Death Comes for an Apprentice

MortIn my usual way of reading Discworld books, I had read most of the Death subseries without reading the first one.  But recently, I finally picked up Mort by Terry Pratchett to get the beginning of the story, confident of finding a book that would be about life and death and eternity–and it was–and be enormously funny–and it was!

Mort has never been much of a success at anything, so his father decides the answer is to apprentice him out to a trade.  As it happens, Death is looking for an apprentice.  The job is a little daunting but Mort begins to get into the swing of things (pun intended!)…but then matters become complicated when he saves the life of a princess who the universe is now convinced is dead, and when Death begins to explore happiness and contemplate escaping his duties.  Also there’s Death’s daughter (adopted) thrown into the mix, and more than one wizard of questionable power.  And…well, it’s Discworld.  There’s havoc and there’s hilarity.

There’s a whole collection of fun characters here, as I would expect from Terry Pratchett.  Mort undergoes an interesting transformation from ordinary screw-up to resembling Death just a little too much–including this problem he keeps having passing through objects.  Princess Keli is great fun, especially as she becomes immensely frustrated when the universe thinks she’s dead and everyone keeps forgetting about her.  She’s an odd blend of very strong and also quite inept in dealing with the world–as happens when you’ve been a princess all your life, and never needed to deal with the world.  Ysabell, Death’s daughter, is an odd blend of crazy and ultimately endearing.  And it was fun to learn the backstory on Albert, Death’s servant–he’s in later books, but his background isn’t revisited that I can recall.

My favorite character here was Death himself.  I tend to like him best in a supporting role–sometimes when he’s too much the focus it gets old (while often his two-paragraph cameos are the funniest bits of other books).  Here, there’s enough focus on Mort and the others that Death gets just the right balance–plenty of him, but not too much.  He tries to explore human happiness, which treats us to scenes of Death fly-fishing, line-dancing, and sitting in a bar (at a quarter to three, of course), and never quite understanding any of the things he’s doing.  My favorite may be when Death visits an employment agency and puts down “Anthropomorphic Personification” as his previous position.

The setting is also particularly fun here, something I don’t often say about books!  But Death created his own world, and though he tried very hard, he has some trouble–everything tends to be black and fake.  We also spend time in Keli’s mountain kingdom, and get to visit Ankh-Morpork.

There isn’t a huge lot of satire and depth here, but there are some discussions on justice and eternity and the meaning of life.  Death seems to struggle with these questions throughout his books.

The weak point of the book is the ending–only the very, very end.  At the risk of a slight spoiler, there’s a sudden switch in the romance, and even though I knew it had to be coming (based on the later books about Mort’s daughter), Pratchett still didn’t sell it to me.  It’s like he decided on the last chapter that there was more future potential in ending one way than with the other, and went for it without bothering about whether it made sense.  I won’t complain too much…since it did lead to the amazing Susan, heroine of later books.

This is the fourth book in the Discworld series, and it’s one I’d recommend as a place to start.  The books still get better, but this is the earliest one that’s already showing just how hilarious Terry Pratchett can be.  Highly recommended!

Author’s Site:

Other reviews:
Brian Jane’s Blog
Helen Scribbles
The Eagle’s Aerial Perspective
Anyone else?

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