Continuing my occasional series in which I work my way through Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, one book at a time.
Up next: the fourth book Mort.
First Appearances: Death’s apprentice, Mort; Death’s manservant, Albert; Death’s horse has appeared before, but here he gets the name “Binky”.
Introduced to Discworld: the perils of apprenticeships to anthropomorphic personifications
The plot: For reasons unknown, Death decides he needs an apprentice. He travels down to a small village to acquire a boy at the local equivalent to a job fair. The boy’s name is Mort, and he’s a little weird by the standards of his farming family as he prefers to read and isn’t very good at anything that’s needed on a farm. Death takes the boy to his home, where he meets Death’s manservant, a cranky old man named Albert, and Death’s human daughter Ysabel (she’s adopted).
Mort gets shown how to reap souls and gets sent out to take care of a young princess who’s scheduled to be assassinated by her ambitious uncle, the duke of a neighboring city-state. At the last minute, Mort takes out the assassin instead of the princess, and as a result, he’s altered reality in ways that the minds of normal humans can’t quite comprehend. Reality won’t sit for that sort of thing, of course, which leads to all kinds of other problems.
Meanwhile, Death starts to wander off and seems to be acting a bit funny, and Mort starts acting more and more like Death. That’s a really bad thing for many reasons, and it will be up to Death to somehow snap out of his fugue and fix everything.
Commentary: A few years ago, The AV Club suggested Mort as the book to start with on all things Pratchett. That is actually a marvelous idea for people who haven’t read anything from the series before, because I can honestly say this was the first novel so far to actually feel like an actual Discworld novel. There’s the right tone, the right humor, and the right number of footnotes, a technique Pratchett uses to great effect but hasn’t done much of up to this point. Heck, there was only a single footnote each to both The Color of Magic and Equal Rites. Here, they come out a bit more often and adding the right amount of humor to the text.
This book is also the first of the Death Series. Death in his own books often comes across as an odd soul who tries, for reasons unknown, to copy humans, but he lacks any sense of creativity, so everything comes across as a weird copy of something real. He lives in a timeless house with his servant Albert (a 2,000+ year old wizard hiding from the things that would come after him when he died), and a daughter Ysabel. Ysabel had appeared briefly in The Light Fantastic, but here she gets fleshed out (somewhat literally given she’s often described as somewhat heavyset), a girl who’s been 16 for 35 years and is the teenage daughter that can make even the unstoppable reaper of souls pause in his tracks.
This sort of activity is part of what makes Death the oddball that he is. Why does he have a servant and a daughter? Why take an apprentice for that matter? As Mort (who, in a running gag, has to constantly remind people his name) gets more and more responsibilities, Death takes more and more time away from “the business”, where he attempts to learn how to have fun and then even takes a job as a short order cook. Death isn’t supposed to do that sort of thing, and he isn’t supposed to get emotionally involved with concepts like fairness. As he says here:
Death even clarifies that he is not a murderer, but simply there when people die. He’s the effect, not the cause. He also warns Mort that he tends to see the worst in people in his job, coming after he gently reaps the souls of a few drowned kittens (Death loves cats, which, like wizards, can see him for what he is).
What sets Death’s books apart is he usually has to deal with a metaphysical threat that is knocking everything off-balance. Death in this instance is the cause of the imbalance, since giving his responsibilities to a well-meaning lad like Mort would only cause problems since Mort would bring all sorts of human feelings into the mix. Death does seem to have feelings, but he doesn’t really understand them, so he can dispassionately do his job. He’d have reaped the princess’ soul and been done with it. Mort doesn’t, possibly because he’s in love with the princess. He isn’t sure. She’s the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen, which actually isn’t saying much as Pratchett describes her as somewhat attractive, but not exactly angelic.
A quick trip to Unseen University gives us an update on Rincewind, now the Librarian’s assistant (he’s in charge of the bananas), while also giving the reader a look into the history of the wizards’ university.
The book is another short one, economical in its story, and gets right to the point. It was utterly delightful.
Next book: The eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son is born. He is a source for magic, a sourcerer. He could be up to trouble if things go bad, so of course, Rincewind and the Luggage need to deal with him. Oh my. Be back here for book five, Sourcery, at some point in the future.