November 30th, 2021 8:35 PM
Book: Mort (Discworld Four, Death One) by Terry Pratchett
Recommendation: Read this if you’re looking to get a taste of Terry Pratchett’s legendary and satirical style. You’ll be introduced to the Discworld, the author’s light-hearted prose, and a number of important characters, and it’s all packaged in an easily consumable—and sincerely enjoyable—adventure.
Mort is one of the most highly recommended books when people invariably ask, “Where do I start if I want to get into Pratchett’s Discworld novels?” Though it is the fourth book that takes places in Pratchett’s bizarre and enchanting universe, it is perfectly acceptable to start here. Pratchett’s books seem to function well as standalones, although, within the many novels that count themselves luckily amongst the collective Discworld novels, there are several small series that one can enjoy. Mort, then, is actually the first of several Discworld novels that focuses on the character of Death.
Now, I’ve struggled before in doing spoiler-free reviews, and I think it’s because my foremost goal in writing out thoughtful book reviews is to reflect on what I can learn about writing. It’s hard to do so without spoiling a few things. Unlike other reviewers, my goal isn’t to encourage or discourage others from reading any books (though, whether I liked a book or not, and on the basis that everybody’s different, I certainly don’t wish to discourage anybody from reading anything and forming their own opinions).
That said, I’ll say this here: there may be spoilers ahead. I haven’t the strength to sift them out or hide them. I doubt there will be many, but there may be some.
And I’ll also say this here: I immensely enjoyed this book. I devoured it in record time (at least for me).
Perhaps it’s because I have four children, but reading doesn’t come easily to me. For some reason (“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”), I find there are too many (usually very welcomed) distractions in my household for me to get lost in a book. However, Mort was the first book I tried to dive into as an e-book, and I think it helped me to read since I always had it available on my phone. There are many people out there who either inflexibly or stoically stand by the notion that physical books are the gold standard for experiencing a story. In today’s world, with distractions abound, I think audiobooks and e-books should be given a fair chance. If you haven’t tried an audiobook or an e-book lately, and you, like me, have found it difficult (or impossible) to finish a book, I want to kindly suggest you try putting an e-book or audiobook on your phone. You’ll have so many more chances to read, and you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to turn the reading speed up on audiobook once your ears and brain have adjusted. I’m currently consuming a 29-hour audiobook at twice it’s normal speed; consider the possibilities!
What did Mort teach me about writing? I fell in love with the conversational, light-hearted, and altogether fun tone of the book. Pratchett, despite creating a world in which very real struggles presented themselves, never took himself or his characters too seriously. In the fantasy genre, which is already replete with epic struggles between frowning heroes and frowning villains and such gems as the entire sub-genre of “grimdark” works, it is rare to find books that don’t take themselves too seriously. That’s fine. In many places, even a touch of humor (especially if ill-executed) can seriously mar an otherwise masterful work. I dabbled in humor in my debut novel, and some of my light-hearted observations only detracted from the novel (not to imply that I think my debut would have been “masterful” otherwise; it wouldn’t have).
Humor is subjective. Something might bring a smile to one person’s lips but only confound another person. I find that my sense of humor does not always align with the humors of other people. Anyone who knows me would tell you that I can be outlandish. In those most remote stretches of simile and confounded logic, I sometimes strike gold and get folks to laugh, but, more often than not, people can only laugh at my feeble attempts to be funny (and, probably more so, at the alacrity with which I make my jokes).
Pratchett’s humor is different. It touches with ease upon many established fantasy tropes. Any lover of fantasy will recognize at once the many jokes he makes, and even his most bizarre or fanciful quips will likely delight the typical fantasy reader. What I learned is that humor is powerful, and not every scene in a story needs to match wholly in tone with its kin. In other stories, I’ve seen sparse humor employed, and that levity has always struck me as something worthwhile and refreshing (as a random example, consider the Fly episode of Breaking Bad, or Walter White’s decision to cook meth in his underwear in the first episode), but Pratchett’s novels show the inverse of this: sparse islands of seriousness emerging from a sea of absurdity.
Pratchett has no qualms with plot holes, because his answer to everything is that something was the will of the Gods, or perhaps the oddity you read about had something to do with the speed of light and its interaction with the powerful magical field emanating from the disc. Pratchett doesn’t flinch at the idea of introducing an eighth color to his readers’ imaginations (and damn, we simply can’t imagine it, but we do conjure up a sort of greenish-purple). Clearly, there is a level of concern and craftsmanship about these novels. The prose, while light and not overtly complex, is still meticulously crafted, and sometimes for the sake of a joke.
While I think that plot took a backseat in this novel, I do think it was well-balanced with humor. Despite the many times I smiled and the few times I laughed aloud, I also managed to care about the characters. The premise of the plot is that young, gangly Mort is a somewhat disillusioned lad who attends his city’s job fair with the hope of becoming an apprentice. Death appears in search of one, and Mort is the last kid who didn’t get selected by anybody else. What follows is an enchanting adventure in which Death constantly tries to teach Mort a simple lesson: “There is no justice. There’s just us.”
Mort meets Death’s adopted daughter, Ysabell, and has a few charming spats with her. He goes on to become infatuated with Princess Keli, and then he disrupts the entire fabric of reality and splits it into two separate realities by stopping an assassination attempt on Keli’s life, an attempt whose thwarting history hadn’t anticipated. However, reality and history manage to start a terrifying process in which they can mend themselves, and this process threatens to kill Keli (with the sensical logic that she should have already been dead, if not for Mort’s intervention). Meanwhile, Mort, who’s been increasingly dealing with Death’s duties while Death searches for what it means to be human, undergoes a remarkably delightful—though oddly terrifying—transformation.
Pratchett also displayed here his ability to play not only with story structure and language but also with formatting itself. All through the novel, Death speaks a certain way, and it’s a bit jarring as it shows up in capital letters with no quotes. You get used to it quickly, and you always know when Death’s talking. However, as Mort begins to become Death, the reader starts to see his dialogue transform from normally formatted dialogue (“Hey, folks”) into the format that, up until that point, had marked Death’s speech (HEY FOLKS). It feels icky for me to even write in all-caps like that, but maybe that’s a lesson I need to learn from Pratchett. While he cared immensely about his project, he leaned toward deliberate carelessness in his handling of many conventions, and I think he did this in search of levity and humor. Further, I think his errant handling of these conventions enabled him to achieve such entrancing tricks of formatting as the one I just described.
Probably the last thing I paid special attention to was Pratchett’s treatment of the women in his story. Before starting any of the Discworld novels, I’d heard a bunch of conflicting ideas about Pratchett’s handling of women in his work, and you may recall from previous blog posts of mine that I’ve taken care (after seeing my own work through a new lens) to do better in this regard as I go forward. I mean it, too, and I hope my serious analysis of this piece of Mort is a testament to that.
Terry published this book in 1987. The markets were different, and I think Pratchett probably had a certain type of reader in mind as he wrote these books (and I might be wrong, but I’m not thinking these were marketed to girls, especially in that decade). Notions about what was acceptable were vastly different, too. I think it’s interesting to note a few things through the lens of our current culture (at least as partially as I currently understand it). The gender ratio isn’t particularly woeful. If you count only the characters whom one might consider “main” characters, I’d say we’ve got Death, Mort, Albert, Keli, Cutwell, and Ysabell. That’s 33% women and 66% men (if you count Death as a man; which I do, because his pronouns are masculine, and it was never explained as far as I can recall that Death was genderless).
Gender ratios are a concept I’ve been thinking a lot about. We want to include an equal number of men and women, I’ve come to understand and believe, but of course this very goal excludes other genders. Aiming for 50/50 means taking a stance that gender is binary, that folks only identify as male or female and there is nothing else. This isn’t true, and whether anybody believes it is right or wrong, I do think (as do most of today’s publishers) that it’s important for the truth of the world to be reflected in one’s writing. George R. R. Martin had a famously powerful quote when asked about his decision to prominently include gay characters in his novels. “Well, I noticed there are gay people in the world.” The audience’s positive cheers were telling enough. Simply, I believe in anybody’s undeniable right to express themselves how they choose to.
I apologize for the tangent, but I feel it’s important not to exclude other gender identities when doing this sort of analysis. So, if we look at Pratchett’s work and consider the cultural landscape at the time of its publication, I think it’s pretty commendable, especially when one considers the agency that the women in his story had (and, of course, we could probably argue all day about this, because it’s evident to me that the men in his story had quite a bit more agency).
My favorite example shows up when Albert, Ysabell, and Mort are trying to figure out how to do Death’s job since Death is away. Keep in mind that the completion of Death’s job is no trivial thing; this is a moment of great gravity.
“Father taught me how to read the node chart,” she said, “when I used to do my sewing in here. He used to read bits out.”
“You can help?” said Mort.
“No,” said Ysabell. She blew her nose.
“What do you mean, ‘No?’” growled Albert. “This is too important for any flighty—”
“I mean,” said Ysabell, in razor tones, “that I can do them and you can help.”
I love the reversal there, the way both Albert, Mort, and even the male reader (in my pitiful case, anyhow) fail to see any injustice in Mort and Albert’s initial assumptions. The two men presume they’ll take the lead. Why? Because they’re men, and really for no other reason. There is no other reason they might make such an erroneous assumption. Why would either of them think of Ysabell as nothing more than an assistant, especially when she is the one who’s already told them she knows much about her father’s work? Instead of saying, “How can we help you do this, Ysabell?” Mort and Albert both assume they’ll sit in two drivers’ seats while Ysabell tags along, a passenger in her own vehicle. Thankfully, Ysabell holds up that powerful mirror and says, “Look how ridiculous you look with your assumptions about who I am and where I belong. I won’t be helping you. You’ll be helping me. You’re the assistants here.” I thought it was a powerful moment, and probably more so because I, failing always in some way to notice my own perspective as a fortunate man in our world, hadn’t yet noticed anything wrong or erroneous about Mort’s initial question. In that way, I found that Ysabell surprised even me; she held the mirror up for me, and I had to say, “Wow. You’re right. Why would you be the helper here? Mort and Albert are clearly the helpers.”
These matters are all important to consider in my own writing. What roles do I have the women in my novels undertaking? Do I have them in the passenger seat when they should, by all accounts, be in the driver’s seat? Again, these issues are not about saying that women are better than men; these issues are about eradicating the quiet, poisonous assumption that women are anything less than men. Examine your own stories in search of moments like these. You might believe that your characters all have a voice of their own, but, if you’re a white man, then I’d be willing to bet that your characters’ voices are all filtered through your own biases (both conscious and unconscious) and assumptions. Your understanding of the world influences your depiction of the world, and so it’s important that you can replicate certain realities—true, objective realities—as closely as you can, if only to enable your readers to see themselves truthfully in your work.
Altogether, I loved this book. It was an easy read and didn’t take a toll on me, and it was lots of fun. Beneath all that, there were some powerful moments, and always I was impressed with Pratchett’s boldness. This was my first Discworld book, but it is only the first of many. In fact, I recently finished Pratchett’s The Color of Magic and have started its sequel, The Light Fantastic, already.
Thanks, as always, for reading my blog.