Reaper Man

by Terry Pratchett

Cover image

Series: Discworld #11
Publisher: HarperTorch
Copyright: 1991
Printing: August 2002
ISBN: 0-06-102062-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 353

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Reaper Man is the eleventh book in the Discworld series and a sort of thematic sequel to Mort, but I don't see any particular need to read Mort before reading this book. Most of what Mort would do is introduce you to Death, but Pratchett's Death introduces himself fine here and is not hard to grasp. The events of this book may matter a bit more to you, though, if you've had prior experience with the inhabitants of Ankh-Morpork.

Death has retired. Or, rather, has been retired. Beings who very carefully do not have personalities or individuality have convinced Azrael that it's time for him to retire because he's become too much of a character, and one cannot have impersonal forces of the universe becoming characters. He has gotten his own hourglass, his own time, at the end of which he will presumably die. This being a rather novel experience, Death goes off to enjoy it.

Meanwhile, Windle Poons, one of the most elderly of the wizards in the Unseen University, who has spent his appearances in previous books being terribly hard of hearing and making inappropriate comments while wandering about in his wheelchair, dies. Except that doesn't work so well when Death is off living. So, after spending a while waiting for Death to show up, Windle Poons goes back into his body, which turns out to work much better when under the direct control of his undead spirit than when he was naturally inhabiting it.

Reaper Man follows two main threads: Death's time as a farm hand learning what life is like, and in the process generating numerous references to Westerns and putting his scythe to traditional uses, and Windle Poons and sundry other Ankh-Morpork inhabitants dealing with a very troubling excess of life. I think the Death parts are the best, viewed as a story. Death's combination of bottomless ability and understanding when it comes to his specialties and an odd type of practical naivete when it comes to living is engaging reading, and the friendship he strikes up with a widowed farmwife is surprisingly touching. Pratchett pulls off quite a few excellent witticisms here, along with some exceptional description of a really sharp scythe.

The other thread, which is the majority of the book or at least felt like it (since it sometimes dragged where the Death parts did not), is rather less satisfying, but is largely rescued by Windle Poons, who is one of Pratchett's best characters. I never much cared for him before he died, but the zombie Windle Poons is hilarious and can carry the entire book. That's a good thing, since most of the rest of the Ankh-Morpork residents are not particularly memorable here, and the plot has a tendency to drift. All the pieces should be there: the eventual villain (sort of) is an interesting concept, the snowglobes are eerily amusing, and the trollies are worth a chuckle once one figures out how they connect. But the pieces never come together into a compelling whole. I never found myself engaged in the plot or excited to see what would happen next; mostly, I kept turning the pages to see what Windle Poons would do or how people would react to him (and because eventually Pratchett would get back to Death).

I think Reaper Man is about middle-of-the-pack for this middle section of the Discworld series. It's not as good as Moving Pictures but substantially better than the earlier style like Pyramids. It would surprise me if it's anyone's favorite Pratchett, but if you like Discworld, it won't disappoint. And it has the great Pratchett property that, even if the plot doesn't always work, there will be some great lines or discovered references that will put a smile on your face.

Recommended if you like Discworld, but probably not the place to start.

Followed by Witches Abroad in the chronological sense and (later) by Soul Music in the plot sense.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-03-08

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21