Trying something new this year by extending my reach past just anime, and into another old flame of mine: reading books!
Discworld is one of those series that you hear every fantasy author point at as their inspiration,specifically fantasies with a focus on world-building and endless amounts of snark. I’ve never personally read it as a child because it was way too “British” for me.
Terry Pratchett’s dialogue at the time just went over my head, and I was always a fan of action back then, so I ignored it for a long while. Last month, I decided to give one of the many Discworld books a try, and the one that intrigued me the most was a title simply called “Mort”, so I read that one first. What did I think about it?
Let’s find out!
“Mort” is about our aptly named protagonist, Mort, a not-too-bright but keen enough boy, and his first few forays as the fledgling new apprentice for an unlikely employer: Death himself! We join him as they perform their duties everyday, meeting people from all walks of life for all of five seconds before they pass on to wherever it is they think they’ll go to.
That is, until Mort falls for the Princess Kelli, and interferes with her awful fate. As history literally folds and fumbles to fix itself, Mort, with the help of such colorful characters like Ysabelle, Death’s own daughter (by adoption), Albert, a mysterious butler/indentured servant of Death’s realm, and Cutwell, a rather relaxed wizard, they have to rush against the fabric of reality itself to save their skins.
Death is such a great character. If I were to find a single word to describe him, it would be nonchalant. He has rules he abides by, but other than that, he’s a surprisingly chill personification to talk to. He’s polite and strangely receptive to any questions you pose to him, in no small part thanks to his own mild curiosity of humanity’s actions.
He claims not to “feel” things the same way we do, because, being a literal skeleton, he states that he “lacks the chemicals for it”,but he speaks disdainfully of humans when he finds a wet sack full of kittens in a river on his first trip with Mort. After that sordid affair, he perks up and asks Mort if he’s ever had curry in the city before, and they go out to eat. He even has an adopted daughter, whom he picked up after he saw the devastation of her situation.
For gods’ sake, his dark spirit horse of the night that can travel faster than light is called “Binky.”
At the same time, he shrugs at plots of assassination and violent murder when it comes to the mortal races. When Mort asks him where the justice is in such events, Death simply answers with one of my favorite lines in the book:
With that simple but chilling statement, Death’s not-so-silly side is seen. He’s loopy from an eternity of loneliness, and so perhaps this cold statement is just how an immortal would see it. He has so much knowledge of what and how things are, but he never much bothers with why. Still, he has traces of an almost human personality, and what’s there is enough to make me like him.
In contrast is our protagonist, Mort.
If I were to describe Mort with one word, it would be fumbling. Most of the story is him being mildly confused at what’s happening and trying to make heads or tails of it. He knows little at the start of the story, but has a curiosity that makes him the perfect stand-in for the reader. He does have a really good arc in this story, one that would be way too spoilery for me to talk about in detail here, so I’ll just say this.
Mort grows as a character as the story progresses, and while his personality remains the same, his experiences temper him into a much more knowledgeable and empathetic protagonist. Not a hero perhaps, but very likeable.
As epic as all that sounds, the whole affair felt a lot more intimate because of its focus on our main characters and how it affects them instead of the event itself. Of course, the author is quick to point out at every reasonable opportunity to remind you the disc is on the back of four elephants, who are in turn on a giant turtle, but why wouldn’t you point that out, that’s awesome.
Despite being my first time in Discworld, it already felt instantly “lived in”. The book didn’t feel the need to elaborate on what every little thing about the city’s culture, or what gods there are, or why they’re on a giant turtle, Death only ever mentions what Mort needed to know, and even then, just in passing. Things just are.
The city Ankh-Morpork, where Death spends a lot of time in during his off-hours, is bustling and fun. The culture is strange to be sure, but another thing I liked about the book was how normal the people in the cities are, at least in the context of their environment. It gives the city that feeling of authenticity, and by showing the people do their thing instead of talking about why these people do said things, exposition becomes a lot less annoying and a lot more captivating.
Death’s domain, the place where he actually resides in, is about what you’d expect. A lot of the book’s humor lies in how normal and sometimes borderline dorky Death really is. His manor has skulls everywhere sure, and yes, everything’s painted varying shades of the color black, but it’s more or less a mirror of the things you see in Disc. Death, in all his power, has no imagination, so his realm is just an imitation of all the stuff Death has seen and enjoyed, only themed by death. It’s beautiful in a lonely kind o way.
Discworld’s unique brand of humor is a rarity nowadays. I feel that modern humor relies on making characters comedians and making jokes every two minutes, making every character feel the same. Discworld has characters who don’t make jokes, because they already are the joke. The way their personality is and the situations they find themselves in are all the comedy you need.
Little things like how Mort is so unremarkable that nobody ever bothers to call him by his name, and he always responds to them by calmly saying “Mort” as a correction, only to be ignored. Things like Death ALWAYS TALKING IN CAPITAL LETTERS TO SIGNAL THAT IT IS INDEED HIM WHO IS TALKING, and how mortals almost perceive him but never quite do because they can’t imagine such an important figure like Death to be out fishing or joining a conga dance.
The fact that “Mort” means death in french is not lost on me, and I think that’s just another subversive jab to have your main character, an apprentice of death, be called the diminutive sounding Mort.
Moving past the characters, the world itself is so odd that you’re just forced into laughter. The idea of powerful dragons being merchants who pester tourists is funny in of itself, you don’t need to add quips or a pratfall to that. I mean, they’re on the back of a giant space turtle with four elephants on it.
If anybody is snarky, it would be the narrator, but his humor is so dry and matter-of-fact that it doesn’t even feel like he’s joking, which just makes it funnier.
The humor feels so natural, and it’s refreshing after my re-read of the overly snarky Percy Jackson books, which I now realize, as much as I loved them as a kid and still do to this day, pale in comparison to the master of subversive humor.
Overall, I loved it! It was funny, compelling, and wickedly smart. Despite being the 4th book set in Discworld, I saw from interviews that this was the first book that Terry Pratchett was pleased with, because the humor was in service of the plot, instead of the other way around. Obviously, I agree with him.
If you want some funny events, clever dialogue, and philosophical discussions of the nature of death in your stories, you have to read this book right now! It’s fantastic.