Mort by Terry Pratchett (1987)
Mort is the first book in the Death story arc of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, and the fourth book in the series overall. If you’re new to the Discworld series, I highly recommend reading the books in publication order (though some readers will recommend reading each story arc in chronological order). I also recommend referring to this chart that maps out where each book falls in the various story arcs within the Discworld series. As you might have guessed from the title, the story follows the adventures of Mort, a young boy whose father thinks he spends too much time reading and thinking. Mort’s father decides to send him out to be an apprentice and learn a trade, mostly because he doesn’t know what else to do with him since reading and thinking skills aren’t desirable in their agricultural community. Together, Mort and his father go to the market where those wanting to be an apprentice and those looking for an apprentice meetup. The market day ends at midnight, and at just a few minutes before the close of the market Mort is the only one who hasn’t been selected. Then, in rides Death, who happens to be looking for an apprentice. Of course, Death finds Mort’s name to be entirely appropriate, but as the story unfolds, no one calls Mort by his name. Indeed, that is one of the running jokes throughout the novel and yet it is significant when the people in Mort’s life begin calling him by his name, but I won’t spoil that for you.
Since this is the starter novel in the Death story arc, it is appropriate that we learn some interesting things about Death. He has a permanent smile on his face, it makes him angry when someone drowns kittens, his black steed is named Binky, he can operate and exist outside of Time, and he has a daughter whose name is Ysabell. Perhaps most interesting is that Death cannot create anything, he can only copy something that already exists. The fact that Death cannot experience any human emotions is equally important. What Pratchett has done in this novel is put a spin on the “Death takes a holiday” motif, but he does more than that. Death not only wants to take a few days off, he also wants to understand human emotions. He already understands the appreciation for food—he murders a curry at the start of the novel—but he also wants to experience things like fun and drunkenness, and he also wants to know what it would be like to have a friend, to not always be avoided, hated, and ignored. Pratchett masterfully imbues Death with all the qualities that we as humans feel toward death—such as not wanting to talk or think about it and desiring to avoid it at all costs—and then shows us how Death responds to being alienated in such a way by everyone in society. Death is the ultimate pariah, and as the story progresses what he searches for is a release from that condition. Death just wants to be like everyone else.
But as Death takes a holiday and becomes more and more unwilling to go back to the Duty that is his, someone has to do Death’s job, and the Duty falls upon his bumbling and completely engaging apprentice, Mort. Mort goes out each day to escort the souls of the departed to their final resting places, but of course there is one person he can’t bear to see die—the young Princess Keli. He doesn’t complete the Duty in her case but instead brings death to her would-be assassin. In doing so, however, he throws Reality and History into chaos. It was fated that the princess would die in that assassination attempt, and though she is very much still alive, everyone in the kingdom believes she is dead and consequently, even though they see her, seeing her makes them uncomfortable and they immediately forget her when they look away because History has already declared that she died in the assassination attempt. Thus, one of the main threads of the story arises from Mort finding a way to fix Reality. Just as the thread of the plot surrounding Death encourages readers to think about how they view death, Mort’s thread of the plot prods readers to think about how our perspectives on History and Reality can be manipulated and to ask ourselves the question: is the future really set in stone? Is History set in stone or is it malleable and changeable?
Mort definitely falls into the category of satire, but it’s also just a fun, entertaining, and amusing read. Mort and Death shine as the main characters, and the supporting cast of characters is quirky and well-developed. I came to have strong opinions about Princess Keli in particular, and I loved that Rincewind (from the Rincewind story arc and whose adventures we follow in the first and second novels in the series—The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, respectively) made an appearance in the last quarter of the story. I’m reading the novels in publication order and this one is definitely my favorite so far. The blend of the hero’s journey, the star-crossed lovers plotline, and Death’s quest to find meaning in his life create a wonderful tale that kept me turning the pages. I would definitely recommend this book to readers who have yet to discover the Discworld series and readers who like reading in the science fiction/fantasy genre. I also recommend this book to readers who are skeptical of the sci/fi genre because to say that that is all this book is would be to do it an incredible disservice. It may be set on the Discworld, but there’s a lot that we can learn from the Discworld about our own world and ourselves.