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Archive for the ‘Pratchett, Terry’ Category

Cover of MortMort is, according to the results of the BBC’s Big Read, the UK’s favourite Discworld novel. Not hard to see why, really. This is Pratchett at his best, hitting his form–and presumably also Pratchett long before editors began to canonize his manuscripts and be afraid to actually trim the fat. Mort is in stark contrast to the previous Pratchett I read, Thief of Time, which was fun, but verging on sloppy. It’s tightly written and plotted, genuinely funny and witty, full of really good jokes. Really good ones, really fresh ones. I spent a lot of time with this book just grinning–and not in the way a skull does. Which only goes to show how delightful this book was–I’ve actually read it once before, but enjoyed it as much as if it was a new discovery.

Enough waffling. Mort is the first of the books in the series that focus on Death (the Anthropomorphic Personification). The eponymous character, Mort, is a young lad who goes in search of work and ends up being hired by Dearth, as an apprentice, to assist in the work of ushering souls from life into the next world. Death lives in a black castle in his own realm where time stands still, has a servant named Albert, a gleaming white horse named Binky, and, not least, an adopted daughter named Ysabell. Mort does not fall in love with the daughter, though Death appears to want him to; instead, he develops a mad crush on a princess and, when she dies, refuses to do his job of taking her soul across, thus altering reality. And that’s all of the plot you need to know for starters, really.

The awkward, determined Mort is enormously likeable, but it’s Death who’s the star here. Death is the Grim Reaper of European cultural imagery; he carries a scythe and rides a white horse and is hidden under a voluminous cloak. Death is fascinated with life and the living, especially with the human race and its foibles. His realm, created by him, is a way of trying to fit in; he eats (lord knows how), and drinks, and attempts to go to a party, and, as Ysabell says, though he didn’t FEEL sorry for her, he probably THOUGHT sorry for her when he was adopting her. He’s also fond of kittens. Poor chap. The loneliness of being Death doesn’t escape Pratchett’s pen.

Such is the power of Pratchett’s characterization that he, reportedly, has received numerous letters from people who are terminally ill, saying that they hope that when death comes for them, he will be Pratchett’s Death. This isn’t as inane as it sounds, though the pseudo-religiosity of this sentiment is mildly alarming; Pratchett’s Death is humane and even sympathetic, ready to help a soul on into the unknown. He abides strictly by the rules of the universe, but he does carry out his task reliably, solidly, with no malice. That’s what you’d want at the end of life, I think. It’s what anyone would want. Pratchett has unerringly written a character that embodies so much of what we think and feel about death.

Pratchett, who has Alzheimer’s disease, also recently made a case for having a euthanasia tribunal, to permit people who are terminally ill to decide when they want to end their lives. It’s another mode of making death humane, making sure it doesn’t have to come after long soul-sapping suffering. Evidently, the Death of the Discworld isn’t without his underpinnings in our world.

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It took me a good while to warm up to Terry Pratchett. That wasn’t entirely because I made the mistake of first trying out The Colour of Magic, which, though his first novel set in the Discworld, is not the best introduction to the series at all, since it’s entirely a parody of the fantasy genre, making familiarity with said fantasy genre a prerequisite to enjoyment. No, it was something akin to the trouble I have with Tolkien–I love the characters, the world is richly imagined, the plots full of twists and turns, the density of the telling so very satisfying, but the style just doesn’t work. Where Tolkien is ponderous, Pratchett is far too sketchy. He seems intent on cutting from one scene to another, building parallel action sequences that are just a tad clumsy in their relationships with each other, and that get increasingly wobbly towards the middle and end of each book.

And yet… and yet… Pratchett is gosh-darn so much FUN to read. That sly sense of humour, that unerring accuracy in aiming the arrows of parody, those groan-inducing puns, that sheer absurdity in stretching the possibilities of his little universe–nobody does it better. Well, Douglas Adams did, but he is, alas, no longer with us and we are infinitely poorer for it. For now, we have Pratchett; and perhaps the reason I have grown so fond of him is that he does all of this, he makes us laugh, and increasingly, he also makes us think and feel. The Discworld series is a long one — 35 books or thereabouts — reading the books in order is both an unnecessary and difficult ask, and after a while, it becomes hard to remember in which book Pratchett excelled at what, but this much is certain: Pratchett’s interests have slowly moved beyond simply mocking this world and have expanded to encompass not only the psychological and emotional underpinnings of his Discworld characters and their development in the time of the Disc but also a sort of echo of the science that drives our universe.

The characters that people Thief of Time aren’t Pratchett’s best-drawn. I felt a trifle distanced from them most of the time. But it’s a memorable book because of the figure of Death, which remains interested in humanity and which becomes here a pair of eyes (or eye sockets, I suppose, given that he’s a skeleton) through which the reader can peer as, dream-like, the science of time is ravelled and unravelled and woven into the texture of this plot. It does take a second reading to understand the principle behind the action in some passages; not even the helpful explanations characters give each other, mostly the History Monk, Lu-Tze, to his pupil, Lobsang Ludd, can make it immediately comprehensible. But when you read through a second time and the pattern settles into your understanding–that’s when Pratchett’s book really lives. I may not always be able to see beyond the flaws in his work, but watching him experiment with writing the Discworld universe in all its aspects–now scientific as well as cultural, sociological, and historical–is entirely enthralling.

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