I started randomly re-reading Discworld books recently, and then I thought, why don't I do this properly and start from the start?1. The Colour of Magic
and 2. The Light Fantastic
I think pretty much everyone would agree that the first few Discworld books suffer from what TV Tropes would call Early Installment Weirdness
. It's not that they're bad (in fact I will argue vehemently in the other direction) but they don't quite fit in with the rest of the series. Places and people haven't taken shape, or are characterised oddly compared to the later norms, and the whole vibe of the series is different. Opinions probably vary on when it hits its stride - I'd say "Guards, Guards", myself.
However, I've always loved the Colour of Magic and the Light Fantastic (which really have to be paired as they are essentially a two-book story) and rereading them was more strongly nostalgic than I expected. The feel of the Disc is very different in them. It's a deliberate high fantasy pastiche, and part of why I loved it when I first read it is that The Colour of Magic, particularly, is a series of vignettes making gentle fun of the specific books I read and loved as a teenager. There's the City of Adventurers at the start, then a Lovecraft homage, then the Dragonriders, and finally we get into Lost Civilisations That Want To Sacrifice You. The Light Fantastic gives us a good old standard end-of-the-world scenario (and Cohen the Barbarian), and then turns it all on its head in a wonderful way, and gives us the first example of Pratchett's trademark - ordinary people showing real courage, as opposed to Brave Heroes Being Brave.
One thing that really struck me was that the whole time he's playfully skewering fantasy tropes, Pratchett is nonetheless throwing out a lot of striking and beautiful imagery. Descriptions of the Disc itself, Cori Celesti, and the Rimfall are among the things that stay with me. There's no hiding the down-to-earth-ness of Pratchett's tone, but his writing is much more lyrical here than in most of the later books. (Actually, that's not entirely true. One of the things I have always loved about his writing is his ability to throw in a beautiful passage out of nowhere.) In some ways it made me a little bit sad. I wouldn't trade the Discworld series we got for anything, but I find myself wondering what the version that stayed in this mold would have looked like. The Disc is wild and magical and untamed at this point, and there are so many random little wondrous things that are never mentioned again (e.g. the dryads, the Wyrmberg, Tethys the sea troll from another world, and the idea that the Unseen University opens onto many worlds), or become codified into "normal parts of life" (the trolls we meet in TLF, the wizards of UU, Ankh-Morpork itself, the description of Death's realm). What happened to Bravt and the Weasel? They wouldn't have fitted into the new Disc that came later.
There's also the fact that the timeline doesn't really work - how do we go from the medieval city led by a non-Vetinari Patrician to the world we're seeing by the eighth or ninth book, while Rincewind and Cohen are much the same age? Fortunately Thief of Time gives us a wonderful excuse for that: there was clearly some heavy history patching going on there, right before Ankh-Morpork hit its modern age.
But overall, the only thing that makes me wince slightly is Death, who in TCOM is rather vindictive and spiteful. You can already see the "real" Death coming through by TLF though. And I'd forgotten that Ysabelle got such an early cameo!
I find it interesting that Rincewind is a sort of proto-Ponder Stibbons at this point, too, looking for science in a world of magic - I don't remember that being a strong trait in him later. But it leads to a passage I love, and that I think gets to the heart of Pratchett's take on magic, which I'll quote here as a finisher.[The Law of Conservation of Reality] demanded that the effort needed to achieve a goal should be the same regardless of the means used. In practical terms this meant that, say, creating the illusion of a glass of wine was relatively easy, since it involved merely the subtle shifting of light patterns. On the other hand, lifting a genuine wineglass a few feet in the air by sheer mental energy required several hours of systematic preparation if the wizard wished the prevent the simple principle of leverage flicking his brain out through his ears.
- The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett