This book brings us into strange territory. One thing I have enjoyed about Pratchett is that he is not shy of revisiting old plots or themes and improving upon them. Each time I come to write one of these, an area I have not yet explored so far is his love of craftmanship. Each book usually has some sort of paean to someone who takes pride in their work, dedicating themselves to honing a skill – Ptaclusp in Pyramids immediately springs to mind.
So The Light Fantastic improved upon The Colour of Magic. Both books were plundered for Equal Rites. Sourcery tried to do the same and failed miserably but Moving Pictures took the now tired ‘wizards vs the apocalypse’ and turned it into something very special indeed. What is interesting about Reaper Man is that he goes back to a book that was actually pretty decent in the first place and gives us something deeper and more satisfying, even if you have read its original source of inspiration.
That book is Mort. What I loved about that book was a newly slack Death propping up a bar in Ankh-Morpork, drunkenly watching the sun rise and packing in the whole ‘gatekeeper to the netherworld’ thing to become a brutally effective chef. But it was relegated into the background in favour of the much less satisfying main plot.
Not so here. Death again leaves his job, this time because he has been made redundant. His embracing of his own freshly imposed mortality is the main engine of the plot. But thankfully, the secondary plot is just as good.
After introducing the first *true* magicians of the Discworld in Moving Pictures, they are brought back here and are just as much of a hoot. Moreso here than in Reaper Man’s predecessor, the wizards fascinate me as a group of characters. Given how they exist as one chaotic group comprising a mix of contradictory argumentative parts, they remind me of one character, trying to deal with a wide ranging of different emotions – from bluntness or pragmatism (the Archchancellor) to pedantry and a penchant for overthinking (the glorious Senior Wrangler). It’s a neat thematic sequel to Moving Pictures because it again explores the importance of knowledge and empathy and how realising it’s using both together that are essential.
But first, Windle Poons is dead. The Unseen University uber-graduate, at a mere 130 years old, has stuck around for too long and needs to shuffle off this mortal coil. Except Death has been fired by the brilliant (and again, a throwback to vintage Marvel Comics in its feverish concept) Auditors of Reality (I mean, COME ON. THE AUDITORS OF REALITY, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. Be thankful I didn’t write 5,000 words on the sheer awesomeness of that concept.)
Death is serving his notice and realises he is now mortal. In the meantime, the corpses fail to stack up with Windle Poons, and others, finding they are still half alive, and the undead magician getting solace in a delightful support group, which gives me Fight Club flashbacks.
But while Death is making a living working on a farm for Miss Flitworth (a life-long spinster who Pratchett gives so much warmth to…it’s hard to convey how brilliantly he makes supporting characters *real*), snowglobes and trolleys are appearing from nowhere, with dangerous consequences.
The novel follows the same thread that Moving Pictures first felt its way upon. Ridcully may be, on the surface, a braying uneducated moron but this is someone who realises the importance of knowledge and, crucially, knows how to *live*. As the book puts it: Mustrum Ridcully was, depending on your point of view, either the worst or the best Archchancellor that Unseen University had had for a hundred years.
It’s a shame that one of the “dangerous consequences” I mentioned above is rampant consumerism. What we are shown could lead to the Discworld’s ultimate destruction is a massive shopping centre, which bled in from the multiverse. Without Death and a definite end point to our lives, the suggestion is we are all self-obsessed. Unlike other novels like Pyramids, which argued supposedly negative things like belief actually had merit, the Mall of Ultimate Doom, which is what is built by the snowglobes populating the Earth in the absence of Death, is a somewhat one-dimensional threat.
We can be charitable and chalk it up to Pratchett occasionally not nailing the landing of great concepts. Charity aside, the novel works because of the wonderful characterisation of Windle Poons, Death and The Wizards.
When he dies, Windle Poons realises he has never made the most of life. His one hundred and thirty years of studying the arcane are for naught when he has never experienced the dubious pleasures of Ankh-Morpork or spoken to people who don’t wear any robes outside of dressing gowns.
Death is another character full of knowledge, but doesn’t really know how to feel. Pratchett has written previously about the power and danger of books but he goes one further here. Knowledge is fine, but empathy is as important in order to live a full life.
He revisits it again, and much better, with Lupine, the wereman and compatriot of Poons (he becomes a man every full moon and a wolf the rest of the time, rather than…you can work it out). To whit: They feel what it’s like, of course, but they don’t know like I do. To feel and know at the same time. No-one else knows what that’s like. No-one else in the whole world could know what that’s like.
By contrast, Death has ultimate knowledge but no empathy and it is by him living and working with Miss Flitworth that there is something more. Which leads to crazy concepts like him lending time to a girl who he rescues from a horrific fire.
This is like Guards! Guards! for me. It’s flawed but hits with such a satisfying power that you can sweep the lazy threat and meh third act to one side. At best, Pratchett is a moralist but a convincing one, rather than patronising. Through this novel, and Moving Pictures, he suggests knowledge is nothing, without a degree of empathy. It’s not a theme he is done with.