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There is nothing, I say, quite like a Wicked Man. Capital letters and all. And nobody writes them quite the way Georgette Heyer does. I don’t mean evil men, true villains; what I’m talking about here are the Regency bad boys, the ones who do everything they ought not to do by the social codes of the day but have a certain unshakable morality, alternative though it may be. Perhaps it’s just Heyer’s settings, several hundred years away from us, that give them their dash and excitement, the thrill of men who are dangerous and bold. To be sure, a Wicked Man is so much more delectable on a horse, with a sword, and wearing a powdered wig… even the foppish fashions of Heyer’s period romances, presented in loving detail, never make her heros seem anything but all male.

And it’s with those very fashions that she introduces her Wicked Man in These Old Shades. Justin, the Duke of Avon strolls along one evening in Paris, wearing a costume of incredible magnificence. We have just enough time to digest the fact that he is no ordinary passerby when he, and we, are thrown off balance by a red-headed urchin who races out of the shadows. The boy, Leon, is running from his brother, who follows soon after. The Duke looks into Leon’s face, observes his brother for an instant, and decides that he will buy the boy, “body and soul,” for a diamond pin.

The boy is introduced into the Duke’s household as his page; he goes everywhere with the Duke, who he plainly worships, for having rescued him from the sordidity of the existence he had living with his brother. All is not quite as it seems, and a few weeks exposes the truth — Leon the page is actually Leonie, a girl dressed as a boy. But that isn’t the only mystery about Leonie, and nothing will escape the Duke’s sharp eyes and long memory…

This is one of the first Heyers I ever read and I still enjoy it tremendously. It has a plot that is insanely dramatic and has more than a few sharp twists, but it is, ultimately, a search for justice and cannot but drag you in and make you cheer lustily for the side of the right. The book’s hero may not have the purest of histories (with a nickname like “Satanas” this is no surprise), but when he seeks out vengeance, it is much more for somebody weaker than it is for himself.  And if, by the end, he isn’t convinced of his own worthiness, we definitely are. Justin, Duke of Avon, is indeed one of Heyer’s most swoon-inspiring Wicked Men. Just as Leonie, the urchin turned beauty, is an intriguing, brave, and proud heroine, and also one of Heyer’s naughtiest creations.

Still, Justin and Leonie aside, I do think one reason I love this book is because of the supporting cast. Justin’s friend, the kind Hugh Devenant, almost as antithesis to Justin’s Satanas persona; his sister, the vain and silly, but tender-hearted Lady Fanny; his brother-in-law, pompous Edward Marling, who nonetheless has the capacity to be charmed; his brother,  the reckless, handsome, courageous Rupert; his neighbours, who aren’t on speaking terms with him, the Merivales; the wise old priest who has known Leonie since her childhood; Heyer writes them all in most lovingly, and gives them things to say that are charming, funny, delightful, memorable and even occasionally insightful. Even the fringe characters are memorable; for my part, I always grin when I recall Lady Fanny’s maid, Rachel, and her cry of “Lawks!” when she first realizes Leonie is a girl dressed in boy’s clothes. And Heyer’s chief villain here is, in some ways, her most dastardly.

Heyer chooses not to go into any detail on Leonie’s past and her life before the Duke buys her, and this is perhaps the only real stumbling-block. The book loses a certain emotional power by completely omitting any deep discussion of what Leonie may have faced, though it does, in passing, mention these “horrors.” Still, there is something to be said for the fact that we, as readers, and every character that encounters Leonie and loves her, all end up wanting to protect her and hoping that the villain gets his comeuppance. There may be an outward frivolity to the conversation, but these are all people who not only love Leonie but also are outraged by what her life has been made into by villainy before the Duke rescues her. Social justice this isn’t, but, to be fair, that’s never the point of a Georgette Heyer novel.

What this is, is a bit of highly pleasurable nonsense. Everybody larger than life and twice as wonderful — or evil — but with enough good storytelling to make it into a good book. Heyer shows us that a romance needn’t be stupid or boring or predictable; it can actually be full of wit and a grand amusement.

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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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