Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett (1991) 352 p.
Discworld #11 (Death #2)
In the early novel Mort, Pratchett expanded upon one of his best creations: Death, the anthropomorphic personification of human mortality. A Grim Reaper figure who shepherds souls into the next world, he takes a professional pride in his work and has a sort of vague fondness for humanity. Mort is largely the story of his human apprentice, though, with Death himself sidelined on a sideplot in which he goes and tries to actually live: attends a party, takes a job as a short order cook, etc. It’s the B-side to Mort’s broader adventure.
Reaper Man builds upon that concept of Death as a fish out of water, treating it far more seriously. Death is merely a servant in the cosmic order of things, and he is informed one day that he has been replaced. (His sackable offence was developing too much of a personality.) He is given his own lifetimer, a certain number of remaining days, and is allowed to keep his pale white horse Binky. With no avenue of protest, Death sets out to spend his last remaining days in the real, human world – and naturally takes a job as a farmhand, being handy with a scythe.
This sounds like a screwball comedy, but Death’s story in Reaper Man actually struck me as a sort of fairytale, which makes sense in its own contained universe. People cannot see what he really is, and most of his dealings in the remote village he moves to have a symbolic quality: the landlady who was widowed before her wedding day, the young country boys who seem to become old country men with no intermediate stage, the dreadful new combine harvester which stands as a symbol of ruthless, efficient progress. Death’s combination of wisdom and naivete makes for an enjoyable and surprisingly earnest little story.
Unfortunately Death’s story thread is also smaller than I remembered; most of the book is taken up with what’s going on in Ankh-Morpork, where in Death’s absence people have stopped dying. Windle Poons, the elderly magician from Moving Pictures, is very annoyed to find himself returned to his body after a brief stretch in limbo, and sets out to discover what’s gone wrong.
This is where Reaper Man stumbles: a beautifully painted, emotionally affective story about Death learning to live with ordinary people is paired with a wacky-hijinks adventure in which Windle Poons and his crew of undead oddballs follow the trail of the randomly appearing snowglobes which turn into shopping trolleys which are then accumulating into a hive that grows a shopping mall (???). I wish I’d made any of that up. It’s an absolute brain fart of an idea which Pratchett never should have put to paper, let alone shoved in alongside one of his best stories yet. He’s written silly, disjointed books that fell flat before this, but never one which was so brazenly a creature of two halves. Reaper Man isn’t quite as good as I remember – but that plot with Death, out on the farm, living out his days, is still really something special.