A key element in many fantasy novels is larger-than-life characters. They could be gods, heroes, dark lords, or anthropomorphic representations of concepts. Such as Death. Terry Pratchett plays with all in his satirical Discworld series, but Death is by far and away his greatest success. It’s not unfair to say that Pratchett’s characterisation of Death is one of the reasons Mort is one of my top fantasy novels.
I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, he said, BUT I COULD MURDER A CURRY.
Death looks like the Grim Reaper we all recognise, the frightening skeleton in a black robe carrying a scythe. And in earlier novels he was closer to that stereotype. He had a cruel sense of humour and was doing his best to manoeuvre the wizard Rincewind into mortal peril. But in Mort, Pratchett expanded Death’s character by leaps and bounds, making him much more likeable, perhaps more hapless, and infinitely funnier. Now he’s simply performing an existential duty. He isn’t killing anyone. He’s just doing the job we gave him, which he’s very good at, and trying to understand people, which he isn’t good at.
Pratchett combines humour and an innocent curiosity to create a loveable character. Yes, fantasy and science fiction is filled with inhuman characters trying to understand humanity. But Pratchett does it so well you don’t mind the stereotype. So you enjoy watching him surround himself with the simulacra of life, a house and a horse and even human companions, without understanding any of them. And that’s where Mort comes in.
But at least the way was clear now. When you step off a cliff, your life takes a very definite direction.
Mort is Death’s new apprentice, just as hapless as his master but young and naive to boot. The plot comes from the hormonal mercy Mort grants to a princess due to die, the consequences of which are universe-shattering in scope. Despite that scale, Mort isn’t much more than a coming-of-age story, a fantasy bildungsroman, if you will. It’s a little simple, a little rough around the edges. But I find that makes the novel quite sweet and personal. Pratchett’s later works have the polish of a master craftsman with clever ideas and even intricate plots. But Mort is simpler fare with a story we can all identify. It’s also filled with Pratchett’s trademark wit, which makes this both a loveable and funny book.
As one man, the assembled company stopped talking and stared at him with the honest rural stare that suggests that for two pins they’ll hit you around the head with a shovel and bury your body under a compost heap at full moon.
I could write plenty about Terry Pratchett’s style of humour (and I did, a little, when I reviewed Pratchett’s Nome Trilogy). But the humour isn’t what makes this a great fantasy novel. It’s Pratchett’s inventiveness that does that. As mentioned before, Pratchett likes to indulge in all the tropes of fantasy, and play and lampoon them in clever ways. I enjoyed the idea that magical rites could be performed with very little but professional prestige is the motivator behind the pomp and ceremony. I also liked the way Pratchett incorporated the idea of morphogenetics, ludicrous in real life but fascinating “science” for a fantasy novel. And, of course, the way Ankh-Morpork reflects every major city is always insightful and hilarious.
Scientists have calculated that the chances of something so patently absurd actually existing are millions to one.
But magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.
In short, Mort is the Discworld novel for a fantasy lover that hasn’t read Discworld. And, if you’ve read Discworld but not Mort, hop to it; you’re missing out! In the meantime, do you think this deserves to be one of my top fantasy novels? Or can you think of a better candidate? Let me know in the comments!