Mort by Terry Pratchett, Harper edition 2013.
Death takes a holiday. Sort of.
It’s no secret that Death (an anthropomorphic personification, as he refers to himself) was one of Terry Pratchett’s favorite Discworld characters. Playing with Death for fun is, well, fun, but with a very serious subtext that’s never very far from the open and flat-out surface text. Where Death is concerned for each and every one of us, the last laugh is always on you. Regardless, Death as personified in Discworld is, in a sense, a human projection who is not human and can never quite get a handle on what being human is all about. He is curious about mortals. Or to paraphrase Sir Terry himself, “He doesn’t quite know where we’re coming from, though he does know where we’re going.”
It could be this curiosity which leads him, apparently on a whim, to take an apprentice, a gangly and clumsy young man named Mortimer, or Mort for short. Which doesn’t seem to help, as Death usually refers to him as Boy no matter how many times Mort repeats his name. Once he enters Death’s realm, he meets two other humans residing there: Ysabell, Death’s grumpy adoptive daughter, and Albert, Death’s longtime (very longtime) servant. Mort starts his apprenticeship into learning “the uttermost secrets of time and space” by mucking out the stable where Binky, Death’s noble steed, is quartered. Death’s horse, like Mort, Ysabell, and Albert, is likewise a living creature, skeletal horses as pictured in art proving simply impractical. While shoveling manure Mort also deftly deflects all of Ysabell’s efforts to turn him into a personal servant. His very effective strategy is to ignore her even as she attacks with the impeccable logic that apprentices eventually inherit their master’s business but there’s only one Death and Mort isn’t him, so he’s really just a servant and must do what she says.
Mort’s apprenticeship progresses well enough and soon Death is taking him out on “The Duty” where Mort learns about “life timers” (the hourglass) and what to do when a person’s sands run out. It’s all very professional and straightforward until, on another whim, Death decides to let Mort go out on his own while Death does other things for a bit, like tying flies and taking up fly-fishing and trying to learn about “fun.” Which is a difficult thing to comprehend when one is wholly a being of intellect with absolutely no glands of any kind. As with so many other things, Albert describes Death’s impulses thus: “It’s only his fancy. He doesn’t mean anything by it.”
Mort, for his part, soon discovers that the job of Death is a great deal more complicated by the presence of glands. His stint at The Duty is going very well until he’s called upon to perform the duty on a princess who is fated to die at the hands of an assassin at age fifteen. The glands and instincts take over, and instead of doing his job he kills the assassin. It’s the proper heroic act for a young man of conventional ethics but a terrible mistake for someone acting on behalf of the anthropomorphic personification of Death. Fate is a rather fixed and scheduled affair on Discworld. The princess in question, Keli of Sto Lat, was supposed to be dead only she isn’t and she’s having trouble convincing her subjects of that because on some level they’re aware that her presence is, well, wrong. They tend not to see her even when she’s standing right in front of them. She hires a second-rate wizard named Cutwell as her Official Recognizer since as a wizard—albeit second, or maybe even third-rate—he can see her fine. Yet she now has a bigger problem—History. History knows she doesn’t belong, and History has a way of sorting things out. Her kingdom now exists within a small bubble of separate reality with the greater reality of History closing in on all sides.
Mort is going to need both Ysabell and Albert’s help to attempt to sort out the mess he’s made before Death finds out, but of course Death does find out and, well, spoilers. I will say it involves the Unseen University, Albert’s true identity, magic spells, magical duels and maybe some interventions, divine and otherwise. Or maybe Fate and History have a little flexibility on some of the nitty details. It rather depends on your point of view. Mine is that MORT is typical discworld, and you’re either into that or you aren’t, because it’s hard to be neutral on the subject. I was smiling through it all, but now I’m a bit sad knowing there won’t be any more of them, so I plan to take my time getting through the rest. If I time it right, maybe I’ll finish about the time that the sands run out. That would seem oddly appropriate.