The Colour of Magic was the author having fun and happening to strike gold; The Light Fantastic was an only partly succesful attempt to recapture that winning formula; Equal Rites was a mostly succesful but still flawed attempt to tell a different type of story in a similar setting; Mort is where Discworld is really born.
Mort takes a lot from Equal Rites, most importantly the central revelation that Discworld out to be a series of books about real people in a pastiche fantasy world, not just a pastiche of fantasy. In this case, the real people don’t live in Bad Ass, but on another side of the Ramtops, in the Octarine Grass Country, but that doesn’t make too much difference. The novel’s central character, Mort, occupies a similar niche to Esk in the previous novel: a strange, overly-intelligent child is born to a rural farming family, and has no place among them, but is called to power and purpose in an entirely different setting. Mort isn’t exactly Esk: he’s gangly and daydreamy and bookish, rather than concentrated and practical – in fact, he’s essentially a non-idiot-savant non-wizard version of Simon, Esk’s counterpart in the preceding novel. And his family isn’t exactly the same as Esk’s – the Octarine Grass Country is more southern, more prosaic, than the wild mountain northernness of Bad Ass. [Both setting and character are perhaps closer to Pratchett’s own background: born in a small market town outside London, complete with an annual fair, he credits his education to the time he spent in the public library reading everything he could find.*] But the contours of the situation are the same.
(If written today, surely both books would be marketed as ‘YA’).
Anyway, rather than becoming a wizard, this time the misfit hero becomes Death, or at least Death’s apprentice. Needless to say, things go wrong.
Continuing and expanding a structural trait of the two preceding novels, the main body of Mort is split into two plots (actually, by the end, three or four). The main plot follows Mort’s attempts to come to terms with the role of Death, while correcting for and covering up the results of a mistake he made (or possibly chose to make), alongside Death’s adopted daughter, Ysabel, and butler, Albert. This section clearly grew out of the ‘Death’s domain’ section of TLF, in which Death and Ysabel are introduced (in the latter case, with little explanation – was Pratchett already planning Mort, or was she a random loose end he later decided to do something with?). The counterplot is a lighter-hearted affair in which Death goes on holiday to find out what’s so great about life, ultimately ending up in Ankh-Morpork. At first glance, this seems like comic relief, although in many ways it’s the real core of the novel: it’s through this establishment of Death, not only Death as a character but what it must mean to be Death (he’s never invited to parties, for a start), that the main storyline gets its depth. Pratchett does a good job of conveying that ‘Death’s apprentice’ is more than a joke, more than having a strange employer – as he often does in his best work, he takes a whimsical concept and fleshes it out into something powerful and dark.
On another level, it may be worth mentioning that Death’s time in Ankh-Morpork is vital for another reason: to continue Discworld’s meditation on the difference between London and the rest of the UK. Well, OK, more universally on the difference between town and country, but as both Pratchett and I have grown up in the shadow of the Smoke, it’s hard for me to see it outside of that context (perpetuating, of course, the traditional British obsession with role and strangeness of London – Equal Rites in particular can be seen in light of the rich literature of bright northerners coming south to seek their fortune). In Mort, Ankh-Morpork is even symbolised by a carbuncle, much as London is known as the Great Wen. In any case, in TCOM, Ankh-Morpork was only one fantastical place among many, but both TLF and ER placed the rural/urban distinction at their hearts (in the former case, through Rincewind’s homesick citydweller; in the latter, through Esk and Granny as naïve country women encountering the city for the first time). In Mort, the contrast is less explicit, as the characters largely do not overlap, but nonetheless the powerful big-city light is being shone on the small and trivial world both of Mort’s home and of the petty politics of the Sto Plains, while the honesty and simplicity of the rural setting is being used to accentuate the decadence of the city.
Hmm. OK, I’ll admit: I’m finding it hard to right about this one. You’ve probably noticed. There’s a very clear reason why it’s hard to say much about this book: there’s almost nothing wrong with it. It’s not really deep enough to go on about its themes, but it’s just too damn good to explain its flaws at length.
It isn’t perfect exactly. The two plotlines, while working well together, do feel a bit disconnected. The overall plot still feels a bit rushed and not entirely coherent – although it’s considerably better in that respect than any of the previous books. [I think ER hit a higher level in the early sections, but Mort has fewer flaws]. It has considerable pathos; it has excitement (and a duel! and an elephant!); it has a lot of humour. It’s the funniest Discworld so far, with a good mix of jokes, from the broad to the sophisticated. It’s clearly a major milestone in solidifying the nature of the Disc and setting the benchmark for future novels. Some fourth-wall-breaking persists, and I didn’t entirely appreciate it, but it is better handled than before, and not a major problem.
Frankly, the only serious defect of this book is that it’s just too short.
Oh, and I should also add: it’s full of sex. I mean seriously full. In Equal Rites Pratchett quite straightforwardly set out to talk about sex (in both senses of the word) and Mort continues in the same vein. It’s a little awkward really. In many ways, this is a book it would be great to read to, or with, a child – except that you literally cannot go three pages in any direction without a nod, a wink, an innuendo, a risque diversion, or a barefaced “gurgle of passion” off in the bushes. As an adult, it just makes it more fun to read – Pratchett is one of the few authors who can walk the line between seeming prudish and seeming lecherous, and his embrace of sexuality is just one part of his embrace of life in all its glories – and most children wouldn’t notice a lot of it and would shrug past the rest (I know I did when I first read it), but boy would I have a red face trying to read this to someone under the age of majority…
Anyway. Short version. Very good book. Still a bit shallow and a little wobbly around the edges. But not only a good omen for his later books, but also a reminder that early Pratchett wasn’t just there to grow up into later Pratchett. If he’d stopped writing at this point, Mort wouldn’t be a bad magnum opus for an author to have.
But, of course, he didn’t…
Adrenaline: 4/5. I found this gripping! Could easily have been 5/5, except that honestly the exciting part is only a small portion of the whole.
Emotion: 3/5. Not exactly grabbed by the neck and shaken, but there’s no denying there’s pathos to it. And continues ER’s trend toward deeper characters – nobody here stands out to the same extent as Granny, but there’s a decent ensemble cast.
Thought: 3/5. Not a work of high philosophy, but also not afraid to at least look at some serious questions of life, death, and everything in between.
Beauty: 3/5. May be being harsh, because this is a book with a lot of great lines, and a lot of great images too. On the other hand, it still feels a bit raw and ungainly here and there.
Craft: 4/5. Between a well-structured climax, plot twists, and a lot of great humour, this is definitely a notably well-put-together book. Not perfect yet, but progressing.
Endearingness: 4/5. Again, no one character stands out, and I didn’t fall in love with anyone or anything. However, it was fun, funny, moving and clever, I’ve read it a bunch of times and I’m going to read it a bunch of times more.
Originality: 4/5. It’s a strange book. A lot of the individual elements seem cliché, but they’re handled in surprising and original ways. It’s not particularly predictable, and features a lot of things that would never have occurred to most authors.
Overall: 5/7. Good. The same score as Equal Rites – but ER is down at the more-than-just-not-bad end, and Mort, I think, is up at the almost-very-good-indeed part of the spectrum. It’s the best Discworld so far (and frankly I’m a bit embarrassed about giving it such a brief and incoherent review, so sorry about that…). But on to the next!
[Actually, the next is Sourcery, which to be honest I’m looking forward to mostly as a stepping stone to Wyrd Sisters. Then again, I’ve been pleasantly surprised before when revisiting books I last read a decade and a half ago]
*Fun coincidence: he was born in Beaconsfield, the same town where his stylistic predecessor GK Chesterton is burried.