Pros: Death gets to be the star of the show when he takes an apprentice.
Cons: The kittens. I almost stopped reading right there.
I've been avoiding Terry Pratchett's long-time running series, Discworld, for years. Part of it has been my own bloody-minded stupidity in thinking that something this well-known must have something inherently wrong with it; as I just stated, this year I got to find out my own foolishness in not grabbing these earlier. But now I am making up for lost time, and having a good time doing so. This time I'm doing it properly and reading them from the first one, and spacing them out a bit so that I don't burn out too soon.
Mort opens as Death, rather sardonic chap that he is, is observing a young man as he goes flailing away across a plowed field, and attempting to chase off the birds. Unfortunately for him, Death is about to pay a visit, but not necessarily to collect his soul. No, there's something a bit direr for young Mortimer -- called Mort -- in the future.
Death it seems is going to be taking on an assistant, better known as an apprentice. Mort, on the other hand, isn't quite so certain. After all, there's a certain reputation about Death, what with the black robes, skeletal form and scythe and all. But considering that Mort is quite possibly the most inept human to ever grace the Discworld, it's likely the best chance he's got at making a living for himself.
Of course, getting started is rather dull at first as Mort discovers at the handle end of a pitchfork. There's Binky, Death's lovely horse to be taken care of first, along with the resultant mess, not to mention the two other denizens of Death's home -- Albert, manservant of all work, and Ysabell, Death's daughter. Adopted daughter, that is. Both of them treat Mort like an errant flea, but at least Albert can provide tasty meals. As to Ysabell, like many a teenage girl, she can't quite get used to Mort, alternately bullying and bossing him about a bit, and otherwise crying her eyes out in her bedroom. As to the decor, well it is Death's home, along with the accompanying cobwebs, dark themes in the soft furnishings and other delights. All in all, it's possibly better than being a failed farmer.
As for Death, he's discovering that having an apprentice is a little tricky, not to mention the labourious work of finding himself a hobby. Still, in between Mort's incessant questions and a weepy daughter, he's off collecting souls on his daily missions, especially those of the famous, the powerful and the magical. Seems that wizards and witches get that extra perk of having Death come personally to collect theirs. Mort comes along on these jaunts to learn the trade, until Death decides that young Mort is ready to give it a go on his own, assigning him to collect on three of them when his own schedule gets a bit overbooked.
The first two -- a witch named Goodie Hamstring and an abbot of a monastery -- aren't too difficult to manage, but it's the third one that really pitches a spanner into the works. It's to be a lovely princess named Keli of Sto Lat, and Mort with all of the romanticism of the young forgets the first thing that Death told him is necessary for the job -- there is no justice. And he bungles things. Very badly...
How it all works out is the joy of reading this novel. In between Death's attempts to find a hobby that he likes, Mort's attempts to learn the job, and Ysabell's mooning over tales of the doomed and dead lovers that she finds in her father's library, I was laughing my head off at this one. Death I had enjoyed from previous novels, what with the fact that Death speaks in all capitals, has a sarcastic wit, and is extremely fond of cats, and here, Mr. Pratchett lets him bloom into full flower. Then there is Mort, who means well, but hasn't quite got the grasp of everything yet, but he's trying hard. The biggest problem are the female characters of Keli and Ysabell, both of whom are rather bratty young women, and don't really seem to progress very far beyond that.
In addition to all that, there are some interesting tidbits about magic and the actual work of Death, and some side trips into the Unseen University as well as the mystery of a long vanished mage. How it all plays out is the fun part of this, along with Mr. Pratchett's blend of irony at being able to blend the most unique world in fantasy literature along with a good dose of our own modern world as viewed through a satirical eye. I found this to be very enjoyable, and with each progressive novel, Mr. Pratchett is able to get a better and more lucid view of his creation.
As with most of the recently republished Discworld novels, this has a gazetteer of sorts at the end with a guide to the major characters, places and a brief synopsis of the earlier novels of the series. It's just the same as what I read in the first two novels, which is a pity, as it would be nice to see some kind of update here.
Four stars overall and a thumbs-up recommendation from me.
Discworld Novels that I have reviewed:
The Color of Magic
The Light Fantastic
Mort -- you are here
Lords and Ladies
Men at Arms
Feet of Clay
The Last Continent
The Fifth Elephant
1987; HarperCollins Publishers