Imagine, for one moment, that you are a gangly day-dreamer living in a very hard-headed and serious world. Imagine that you had one day to find a future when seemingly no one sees one for you. Imagine that at two minutes to midnight, you are given a job as apprentice to Death. You know, scythe, robes, Grim Reaper, Ultimate Reality, all that. Imagine, in other words, that you are the eponymous hero of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Mort.
It’s still one of the greatest high concepts in fantasy literature to me and that’s a big part of why it’s often considered the first great Discworld by fans who prefer the later, humanist stuff. It’s at once inherently very fantastical – y’know, anthropomorphic personification of Death – and very human. I know quite a few people who are a tad underwhelmed with Mort and I’m not sure they’re wrong as in a lot of ways this is a limited, thin book, but at the same time, I found a ton of depth in Mort and Death themselves.
Let me explain. There is a huge, huge theme in this book of What You Do = Who You Are. Take Mort. He starts off as a boy too incompetent to pass muster as a scarecrow. Yet throughout the book he not only grows up, he starts TALKING AND THINKING LIKE DEATH HIMSELF (Death talks in capitals in Discworld if you didn’t know). It’s present in the subplot, such as it is; Keli is a woman who becomes queen and is very, very sure that matters a great deal, while Cutwell is a wizard who finds that very much shapes how people see him.
And take Death. If Mort becoming his apprentice is the conceit that starts the book, Death’s bemused attempts to be human and his fatigue with his duties. As an anthropomorphic personification, he couldn’t be more What You Do = What You Are, but he still feels the need to kick against what he is and be more like the people he observes. You might think there’s a limited amount of pathos to be had out of watching Death try to have fun and hold down a job, but Pratchett gets a big helping of the stuff to go with the laughs.
Mort is, of course, funny. That’s assuming you find Pratchett funny (if you don’t, I assume this review is of purely academic interest to you). My favourite scenes are when Mort takes over the duty and struggles with the task in front of him, possibly because they offer a good deal of pathos. A hit of bittersweet often makes the laugh sharper. It isn’t a particularly sharply plotted book or a surprising one, but the plot does the job.
The job is simply providing a vehicles for the laughs and thoughts, and it’s here I return to the theme. It’s difficult to say too much without giving the game away, but appreciation of what Pratchett has done with the character is a make or break test. It’s a small cast, which only makes the characters’ struggles to figure out the life they want to live when the wind is blowing the wrong way all the deeper and more absorbing.
As I said, many find Mort a bit think. But not me. I think this is indeed a great Discworld, and maybe greater than I knew.