Terry Pratchett,
(Victor Gollancz, 1987; Corgi, 1997)

Death rides on a pale horse -- named Binky.

That's just one of the many details about Death which readers will learn in Mort, the fourth book in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. The skeletal, black-shrouded character who speaks only in capital letters and who, in previous novels, made only occasional cameo appearances, has finally gotten his own feature book.

In Mort, Death takes an apprentice named Mort, a stout-hearted lad who doesn't have the concentration needed to work on his father's reannual grape farm and who has been passed over by even the town beggar as a likely successor. But Death comes along and gives him a position nonetheless, and the responsibilities of the job -- to say nothing of the stylish all-black fashion statement -- help Mort become a new man.

In creating Death, Pratchett borrowed a page from Douglas Adams and his improbability drive (as explained in the wildly popular Hitchhiker's Guide series). "People don't want to see what can't possibly exist," Mort observes, and so Death can pass easily among mortals unremarked. It also makes it easy for him to snag free drinks while crashing parties.

We get to see the nifty places in Death's estate -- the lifetimer room, where an infinite number of hourglasses tick away each person's life; the library, where everyone's biography is writing itself as it unfolds; and the garden, where everything grows in some shade of black.

The story revolves around infatuations -- Mort is a teenager, after all -- and the apprentice's growing conscience about collecting the souls of good people. Things come to a head when he decides to take the life of an assassin instead of the assassinated, saving in the process the object of his affections and throwing Discworld continuity into a dither. Meanwhile, Death has gone fishing.

As usual, Pratchett has created some excellent supporting characters for the story. Death's adopted daughter, Ysabelle, was a trifle psychotic in her previous appearance in The Light Fantastic; now, she's merely annoying and overbearing. Igneous Cutwell is another in a long line of pleasantly inept wizards -- I'm starting to wonder if the Discworld has any ept ones, besides the one we meet here who has left magic behind in order to cook greasy breakfasts and, cholesterol notwithstanding, live a very long time. Rincewind, the protagonist of the first two Discworld books, makes a reappearance here, and he seems to be back to his old self (which will provide grist for future novels, rest assured).

Pratchett's take on Death is a good one. The character has wit, charm and style, not to mention presence, and it's hard not to like the guy for all his stern demeanors and fatal occupation. He's an infinitely better Death than the one Piers Anthony created in On a Pale Horse, although I like him not quite so well as Neil Gaiman's version in The Sandman. Of course, Gaiman's perky Death never took a job as a short-order cook.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Buy Mort from Amazon.com.