The Discworld Reread: Book IV
Mortimer, usually called Mort, is nice, well-meaning, but ultimately a bit hopeless. In an effort to make him into someone else’s problem, his father takes him down one Hogswatchnight to the hiring fair in the local town, but no one’s interested. It seems that the gangly boy can’t even be given away. Optimistic to the last, Mort insists on waiting until the last stroke of midnight, just in case a potential employer comes late to the fair. And, sure enough, as the bells strike out over the town, a strange figure appears, cowled and riding a white horse (whose name is Binky), to make Mort an offer that he can’t refuse. He always hoped he’d become an apprentice. He just didn’t think he’d be working for Death.
As I’ve said before, Death is one of my favourite Discworld characters because, despite his propensity to speak in small caps, and the whole business with the scythe and the… well… somewhat undernourished appearance, he’s just an anthropomorphic personality trying to do a good job. And is he appreciated? Generally, no. Throughout the Discworld series, we see a number of occasions when the world trembles on the brink of chaos simply because Death is trying, endearingly but misguidedly, to adopt human ideas. This is the first. It occurs to Mort pretty quickly that being Death’s apprentice is somewhat pointless. After all, it’s not as if he’s ever going to inherit the family firm, is it?
But Death is keen to give the young man a chance, and gently works him up to the stage where he can take on some of the round by himself. And this is where trouble starts because, when all’s said and done, Mort is only about fifteen and prone to romantic beliefs about the universe, such as, for example, a beautiful princess shouldn’t be murdered by her evil uncle. As Death enjoys the chance to finally take his eye off the ball and see a bit of the world, Mort makes the rookie error of letting sentiment get the better of him. It’s a decision which will lead to the very fabric of space and time becoming twisted, but altering the nature of the universe is only one of his problems. There are other pressing matters on Mort’s plate as well – not least the issue of how to deal with the sniffily pompous Ysabell, Death’s adopted daughter.
Mort is delightful from start to finish; it’s one of only two Discworld books to have had the Folio Society treatment, in a beautiful illustrated edition which I covet horribly. The characterisation is wonderful and it does a great job of taking high fantasy conceits and gently puncturing them with common sense. (Rincewind has a very brief cameo, although sans Luggage.) And it sets Death up as a surprisingly sympathetic and fallible character, rather fond of kittens and prone to sudden flights of fancy which, as we’ll see further down the line, sometimes take bewildering forms. Certainly one of the highlights in the series.
Last in the series – Equal Rites
Next in the series – Sourcery
More Kidby goodness, this time showing Death, with kitten (left) and Mort (right).