Continuing my occasional series as I work my way through Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series one novel at a time.
This week, I’m covering the 11th book, Reaper Man.
First Appearances: Reg Shoe, the Auditors, the Death of Rats
Introduced to Discworld: shopping malls, the predators of cities
The plot: The Auditors, mysterious gray-cloaked beings, decide that Death of the Discworld has developed a personality. Death isn’t supposed to have a personality, so with a nod from Azrael, the supreme Death of Universes, they fire him. Death, once fired, is now mortal (though still a skeleton) and leaves his realm to get a job. He gets works as a farmhand since he’s really good with a scythe. The title refers to that as well.
Meanwhile, oldest wizard at Unseen University Windle Poons (returning from his minor supporting role in Moving Pictures), dies, but Death doesn’t come to claim his spirit so he can’t move on. Reinhabiting his old body, Windle tries to find a purpose for himself while strange things happen around Ankh-Morpork. He ends up joining an undead support group led by zombie-rights activist Reg Shoe. This turns out to be a good thing, since the small undead group (which includes a very shy boogeyman, a middle class vampire and his wife, a werewolf that started as a wolf, and a banshee with a stutter) may be the only things that can save the city from a shopping mall that is building itself on the outskirts of Ankh-Morpork. All this unreaped life floating around is causing all kinds of things to come to life. Death better find a way to get his job back…
Commentary: There is something about the Death books that seems to make Pratchett’s writing the most philosophical. Amazingly, both Windle and Death don’t really seem to know how to live until they are forced out of their more comfortable circumstances. Windle is finally paying attention to things while Death is finding an appreciation for just being alive. At the end of the novel, when Death has (of course) been reinstated and he finally gets around to reaping Windle’s soul, something Windle wants very much, the two have a quick chat and Windle says something that may be some of Pratchett’s guiding philosophy on why people bother doing things for others:
I don’t know. How should I know? Because we’re all in this together, I suppose. Because we don’t leave our people in there. Because you’re a long time dead. Because anything is better than being alone. Because humans are human.
This is a book where Death finds himself employed as a farmhand and has to lay poison for rats and kill a chicken for dinner. Death, for the first time ever, has to kill something, and it makes him feel rotten. That may be why he acts later to actually save a little girl from a fire that was clearly meant to kill her if he were still doing his regular job.
But there is a bit more comedy involved with all the new Deaths. Each species imagines what Death must be like for its own kind. Gaspode in the previous book theorized that for dogs it was a big black dog. He was wrong, but he wouldn’t be now. The Death of Trees is the sound of a chopping axe. The Death of Tortoises is an empty black shell floating across the desert. Most memorable would be the Death of Rats, which becomes a reoccurring supporting player in its own right. This entity is basically a rat version of the Grim Reaper, complete with a black robe and scythe. Like Death, Death of Rats speaks in ALL CAPS, though his vocabulary is rather limited to the single word “SQUEAK.”
The Librarian tends to get by mostly saying, “Oook,” so I figure the Death of Rats will do just fine.
Identity plays a key role in this novel. Deprived of his livelihood, Death gets a job as a farmhand and has to give a name. He quickly (and obviously) makes up the name Bill Door, which Pratchett refers to him as until he gets his original duty back. Bill Door does have to die for Death to get his job back, and the name disappears from the text as that happens.
Meanwhile, undead activist Reg Shoe is going on about the dead having rights. When he isn’t preaching to graveyards, he tries to lead his small support group to empowerment, but with very little success. Reg joins the Watch later, so it’s always nice to see characters evolve.
That goes for Windle too. Originally just a very old wizard in a wheelchair in Moving Pictures, Windle finds he can actually enjoy life once he’s left it. I read these books largely “out of order” the first time around, so seeing Pratchett take what would normally be a throw-away character and make something of him is a nice touch. Likewise, seeing the evolution of the senior staff of Unseen University develop is a ton of fun. Archchancelor Ridcully (here revealed to have a brother who’s the high priest to the chief god of Discworld) is described as “simple” which is not to Pratchett the same as “stupid,” a distinction he’ll use for Corporal Carrot later on. While notably different from the other wizards when his background as a more rural wizard allows him to stand out in a fairly uniform bunch of overthinkers is rather nice, I hadn’t been able to track that when I read this book the first time.
If I had one complaint about Pratchett’s writing, it’s that he sometimes didn’t know when to stop. This novel gives me that impression as the main plot seems to die down and Death decides to give romance to his old spinster employer Miss Flitworth. It’s a sweet touch, but it seems to go on for far too long.
Goodreads actually lists a short story, “Death and What Comes Next,” as coming between Moving Pictures and Reaper Man. The plot deals with a philosopher trying to use quantum mechanics to talk his way out of dying. Death, irritated since this isn’t the first time he’s heard this, knows exactly how to counter the argument. It’s rather short and not bad. You can find it here.
Next book: The witches return, and need to travel to a distant kingdom where a not-particularly-benevolent fairy godmother is trying to bring a fairy tale ending to life. That’s not a good thing. Be here for Witches Abroad at some point in the future.