I’ve been avoiding the work of Terry Pratchett for several years. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because, when I learned about him, my first thoughts were “I already read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Maybe my thoughts strained against the idea that fantasy should be treated with humor and a light touch. I’ll probably never know, but, as of today, I’m no longer unfamiliar with Terry Pratchett. I read (on the recommendation of fark.com—don’t ask) Pratchett’s fourth novel: a book called Mort. The book takes place in the fantasy land called Discworld, which rides on the back of four elephants, who of course stand on the back of the great turtle A’Tuin. The entire land is surrounded by a waterfall that pours forever into space.
The hero of the story is an all-elbows teenaged redhead named Mortimer, or “Mort” as he often reminds acquaintances. His father believes him to be likeable, but generally worthless, so he takes him to the marketplace to begin an apprenticeship to anyone who will have him. His new master, it turns out, is Death, in all his dark-cloaked, skeleton-faced scythe-wielding badness. Death, it turns out, has need of a vacation as much as an apprentice. Death is lonely and friendless; apart from his adopted daughter and aged servant Albert, he has no interaction with anyone except when it is time for them to die. Much too soon, Death hands the reins over to the young lad.
As in all apprentice stories, there are rules about these things: you can’t muck about with fate. When it’s time for someone to go, it’s time for them to go. To do anything else could cause a rift in space/time. Also, as in all apprentice stories, the lad almost immediately takes a liking to a princess and (maybe inadvertently?) ends the life of her assassin instead of her. Meanwhile, where Death (WHO ALWAYS SPEAKS IN ALL CAPS!) tries a series of experiments with the things humans find pleasurable: first tying fishing flies, then sampling dozens of alcoholic beverages, quizzing a celebrant about the concept of “fun,” and finally becoming a short-order cook at a local pub. Death’s interview with the employment agent provided one of the funniest scenes of the book, and the gem of a line: “It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever… Have you thought of going into teaching?”
Pratchet doesn’t often let his comedy get in the way of telling the story. From chapter to chapter, I never was sure what I’d read next. Pratchett occasionally allows his narrator to break through the Fourth Wall: at one point, making reference to ancient literature like Shakespeare, or ancient lore (St George and the Dragon, for example). Often Death speaks of modern science or science-fiction ideas, which befuddle the decidedly-medieval populace of Discworld. Sometimes you get the feeling the author is trying too hard to land a laugh. We read incidental rambles like this one: “He reasoned like this: you can’t have more than one king, and tradition demands that there is no gap between kings, so when a king dies the succession must therefore pass to the heir instantaneously. Presumably, he said, there must be some elementary particles — kingons, or possibly queons — that do this job, but of course succession sometimes fails if, in mid-flight, they strike an anti-particle, or republicon. His ambitious plans to use his discovery to send messages, involving the careful torturing of a small king in order to modulate the signal, were never fully expanded because, at that point, the bar closed” and they occur slightly too often for my taste. Sometimes he also goes for the easy laugh: “Sodomy non sapiens,” said Albert under his breath. “What does that mean?” “I’m buggered if I know.” As I said, though, none of this manages to detract from the story. I found myself grinning throughout the novel. Pratchett has considerable facility with similes. Early in the book, Mort is described as having “the same talent for horticulture as you’d find in a dead starfish,” with a “body that is only marginally under its owner’s control—it seemed to have been made out of knees.” And thus it begins. The line is not an auspicious one as Adams calling the people of earth a race “who still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea” Still, I found Pratchett’s cadence for humor, and it wasn’t overdone or didn’t detract from the story. In that by itself, my fears were never realized. I enjoyed the novel, and would read a few more of the many, many Discworld books he’s written.
Four stars of Five