“Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote.”
Mort is the first Discworld book I’ve read in its entirety since the news of Pratchett’s death in March, which makes the re-read a little poignant, both intrinsically and in the fact that Mort is, well, a book about Death. I may, as a result, have felt a little more nostalgic about the book than I might have otherwise, but I didn’t enjoy Mort as much as I thought I would (considering the fact that I was well in the midst of the Valley of the Shadow of Finals when I read it).
The story sees Death, the anthropomorphic personification with the white horse called Binky, take on an apprentice, a rather gangly boy known, appropriately enough, as Mort. While Death tires of his lonely work and becomes gradually more human, Mort, after messing up the fabric of reality quite badly by rescuing a beautiful princess due to die, starts becoming more and more Deathlike.
It’s a novel, then, if I’m going to put my English student hat on, that inscribes the importance of the illusory: as Mort becomes more Deathlike he becomes more real, losing his knowledge of important human fictions like compassion and justice. (“There’s no justice; there’s just me.”) And, of course, it goes the other way, too: as Death becomes less Deathlike he learns to appreciate fictions like Job Satisfaction and Happiness. I guess Mort at its heart is a book about the human need for such fictions.
Which is a nice moral, as far as it goes, one that’s very much in line with Pratchett’s humanist ideas. Justice and compassion aren’t objectively real, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. It’s just that I’m not convinced it’s handled very well. The novel veers into pastiche at several points, primarily of the sword-and-sorcery variety, and I’m not terribly convinced that pastiche is the best vehicle for Pratchett’s humanism, seeing as it’s usually pretty mean-spirited as a genre. (This, incidentally, is why I prefer the later Discworld books: the world is more established and the humour more subtle, rising as it does rather from situation than from style.) There were a couple of things that struck me as problematic, if not openly sexist: there’s a throwaway scene based on that old misogynist joke of the harridan wife, and Ysabell, Death’s daughter (it’s a long story) comes in for a good deal of fat-shaming. Possibly this is supposed to set her up as Not the Love Interest (or at least Not the Obvious Love Interest), but I can’t help feeling there’s a better way of doing this.
I’m probably not being particularly fair to the book: I’m aware that my sense of humour is markedly different to most people’s, and I don’t laugh easily. Although Death’s pronouncement that “I COULD MURDER A CURRY” is definitely one of the best lines in the series. And also the bit with the cats. And the library is cool. And a pastiche that takes its own story seriously is rare enough to be worth paying attention to. I just think the series becomes more warm-hearted and more interesting about three books after Mort.