19 March 2015

Books: Mort By Terry Pratchett (1987)

Back in August of 1997, when I was in my fourth month of working for Borders Books (and whom I would stay with until their demise in September 2011) I experienced the cause and effect of the death of Princess Diana. Over the years, many unauthorized books were published about her, but mostly, they sold to those hardcore fans of hers who needed to know every detail about her life. The fact that most was made up out of pure cloth did not bother them. But when she died,  phenomena that I'm sure existed before, but was the first time really exposed to it, happened. That is people coming into our store the day after her death looking for all the books they could find on her. But these were not the hardcore fans, of course. Mostly these were the folks who, 24 hours earlier, would have never plucked down money for a tabloid style book about Diana because, well, they were tabloidy (the closest they usually got was when PEOPLE Magazine had her on the cover, which was always one of their high selling issues)
But with her death, people had to have all those books, and for a few months after, we sold many as publishers went back to the press to re-publish some titles that had gone out of print, or, just had small print runs. I called them ghouls in some ways, mostly because it was hypercritical in many ways. You knew, as they stood sheepishly in line to pay for them, that the only reason they were buying them was because she was dead. Maybe they felt that these would be collectibles, but the print runs on books, and other ancillary products with her likeness on them, were usually huge. Nothing, including the dolls that I've seen come through the doors of Goodwill over the last two years, have had any lasting value beyond just creating a lot of dust in someone's closet or attic.
Back in the 1980s when I was reading a lot of fantasy books, I did try to read Terry Pratchett's Discworld series that started out with The Colour of Magic (1983) and The Light Fantastic (1986). I read both of them, but I will admit I found them a bit difficult to understand. Part of the reason I wanted to read them, I think, was because they were British and they were satire, two things I adored back then. Still, I was was reading humorist fantasies of Piers Anthony, Craig Shaw Gardner, Robert Asprin, David Bishop, David Eddings (though not technically a parody, his two series The Belgariad and The Malloreon featured a lot of humor), John DeChancie, Douglas Adams, and the underrated science fiction of Ron Goulart. So I think I used that as an excuse not to read the Discworld novels. Also, though, as the Pratchett continued to push out novels set in his fantasy world, I also thought the series was going to get dull -after all, I could no longer read Anthony's Xanth series after book ten when I realized they were becoming formulaic (And Anthony is still writing them, with the 39th book released in 2014 and two more set for the future). I thought then, probably, how long could Pratchett keep up the joke?
With Pratchett's passing last week, it got me to thinking. Perhaps now was a time to get back into Discworld. And at first, I thought, am I the same ghoul as the folks I accused who bought Diana books after she died? Am I the guy who finally waited until an authors death to read his work? I guess yes. But I did read two of his books a long time ago, so maybe his passing just aided me in getting back into his work. Or as the guy at Illiad's Bookstore put it when I went and grabbed a handful of his novels, someone's got to read them.
Which then presented another problem. Where should I start (at the time of his death, he had published 40 Discworld novels, with one last one due this summer) I knew that Pratchett created a huge world -unlike other fantasy novels that clearly are set on a "planet", Pratchett had a giant turtle, the Great A'Tuin, who is something like 10,000 miles long, that is traveling through space. On it's back stands four elephants, and on the backs of those four elephants sits Discworld. After accepting that, you have a universe that is like many other fantasy novels, where you have villains and heroes. Pratchett, while using the many motifs and themes of other fantasy authors, decided to parody and took inspiration from the works of Shakespeare,  J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, as well as ancient mythology, folklore and fairy tales. He also took on real-life issues, like politics, religion, the business world, and incorporated them into his fake world. 
He also created a large character base, which meant that while the books appear to be stand-alone in nature, they are all set in the same universe, which meant a character like Rincewind, featured in the first two novels, could and would appear in cameo scenes in other stories. It be sort of like taking a minor character in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series -one who might have one line or two- and expand it into another series that ran concurrent to the main one. And that maybe the reason why I gave up on the series back in the 80s. I liked Rincewind, and wanted more stories about him and did not care (at the time) for anything else. I've done this before, abandoned authors who wrote a series of novels I enjoyed and had finished them and moved onto a new series with new characters, David Eddings was one such author I did that too, as well as Tad Williams and Stephen R. Donaldson. 
But I've grown, I hope, in the last 30 years. And since Terry Pratchett's death, I've discovered that reading his books in publishing order may not be a great idea for newbies. So after stumbling upon a site that put the 40 Discworld novels in some sort of order, I've decided to start with the Death books first, which begins with Mort.
As a teenager, Mort had a personality and temperament that made him rather unsuited to the family farming business. Mort's father, named Lezek, felt that Mort thought too much, which prevented him from achieving anything practical. So Lezek took him to a local hiring fair, hoping that Mort would land an apprenticeship with some tradesman; not only would this provide a job for his son, but it would also make his son's propensity for thinking into someone else's problem.
At the job fair, Mort at first has no luck attracting the interest of an employer. But just before the stroke of midnight, a man wearing a black cloak arrives on a white horse. He says he is looking for a young man to assist him in his work and selects Mort for the job. The man turns out to be Death, and Mort is given an apprenticeship in ushering souls into the next world (though his father thinks he's been apprenticed to an undertaker).
When it is a princess' time to die (according to a preconceived reality), Mort, instead of ushering her soul, saves her from death, dramatically altering a part of the Discworld's reality. However, the princess, for whom Mort has a developing infatuation, does not have long to live, and he must try to save her, once again, since the original reality will eventually reassert itself, killing her in the process. Both the princess and Mort end up consulting the local wizard, Igneous Cutwell, for various methods of assistance with the crisis.
As Mort begins to do most of Death's "Duty", he loses some of his former character traits, and essentially starts to become more like Death himself. Death, in turn, yearns to relish what being human is truly like and travels to Ankh-Morpork to indulge in new experiences and attempt to feel real human emotion with Happiness being the one he finds hardest to understand and so starts some research to try out happiness, something that he has never experienced, he tries a number of very human habits like getting drunk, going to a party, dancing and tries to find a new job that will make him feel happy.
Ultimately, the wizards of Unseen University perform the Rite of Ashk-Ente, which summons both the part of Death that has been taking Mort over, as well as Death himself. Death becomes furious when he learns about Mort's actions, including seducing his adopted daughter Ysabell, and fires him. Conclusively, Mort must duel Death for his freedom. 
Rincewind, who as I mentioned was in Pratchett's first two novels, makes a cameo in Mort -the authors third novel. Death returns in Reaper Man, followed by Soul Music, Hohfather, and Thief of Time.

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