! Save them! Bring them into the sheepfold! Walk the gale for them! Keep away the wolf! My dreams! My brother! My family! My land! My world! How dare you try to take these things, because they are mine!
I have a duty!
The anger overflowed. She stood up clenched her fists and screamed at the storm, putting into the scream all the rage that was inside her.
If I was going to recommend one of these books, this is the one. This is the simplest, it’s the shortest, but it starts the arc of Tiffany’s life, a series of books that are about the relationships between women, women who can have just as much difficulty communicating as men do.
Tiffany Aching’s story is a story of difficult women.
Where Wee Free Men is a story about a girl’s adventure and the way she is the person she is being the strength she needs to beat a foe who tells her what she isn’t, A Hat Full Of Sky is a book about the question what do you know, and what did you learn?
For example, when did you learn to separate wanting something from not wanting its consequences?
There’s worldbuilding ahoy in here too, where the Ramtops and Lancre are explored a bit more, a pastoral, bucolic ecosystem of places that are all, somehow, remote, to everything, but never so far away as to be impossible to reach, an entire nation that all feels like the bits of England that mysteriously manage to be days’ travel away on a country the size of a coaster. You meet a host of different types of witch and see the ways they are witches, the lessons they think of as important, and, most importantly, how none of them agree with one another but how all of them disagree with that one.
It’s also a story that introduces a special kind of paranoia that I see in clever people. If you’re good at something, you use it as a tool. If you’re really good at something, you may become overconfident in how you use it. In this book, Tiffany Aching mirrors people who did nuclear experiments with screwdrivers, or who set up elaborate scripts to automate the things that keep them from doing dumb things fast. It is about confronting a problem you were only able to create because your learning outpaced your judgment.
About how there are things we have to learn.
About how there are things we don’t even realise we do learn.
Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.
This one’s about algebra.
No no no, I only kinda mean that.
Wintersmith is a book that opens in medias res with Tiffany doing everything she can, with the help of her family and her father to find every single thing they can that can burn and putting it into a bonfire, as they plead for the lives of freezing lambs, as Wentworth, Tiffany’s little brother is missing, as even Tiffany’s father goes to throw himself on the fire —
This is the book where Tiffany first starts dealing with, you know, boys. Well, she dealt with boys in the past, but then they were boy-shaped objects that bumped around in their own lives while she got on with the complicated business of having relationships with herself and women. It wasn’t romantic or, shut up, not romantic, but kinda romantic, kinda dashing, and anyway, she accidentally invites the lord of winter to the dance and in the process upsets the balance of seasons that may end the world, and now it’s her problem and it’s her fault.
At this stage in the Tiffany Aching story, I am well invested. I care about Petulia’s ongoing story. I care about Annagramma’s development. I care about the fact that Granny Weatherwax, essentially bitter Wonder Woman, is hanging around in the background of this story, a shortstop who will solve things but if she does then it means Tiffany has failed, is in this space.
I also love the way that the witches of these stories have jobs. They have gardens and past-times and they make their lives and take care of themselves and some take care of pigs and some sell spectacle and Tiffany is good at cheese. This idea of being related, being grounded to reality that people live, being important to being a good hero — and the witches are heroes, make no mistake — is something that I think has reinforced my vision of what heroes should do.
Wintersmith also introduces the idea that it is love that breaks hearts, and that’s a part of being who we are.
It’s a rare thing for me to see a thing in a story like this that feels like me. Often I am a strange ooze pouring myself into narratives and seeing how they fit, always knowing that I am not the person these stories are written for. These are and have always been stories about witches.
I was raised, in part, to be a witch hunter.
(It worked, kinda, I found a lot.)
In Wee Free Men Tiffany wonders why she should bother solving a problem. In Hat Full Of Sky, she wonders who else can solve a problem. In Wintersmith, she confronts that she caused the problem. In Hat Full Of Sky, she learns the problem existed before her and hates her and the fact that’s unfair doesn’t matter.
The hare runs into the fire.
In this book, Tiffany has to contend with the same problems as before; the Nac Mac Feegles, and their strange social problems. Wentworth, who is old enough to talk now. Boys, in the form of Roland, who’s getting married. Annagramma and Petulia and all the other travails of learning to be a witch when you’re still just a teenager. Problems of all the people on the chalk when the lambing is difficult. Another bodiless, dangerous, hostile force that needs a witch, in this case, what remains of a witch hunter who lusted for a witch who used her last breath to cling to him in the flames of the pyre he set about her. It is everything that has happened so far, all at once.
And people expect her to handle it.
To find a way to handle it.
This book has so many little ideas, so many pieces to it that sting when I touch them. The hare runs into the fire. The rough music. Halfway between a salad and a sneeze. No eyes in his head, just two holes. The Tanty’s canaries. You’s beautiful blue eyes.
This book is engaging and deep and witty and funny and as serious as a heart attack and dark as midnight. It is a book that casts a spell, in the truest way it can, as it weaves a web in your mind and shows you people you know and ideas you’ve seen and makes you realise the magic in them and in the way you are part of the web of all these things, and the closest we’ll ever get to changing the past starts by making a present worth having.
The hare runs into the fire.
She heard him mutter, “Can you take away this grief?”
“I’m sorry,” she replied. “Everyone asks me. And I would not do so even if I knew how. It belongs to you. Only time and tears take away grief; that is what they are for.”
And then there’s this.
The Shepherd’s Crown.
I don’t know what happens here. I haven’t read it.
Because when I do, it’ll be done.