Everyone has been bored to death in their jobs at some point in their lives but what if your job *is* Death? The Grim Reaper has had enough; he needs a holiday and cover is hard to come by in the underworld. So an apprentice is hired, the eponymous Mort, Death has a lot of fun but Things Go Wrong, as they always do.
There’s plenty to like in Mort and it’s all centred around Death. After some increasingly funny and deft cameos in the first novels, he’s thrust at the reader and is established as someone you hope you will encounter in many more novels to come.
His mid-life (mid-death?) crisis – where “he was actually feeling glad to be alive, and very reluctant to be Death” – causes him to get out and experience the world as close to a human can. In the Discworld, this means getting drunk, watching the sun rise over Ankh Morpork and deciding to swap the scythe for a sharp set of cooking knives and a new career as a chef.
Death’s problem is like that of Rincewind in the earlier novels – he’s the best at what he does but that doesn’t mean he wants to do it. But while Rincewind had to save the world but didn’t necessarily want to, Death is bored with his life and his job, something anyone of us can empathise with. I think this is why Death is so well loved in the books. AND THERE’S HIS WONDERFUL WAY OF SPEAKING IN CAPITAL LETTERS, WHICH GENERATES MORE AMUSEMENT IN ME THAN A PIECE OF TYPESETTING REALLY SHOULD.
There are some wonderfully visual passages throughout the novel. While Pratchett has lent heavily on the apocalypse in each of the books to date, it hasn’t really felt real or threatening. In Mort there are some incredibly evocative scenes- Death’s room full of hourglasses, the aforementioned sun rising over the cesspit that is Ankh Morpork or the Grim Reaper propping up a bar are all wonderful.
Mort’s first piece of work experience – shepherding the witch Goodie Hamstring into the afterlife – is a brilliant scene and really hard to do justice here. It’s very simply written and the everyday subtlety of it makes it surprisingly moving.
“There’s some things I shall miss,” she said. “But it gets thin, you know. Life, I’m referring to. You can’t trust your own body any more, and it’s time to move on. I reckon it’s about time I tried something else.”
Strangely, I found this post particularly hard to write. I zipped forward to bash out my thoughts about Sourcery and mentally prepared a lot of Wyrd Sisters. It’s hard to work out why they were much easier than Mort. Like Equal Rites, this *feels* like a proper Discworld novel and there is plenty to like.
But as Pratchett’s skills at writing novels get better, criticism requires much more thought. It’s not really sufficient to say ‘well, it was funny but a bit of a mess. I liked the jokes but the ending was a bit poor. Two stars’ anymore.
Death is the unbeating heart of the novel and the problem is that when it moves away from the Grim Reaper, the novel loses its energy. ‘Death Takes A Holiday’ is the event that drives the story but what the novel is largely about is Mort out of his depth and embarking on some dimensional jiggerypokery to make up for his mistakes.
Mort is a fine character but one more at home in the first few novels where the cast was that bit more slightly drawn. After Granny Weatherwax and (to a much lesser extent) Eske in Equal Rites showed Pratchett finally giving us female characters of note, Ysabell, Death’s adopted daughter, is a step backwards.
I’m afraid I’m going to have to revert back to my lazy critic thinking because the ending really was a bit poor. The Things That Go Wrong is Mort innocently bringing about the end of things by saving a princess who was due to die. Then Mort and Death have to fight because…something. There’s a wedding. Everything gets handwaved away. You close the book. I still don’t really know what happened or why.
It’s far from a bad novel; like Equal Rites, it’s a very exciting one because you can tell he is almost there. There is something tangibly great just outside of his grasp but he is getting better and better with each novel, and closer and closer. That’s been one of the most exciting things about this re-read – being able to see a noticeable evolution in his writing ability with each book. It’s a very exciting thing to read – God knows how it felt to Pratchett himself at the time.
Next up – magicians are back and the end of the world is nigh. Wait a minute: didn’t we read this one before?
Previously on Pratchett Job: