Mort, by Terry Pratchett (1987) 304 p.
Discworld #4 (Death #1)

And so we pass through the funny but slapdash novels The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, and the flawed but taking-its-first-wobbly-toddler-steps novel of Equal Rites, and arrive at the fourth Discworld novel, Mort: the first one I believe is a genuinely good, well-rounded novel, and also the first one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to a new reader. (Although it wouldn’t be my first recommendation – more on that later.)

Mortimer, or “Mort” as his family appropriately calls him, is a gangly misfit in a remote village in the Ramtop Mountains. As he comes of age, his father takes him to the village square on Hogswatchnight as the various craftsmen, artisans and traders pick their apprentices for the new year. Mort stands in the freezing cold watching other boys picked for their exciting new careers, like a modern-day kid watching as everybody else is picked for the baseball team, until at the stroke of midnight he’s the only one left. Reminding his father that it’s not midnight until the final stroke of the clock, he stubbornly remains in the square to find that there is indeed one last professional who has yet to take on a protege… and he rides a pale horse.

Death has been a background character in the Discworld books from the very beginning, transforming from an outright malicious figure in The Colour of Magic to the more benevolent fellow we meet in Equal Rites, always happy to have a pithy chat with a departed soul before ushering them into the next world. It’s the latter characterisation that Mort settles upon, and indeed, this is the Death we will become familiar with for the remainder of the Discworld series. As far as walking, talking skeletons who lack a human brain and soul go, he’s quite a likeable person. He speaks IN ALL CAPS, an easy but surprisingly effective trick, and has countless great lines:

“How do you get all those coins?” asked Mort.
IN PAIRS.

“My granny says that dying is like going to sleep,” Mort added, a shade hopefully.

I WOULDN’T KNOW. I HAVE DONE NEITHER.

A WHAT? said Death in astonishment, sitting behind his ornate desk and turning his scythe-shaped paperknife over and over in his hands.

“An afternoon off,” repeated Mort. The room suddenly seemed to be oppressively big, with himself very exposed in the middle of a carpet about the size of a field.

BUT WHY? said Death. IT CAN’T BE TO ATTEND YOUR GRANDMOTHER’S FUNERAL, he added. I WOULD KNOW.

Death is most importantly a loveable character because he is not malevolent; he does not take lives, but merely ensures that people die as fate has appointed. The first time Mort accompanies Death as his new master reaps a soul, the boy instinctively but fruitlessly attempts to intervene and save the murdered man’s life, and later assumes he’s in trouble:

YOU TRIED TO WARN HIM, he said, removing Binky’s nosebag.

“Yes, sir. Sorry.”

YOU CANNOT INTERFERE WITH FATE. WHO ARE YOU TO JUDGE WHO SHOULD LIVE AND WHO SHOULD DIE?

Death watched Mort’s expression carefully.

ONLY THE GODS ARE ALLOWED TO DO THAT, he added. To TINKER WITH THE FATE OF EVEN ONE INDIVIDUAL COULD DESTROY THE WHOLE WORLD. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?

Mort nodded miserably. “Are you going to send me home?” he said.

Death reached down and swung him up behind the saddle. BECAUSE YOU SHOWED COMPASSION? NO. I MIGHT HAVE DONE IF YOU HAD SHOWN PLEASURE. BUT YOU MUST LEARN THE COMPASSION PROPER TO YOUR TRADE.

“What’s that?”

A SHARP EDGE.

Why Death has decided he wants an apprentice is never entirely clear, unless perhaps it’s in some vague hope that Mort will fall in love with Death’s adopted human daughter, Ysabell. But the concept is great: how many fantasy or young adult novels, how many bildungsroman, have covered the notion of being slowly trained up as a wizard or assassin or ruler? Being trained as the grim reaper is a pretty fresh idea, which is perhaps why I think this is the first really good Discworld novel: because it’s the first to combine humour with a genuinely interesting, exciting story. The plot properly kicks off when, entrusted with THE DUTY on his own for the first time, Mort falls for a beautiful princess and kills her assassin instead. This sets off ripples in space-time, the universe attempts to correct itself, and Mort has to figure out what the hell he’s going to do – including whether or not he’s going to fess up to Death.

I enjoyed Mort as much as I did when I first read it many, many years ago, and I was actually surprised by how much I’d forgotten. There are some unforgettable settings and inventions, some of which will remain part of the series for many books to come: the library with billions of books constantly writing the story of everybody’s life, the hourglasses or “lifetimers” that measure out a person’s lifespan, the invisible magical circle tightening around the princess and course-correcting her altered history, the black but homely realm of Death’s Domain, and the true identity of Death’s millenia-old manservant Albert. But there was much that I’d forgotten: Death’s own jet-black skull-and-bones lifetimer which contains no sand at all, the duel in the lifetimer room with accidentally destroyed hourglasses corresponding to real-life deaths, Mort’s amusing habit of constantly discomfiting people as he forgets his developing Death-like powers and walks through walls, trips to Bes Pelargic and Klatch (because we will see far less of the Disc as the series increasingly focuses on Ankh-Morpork and the surrounding countryside), and a cameo appearance by Rincewind, which I’m frankly surprised didn’t happen in Equal Rites.

Mort is a really good book. It’s funny, it’s creative, it’s original and it’s deeply engaging. As a Discworld book? Well, it’s the first really good Discworld book – not even the first great Discworld book. It’s the beginning of the Death story arc (one of the series’ shorter ones) and, as I said, it’s a great book in and of itself. If you’re interested in reading the Discworld series for the first time and, of the Recommended Starting Titles™, your library only has Mort? Go for it. If, on the other hand, you’re perusing Amazon and have all the world’s literature before your credit card, then go ahead and buy #8, Guards! Guards! I’ll explain why when I get there.

Next up is the Discworld #5, Rincewind #3, Sourcery – a book I remember absolutely nothing about except an all-powerful wizard and a half-brick in a sock.

Rereading Discworld index

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