Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Lighter Side of Death

Mort (Discworld, #4; Death, #1)Mort 
by Terry Pratchett

"WE'VE GOT A FEW MINUTES, said Death, taking a drink from a passing tray.  LET'S MINGLE.

'They can't see me either!' said Mort.  'But I'm real!'


'Mort,' said Mort automatically." (p 40)

From time to time my brother-in-law has recommended to me the work of Terry Pratchett. I believe he has read many if not all of the Discworld novels by fantasy author Terry Pratchett. I recently had the opportunity to read a Pratchett novel when our SF Reading Group chose Mort, the fourth in the Discworld series, as our monthly book. I was not disappointed by this choice.

Death is an unlikely object of humor, but Terry Pratchett's imagination is more than sufficient to provide a narrative with amusing (an understatement) situations that literally puts death in a whole new light. When Death came to Mort, he offered him a job. After being assured that being dead was not compulsory, Mort accepted. However, he soon found that romantic longings did not mix easily with the responsibilities of being Death's apprentice.

Mort is told in third-person narrative and contains both dry humor and witty social observations. Death plays the supporting role to Mort (short for Mortimer), a typical awkward, gangly male teenager. Ysabell and Albert complete Death’s “family”, and I would not mind reading a novel based on their lives together. However Mort is introduced thus:
"It was also acutely embarrassing to Mort’s family that the youngest son was not at all serious and had about the same talent for horticulture that you would find in a dead starfish. It wasn’t that he was unhelpful, but he had the kind of vague, cheerful helpfulness that serious men soon learn to dread. There was something infectious, possibly even fatal, about it. He was tall, red-haired and freckled, with the sort of body that seems to be only marginally under its owner’s control; it appeared to have been built out of knees."

The witty narrative flows effortlessly, with Death speaking in capital letters, a stroke of genius; you are able to hear the coffins creak and the bells toll in your mind every time he speaks. The irony, ambiguity and puns abound, especially the puns. None are overdone and I found myself often laughing out loud when I wasn't simply grinning. It is difficult to avoid developing some sympathy for Death as he succumbs to a mid-life crisis and attempts to seek alternative employment. One of the most hilarious scenes was when he sought out an employment agency and found that his skills, while honed over millennia, were not well-suited for any typical job. One of the reasons that Pratchett has managed to turn the reaper of souls into a sympathetic character is that he shows Death’s caring side. Early in the book Death exudes barely suppressed fury at the needless death of a bagful of kittens.

The novel is not only about the intersection of the life of young Mort and Death, but is also about the coming-of-age of young Mort.  It was encouraging when the narrator (who interjects his opinions from time to time) noted how Mort had changed:
"It might be worth taking another look at Mort, because he's changed a lot in the last few chapters.  For example, while he still has plenty of knees and elbows about his person, they seem to have migrated to their normal places and he no longer moves as though his joints were loosely fastened together with elastic bands.  He used to look as if he knew nothing at all;  now he looks as though he knew too much.  Something about his eyes suggests that he has seen things that ordinary people never see, or at least never see more than once." (p 122)

Discworld itself is unique and some of its characteristics are described, such as the elusive nature of time; enough background is shared to heighten your interest in reading further in the series. If the other Discworld novels are half as good as this one they are worth checking out. In the meantime Mort was a delightful dish of fantasy from the pen of Terry Pratchett. To take a theme such as death and turn it into a story that is this amusing and warm-hearted is a remarkable achievement.

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Lory said...

I'm so glad your first foray into Discworld was a good one! Hopefully not the last.

James said...

Thanks for your encouragement. My reading schedule is pretty full but I'll try to fit in some more Pratchett.

Brian Joseph said...

I have not read Pratchet but I have heard a lot of good things about him.

Satire such as this can be so entertaining but at the same time meaningful.

James said...

This was an entertaining read and provided some respite from a summer spent reading 17th century poetry and prose. There may have been something meaningful in the satire (you could discern a certain criticism of the British class system) but I was more focused on the lighter side.

Rob said...

The Discworld books got better and better as the series progressed. Fantastic books!

James said...

Thanks for your observation. I will look forward to reading more about the Discworld.