After reading Good Omens last year I decided to look into Terry Pratchett. I had heard of the Disc World series before, but shied away from it because of it’s length and the fact that I don’t particularly care for high fantasy settings. Nevertheless, I requested Mort as a Christmas present, and after a less-than-punctual friend finally delivered, I have completed my first foray into a world that is flat and rests on four elephants, who in turn are balanced on a turtle wading through the universe.
From what I understand, most of the Disc World novels can be read independently, since the order of the novels are dubious in terms of preferred reading order. Mort centres on one of the recurring (and most popular) characters in the entire series, Death himself.
Unfortunately, while the plot and characters have a strong foundation, the novel fails to capitalize on its promises, and instead uses arbitrary plot fluff to tie everything up. This review will look at plot, characters, and narrative, and how the first two ended up being disappointments. There will be spoilers a-plenty.
Note: book cover and images used in this review are from the beautiful Folio Society edition of the novel.
The book starts off with Death looking for an apprentice. There is no reason given as to why, except stone cold logic: all trades need apprentices to continue the craft, and that includes soul ushering. Mort is the boy who gets chosen, a somewhat curious though slow-witted country bumpkin. As a premise this is both charming and unique, and the author does a great job painting a world that forces us to take it seriously.
The plot’s first major turning point is when Mort falls in love with a princess who is fated to die. Instead of standing by to watch over her death he prevents it, and in doing so disrupts all of time and reality. More importantly, Keli, the princess, now lives in a world that thinks she’s dead. This results in the bizarre situation where everyone’s mind is out of sync with reality, at least when it comes to seeing Keli. However, reality itself is keen on keeping itself aligned and in one piece, and bubble forms around Keli that starts off as the size of the kingdom, but shrinks ever so slowly as the days pass. For the majority of the novel Mort tries to find ways to prevent Keli’s death, while dealing with his own transformation into the grim reaper, as the original Death has found the life of retirement to be relaxing and comfortable (he ends up being a fry cook at a cat-themed restaurant).
The biggest problem is the ending. While the set-up was great, everything is resolved on a whim. The whole reality-convergence is resolved in an instant and off-page; we are told what happens, and even if it were shown, it would’ve been boring and anti-climatic. The second major conflict, that of Mort unwillingly becoming Death (which causes him to lose his personality and conscience), is also solved in an instant, with Death deciding that perhaps fishing and being a fry-cook wasn’t that great after all. This part really sucked, because the author does a good (and comical) job convincing us that Death actually enjoyed the normal life. However, during an event that I won’t spoil, he suddenly decides to take up the scythe again, and Mort is saved. It was like biting into a warm chocolate chip cookie only to find out it’s gluten-free.
Thus, while four fifths of the novel is great, it is the ending that ruins the experience, and a big part of the problem is how capricious the characters are.
Mort suffers from being the tag-along protagonist. Yes, the major events happen because of him, but they don’t revolve around him, and he isn’t the one that solves them. It is difficult to know why this story had to be about Mort. You know how you hear the name of certain characters and you know immediately what they will do? For example: Scrooge will kick a puppy for a dime if you paid him, and James Bond will be smoother than the silk shirts he wears. Mort doesn’t even come close to being a memorable character. All throughout the story he was just doing things, with no particular stake or individual motivation other than having a crush on a princess. Even his father, who is only in the story at the beginning for a few pages, exhibited more personality than him.
The frustrating thing about this is that the author clearly demonstrates his ability to create interesting characters.
Ysabell is Death’s adopted daughter. She stays with him at Death’s home, which is in its own reality where time is at a standstill. She initially comes across as a spoiled brat, but we eventually find out her tough exterior has been molded by the fact that she has been trapped in Death’s reality, being unable to age and experience a normal girl’s life. Her scene where she opens up to Mort is perhaps one of the most memorable moments of the novel. Unlike Ysabell, Mort neither changes nor grows.
Albert was once the most powerful wizard in the world, and ended up becoming Death’s servant because he didn’t want to die. According to him, he had made many enemies during his lifetime, and they are now waiting for him in the afterlife, and those enemies are the type of fellows (or demons) that you don’t want to meet a second time. His character is awesome because while serving as Death’s servant he is a somewhat grouchy servant, but in the real world he is powerful wizard that founded one of the preeminent wizarding universities. His reaction, and reception, when he jumps back into normal time and visits his university is hilarious. At the same time, Mort never really feels any fear of death, partly because he becomes Death, but also his only reason for staying alive is to do his job and to save a girl; much less intriguing than avoiding a fate that includes and is worse than death.
Speaking of which, a quick word on Death: he’s a great character. The only thing that didn’t jive well was his change of heart at the end. Other than that, he also has an excellent reason for being part of the story. The reason he wanted to experience a normal life… man, that got too real for me for a moment.
This is where Terry Pratchett shines. A true master of the genre, Pratchett will effortlessly convince you that the Grim Reaper is a guy who enjoys fishing, cooking, and petting kittens. He’s also able to convey characters efficiently and in a short amount of time, so that you’ll end up sympathizing with or hate their guts, but will just as quickly be surprised by them. The source of the author’s magic is simply that he can make you laugh. Throughout the charming and fantastical narrative the author use humour to ground his narrative, because if you can laugh at it, you can believe in it.
There is a lot of academic and casual discussion on the value of comedy, in literature and otherwise, but we’ll only discuss a small part here. Humour is the great equalizer. At different periods and in different cultures, we may have different conceptions of beauty, different religious beliefs, different backgrounds, and different upbringings, but despite all of these differences, we will always laugh when someone sits on a tack, or have a piano fall on their trailer home. Love and laughter are the two universal languages, and that is why Mort is still worth reading despite the disappointing ending.
For the first time ever I’m on the fence. I don’t want to “disrecommend” it, nor do I think it’s a must-read. For fantasy fans there’s a lot of great stuff in here, but the fantasy isn’t the focus. This is a story about a funny situation, with some philosophy on life and death thrown in, which is something you’ve probably never read before. I guess I would recommend it if you are willing to try something different, and looking for a good laugh.
Speaking for myself, I am willing to read Pratchett again. Despite the bad ending, I can fully appreciate his sense of humour and writing style. It is evident the author had a great imagination, and one can tell he loved his job. What better way to poke fun at Death and small gods?
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.