Mort

by Terry Pratchett

Cover image

Series: Discworld #4
Publisher: HarperTorch
Copyright: 1987
Printing: February 2001
ISBN: 0-06-102068-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 243

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This is the fourth book in the Discworld series, but it's one of the recommended starting points. While Death plays an incidental role in all of the previous books, none of that is required to enjoy this book (or has much effect on the plot).

Mort's parents have no idea what to do with him. He's gangly, awkward, distracted, and poorly suited for life on their farm. The only thing his father can think of is to take him to a job fair and hope that someone will take him as an apprentice and teach him a trade, and even that hope looks doomed as midnight approaches and Mort is the only prospective apprentice left. Then Death shows up.

This, like some of the other early Discworld books I've reviewed recently, was a re-read, but neither The Colour of Magic nor The Light Fantastic stuck in my head the way that Mort did. Reading them all again, the reason becomes apparent: the first three Discworld books felt more like joke collections with a simple plot to keep them moving, whereas Mort feels more like a novel with a lot of jokes.

The joke and pun density are both down considerably. They're not gone entirely, of course, and the footnote count is up (including the footnote about kingons, one of my favorite footnotes for the entire series), but more of the humor is situational. Mort is sincere, earnest, and fairly literal, which makes him a great straight-man for Discworld's bizarre metaphysics. There's also a lot of great scenery: the room of hourglasses, Death's pocket dimension, and the library of lives stand out, often more fascinating than funny.

The plot unfortunately revolves around Mort's relationship with two women, but Pratchett mostly avoids painfully embarassing scenes. I could have done with less of this, but it wasn't too bad. And the main plot mechanic, Discworld's reaction to something happening contrary to fate, is wonderful. It's one of the most inventive ways of handling the time travel paradox problem I've seen and one that would only work on Discworld.

The highlight of the book, though, is Death, who has been a highlight of every Discworld novel he's appeared in. He finally gets significant screen time to himself in Mort and makes delightful use of it. Pratchett's Death is somber and conscientious, giving the impression of someone who's always in control of what's happening around him, but he can be as literal as Mort and is prone to surprising flashes of emotion. Towards the end of Mort, he takes a vacation to sample life; those scenes are the best scenes in the book. As with a lot of Pratchett's writing, the underlying idea is old (in this case, the freedom of getting away from one's job and doing whatever one wants), but his characters and askew look at the world give the idea new life.

Mort is more mellow and less frantic than the previous books. It neither makes one laugh on every page nor gives the impression that Pratchett is trying for laughs on every page. I could have done with less of Ysabell and I think the story lost momentum in a few places, but the plot is stronger than any previous Discworld book, as is the coherence of the universe. I liked the move away from obvious parody and into building Discworld as a unique environment that doesn't just mirror others. Recommended more comfortably than the previous books, as one's enjoyment doesn't rest as heavily on gags and puns.

Followed by Sourcery in the chronological sense and (later) by Reaper Man in the plot sense.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-01-19

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21