Mort Hardback by Terry Pratchett
Gollancz, hb, £12.99
Reviewed by Charlotte Bond
Whenever I’m feeling low, I turn to Pratchett. In the midst
of the hate speech inspired by Brexit, I read Jingo. When I’m feeling like I can’t win at anything, I reread Guards! Guards! to feel like there’s
always a chance for the little man. And when I want to combat any anti-feminist
propaganda, I go to any of the books involving Granny Weatherwax.
For me, Mort will always be the first true “Pratchett” novel, the one which epitomises the style he was later to become famous for. The first two novels in the Discworld series were fun but not quite as sharp. Equal Rites will always have a soft spot in my heart for its feminist overtones, but Mort is really the first book in the series that captures my interest and where, in my opinion, Pratchett really gets into his stride.
Everyone is clear on the fact that Mortimer is not a natural choice to work at his father’s winery. So, Mort and his father, Lezec, go to a nearby apprentice’s fair where Mort is hired by Death. Mort is taken back to Death’s realm where he meets Alfred (Death’s servant) and Ysabelle (Death’s adopted daughter).
Mort’s apprenticeship seems to be getting off to a good if shaky start, but things take a turn for the catastrophic when he prevents a princess from being assassinated. After that, it’s a race against time to try and bend history to ensure that everyone survives and that, most importantly, Death doesn’t find out what’s going on.
This book is a masterclass in telling a story through someone else’s eyes. Mort and Death are the two main POV characters in this book although we also get glimpses into the secondary character viewpoints, as well as the odd diversion into an omniscient narrator mode which often characterises Pratchett’s work.
Mortimer might be the title character, but before we actually meet him, we see him through the eyes of both Death and Lezek. Mort’s journey in the novel revolves around him trying to dispel the image that everyone else has of him. This is exemplified by his constant battle to get everyone to refer to him by his name rather than just as “boy.”
And, of course, a continual joke throughout all of the Discworld books is the reference that humans can’t see Death in his true form. As he explains to Mort: “There’s no magic. People can’t see me, they simply won’t allow themselves to do it. Until it’s time, of course.”
This similarity between the two characters, of being misunderstood and not seen for themselves by the world around them, is just the beginning of Pratchett’s subtle analysis of what it’s like to be human and, conversely, what it’s like to be Death.
Death’s adopted daughter, Ysabell, is an unlovable and obnoxious character who isn’t often a main POV character. Yet, despite viewing her from a narrative distance, you still end up loving her anyway. It’s a remarkable achievement for a writer to be able to inspire such reader empathy for a secondary character whom you basically start out wanting to slap.
In Ysabell, you can see Pratchett’s initial attempts at
getting us to root for a character that is really not your typical hero –
something he would go on to perfect with characters such as Vimes, Granny
Weatherwax, and Moist Von Lipwig.
But by far and away the most interesting character in this novel is Death. Pratchett wrote forty-one novels set on the Discworld, and out of those, Death appears in thirty-nine of them (he doesn’t feature in The Wee Free Men and Snuff).
While it is a truism to say that death is prevalent in all realities and storytelling, Pratchett presents us with a unique Death who is both implacable (There is no justice, only me) and yet endearing.
I can’t say “endearingly human” because the whole charm of Death is that he isn’t human – even though he tries so hard to be so at times. This is the first of several novels where Pratchett tries to imagine what it would be like to exist as a supernatural being who must be perfectly unbiased while at the same time dealing with dramatic and emotional humans all day.
Even though it’s clear that Death doesn’t really grasp the essence of being human, nevertheless he keeps trying to understand the nature of his “client base” as well as the wider nature of the universe and his part in it.
Part of Pratchett’s magic has always been his way of managing to let people insert their own jokes. There is plenty of that in here, with both explicit references (such as when Mort asks how Death got the coins he uses to buy Mort some clothes) and in reference to the Discworld and its rules. For example:
‘But you’re Death,’ said Mort. ‘You go around killing people!’
I? KILL? said Death, obviously offended. CERTAINLY NOT. PEOPLE GET KILLED, BUT THAT’S THEIR BUSINESS. I JUST TAKE OVER FROM THEN ON.
Such jokes as these not only work within the realms Pratchett’s imagined universe, but they pass commentary on our own. This book shows a form of death that many of us would love to believe awaits that at the end of our lives — whether that’s the witch who knows about her time of death and controls it when it comes, or the Buddhist-like abbot who takes reincarnation in his stride. There is comfort and humour in deaths experienced by those who inhabit the Discworld.
As part of exploring Death and death, the book examines whether our lives are truly our own. When Ysabell first learns that Mort is Death’s apprentice, she scoffs and says: ‘He’s not something you become, he’s something you are.’ Yet Mort questions whether this is actually true.
Is our future really dictated by the manner and place of our
birth? Can we become more? If we are born to the loneliest of professions, can
we gather company about us? Can a human become Death and can Death become more
human? And even if it is possible – is it a good idea?
The particular version of Mort that I was sent for review was a hardback edition. If you’re a collector, it’s a must-have. The paper is of a good thick quality, and it’s always nice to have a ribbon bookmark as an added extra.
There is no dustjacket to this hardback and rather than the cover being smooth and shiny, it’s got a delightfully rough feel to it. As you hold the book to read it, you feel like you’re holding something special.
I’ve always loved Josh Kirby’s mad but incredibly detailed covers to Pratchett’s books; the characters might not be presented how I imagined them, but they were filled with fun and I loved picking out all the details from the story.
When Kirby passed on, the covers were given to Paul Kidby. In an interview with The Guardian, Kidby described how he handed some photocopies of his work to Terry Pratchett at a book signing, just as a fan showing his appreciation. But a few weeks later, he got a call from Pratchett himself saying how Kidby’s illustrations were the closest anyone had come to drawing the characters in the way that Pratchett himself imagined them. Similarly, I find that Kidby’s covers show the characters if not exactly as I imagined them then as close enough as makes little difference.
The cover illustration for the hardback is by Joe McLaren who has done all of the hardback editions so far. While some of them are amazing (Going Postal, Lords and Ladies, and Small Gods were all the ones that really caught my eye), I feel that Mort’s cover isn’t quite as good as the others.
The colour scheme for Mort’s cover is just right, and I Iove how the stars and the scythe are picked out in a reflective silver. My main dislike has to be the portrayal of the Mort himself. When McLaren has put main characters on his other covers, they’ve generally been decent enough. The cover to The Colour of Magic is particularly inspired. But the character of Mortimer seems to be neither realistic nor abstract; it’s caught somewhere between the two. However, that’s only personal taste, and I am quite able to view the cover as a whole without being distracted by a feature I dislike.
Even though many fans will probably own most of the Pratchett books already, I’d say that it’s worth purchasing the hardbacks of your favourites at least. They are good quality with unique and appealing covers, and it is an enhanced reading experience beyond what you would get with a paperback. And if you’re not a fan already, then Mort is a great place to start your Discworld journey.