Reaper Man (1991): Terry Pratchett


The Discworld Reread: Book 11

All is not well on the Discworld. As we’ve seen in earlier books, Death has a habit of being rather more interested in the lives of his…. clients… than he should be, and the Powers That Be are beginning to notice. When the Auditors decide that his attitude is jeopardising his professional detachment, they decide to take action. And so Death, to his surprise, is sacked. The Discworld, never the most stable place at the best of times, is about to face a whole new challenge…

For Death, the inconvenience of suddenly becoming mortal is offset by the chance to finally experience life for himself. He still looks like a seven-foot-tall skeleton, of course, but humans are suggestible creatures and he can get past that. He just has to find a way to make his remaining time count, and to utilise his existing skills. And so, at a quiet farm in a country village in the middle of nowhere, a stranger presents himself at the door of Miss Flitworth, who’s looking for a man to work with her bringing in the harvest. After all, there aren’t that many jobs that call for great familiarity with a scythe. Death, under the sobriquet Bill Door, awkwardly accustoms himself to the customs of the country – going down the pub; darts; the village dance – but, deep down, he knows that his time is limited. Soon he will have to face the being chosen to replace him.

Across the Discworld, the scales of existence are unbalanced, with a vast surplus of Life causing magical disturbances. In Ankh-Morpork, the absence of Death swiftly pushes the city to crisis point. For example, the elderly wizard Windle Poons has always known when he was going to die. He has the date marked in his diary. And yet, on that date, after a jolly going-away party with his colleagues, nothing quite happens… He dies, certainly, but no one comes to remove him. And so Windle lingers in an uncomfortable between state, neither alive nor dead – in fact, undead. Fortunately, he’s not the only one. He comes across the Fresh Start club, run by his fellow zombie Reg Shoe, who is determined that being undead shouldn’t involve losing one’s rights or dignity. But the problem escalates. That great wave of untapped Life sweeps onward, in Death’s absence, and soon the boundaries of reality itself begin to flicker, and bend.

Reaper Man is another of those books where a lot is going on, and there are parts where it feels that it’s trying to be overly epic (the sections with Azrael for example). Death also becomes even more human than he normally is, which doesn’t really suit him, although of course there’s an element of poignant impossibility about his complex feelings for Miss Flitworth. I still feel that Pratchett is best at chamber works, that is to say, following a single focused storyline rather than splitting his story into several different plots. And, while there are amusing riffs here on traditional English country life (Morris dancing, for example), and popular activism, it just feels… bitty.

Not one of the best books in the series, therefore, but a perfectly solid instalment full of the usual chaotic exuberance, and featuring a lot of Ankh-Morpork cameos. Here the unholy trio of the Archchancellor, the Dean and the Bursar really starts to come together and it’s great fun to watch their three characters colliding. But I have to confess I finished this instalment looking eagerly ahead to the next one – a book I remember as one of my favourites in the series – Witches Abroad.

Buy the book

Last in the series – Moving Pictures
Next in the seriesWitches Abroad

And a couple of Kidby illustrations for this, both coloured for once! Plus a glorious parody by Kidby titled ‘Lancre Gothic’, showing Miss Flitworth and ‘Bill Door’.

Lancre Gothic

Paul Kidby, Lancre Gothic

4 thoughts on “Reaper Man (1991): Terry Pratchett

  1. The Past Due Book Review says:

    I agree that Pratchett’s books have ups and downs, especially in his early work. I read all of the Death books first, then the City Watch books and am now working my way through the Rincewind tales and so far the City Watch has been the most consistent as far as quality goes. I think that is because they all follow the formula of a police procedural (for the most part). It’s always nice to come across another Pratchett fan. Really great review!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Great to meet you too! I’ve always been very much a ‘read them in order’ kind of girl but I have my favourites – Pyramids is one, Soul Music and Hogfather others. I love the witches too, but perhaps that’s just because I’ve recently been reading Witches Abroad and have been reminded exactly how awesome Nanny Ogg is…

      Welcome to the blog!

      • The Past Due Book Review says:

        I was a bit intimidated by the size of the series and read that a lot of people recommended reading one character arc at a time.

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