A cleverer person than me would probably open a piece like this with the argument that if death (Death? DEATH?) is the ultimate expression of reality we’ll all face one day, then perhaps fantastical literature is humanity’s way of expressing hope in the face of that truth: Storytelling as an act of creation beyond the reach of that grim but grinning full stop that awaits us at the end of our own stories.
I would likely also nod to the way that myth, folklore and fantasy have always ultimately been one of our finest tools for telling ourselves stories about what happens beyond the last page as it were - ‘what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil’ as Shakespeare had it - but really I’m here to talk about Mort, not death, and while the latter may be somewhat unavoidable in the long run I am here to fully recommend introducing yourself to the former as soon as possible.
Mort is the fourth book in Terry Pratchett’s epic Discworld sequence, but to my mind it’s actually one of the best titles to introduce new readers to his work.
His first two books, The Colour of Magic and its direct sequel The Light Fantastic are hilariously re-readable romps for SF&F fans where the territory is instantly recognisable even if Terry’s books are the notable exception on the fantasy bookshelf because they don’t bother to include a map.
If the third title, Equal Rites, sees him honing both the sophistication of his satire and the considered compassion of his characterisation, by the time he reaches book number four he’s ready to risk it all and foreground a fan-favourite character. One who, in the hands of a lesser writer, would perhaps have been better left as a walk-in cameo.
I’m talking about Death, or more specifically the Death of the Discworld, who is skeletal and looming and good with a scythe, but also enjoys a curry and rides a horse we soon discover is called Binky.
While Death had already enjoyed scene-stealing moments in the earlier books, and snagged many of the best lines (delivered in his famous ALL CAPS, of course), I remember picking up this particular book for the first time and worrying that maybe the concept of ‘less is more’ was in fact an inviolate rule when it came to, well, Death.
Pratchett, as always, is one step ahead, and while his version of Death would indeed play a leading role, his key protagonist is the far more human and hapless Mort; and it’s through his eyes that we explore what it takes to be apprenticed into a trade that comes with more than the usual certainty of lasting him for, well, life.
As the story opens we discover there’s a downside to being an anthropomorphic embodiment of human mortality (although not the one about where all the curry goes that you might first suspect) and our Discworld Death has started to feel the pull of that undiscovered country called life precisely because his job requires him to spend so much time in the company of people.
Hence an apprentice is required, allowing Death his first taste of free time outside of the day job – which naturally he spends fly-fishing, drinking and so on – while hapless Mort is left to mind the family business.
Fast-forward far enough in any narrative and Death is the inevitable spoiler, so I won’t spend much precious time here detailing the various ways that Mort attempts to subvert the inevitable and inevitably fails, but I will note that while death and Death are the drivers of his plot, Pratchett’s central concern here, and across all of his body of work, is the preciousness of life, because Mort ultimately is a story about who we are and what we choose to do with the time we have.
I have read this book many times. First as an early teen around that age when you first become aware you’re growing older because your birthday presents stop being toys and start becoming books instead (well, that’s how it happened to me anyway), next as a university graduate where, for reasons that require their own story, I found myself directing an amateur version of the stage adaptation of Mort as a way to fill time while figuring out what to do with the rest of my grown-up life, and then finally as a welcome recent re-read in a brand new Folio Society edition, again bought for me as a birthday gift – such is the circle of life!
That I recommend this book as a perfect example of the Best of British Fantasy should be obvious by now, so I’ll end instead with a different type of recommendation… the joy of re-reading.
Like many, I keep a journal of the books I have read. Mine is the simplest of records, just title, author and date finished, and for years I have thought of this as ‘a good thing to do.’
More recently though I am not so sure, and this thought is spurred by a very simple piece of data analysis.
With a fair few years now logged in my journal I am well positioned to evaluate the average number of books I can expect to read in a year, and thus to predict, at least roughly, the potential number of books I may yet have time to read.
That number is, well, less than I would like and so, while there are always new books to be discovered, I have increasingly come to the view that a quality moment spent re-reading a favourite book is perhaps one of the best uses of time we have.
I’ll just leave that thought hanging here for now, do with it as you will…
For myself, it’s Saturday night, and I could murder a curry!
I’d say goodbye, but I prefer, “AU REVOIR”