Terry Pratchett,
Reaper Man
(Victor Gollancz, 1991;
Roc/Penguin, 1992)

Death is merely the personification of a universal force, given shape by the sheer force of belief. But what is Death to do when he's suddenly sacked? There's not a lot an incarnation of mortality is qualified to do, so the job market seems out of the question. So perhaps it's only logical that he becomes a reaper, not of people, but of crops. It turns out he's quite good at it.

But the sudden vacancy in the post of Grim Reaper has some very decisive impacts on the Discworld. The dead, for instance, aren't going anywhere after expiring. Some force themselves back into their bodies, causing quite an uproar among those around them, while others just hang around, causing an unprecedented increase in the ambient Life Force -- with all sorts of interesting effects.

Suddenly, there are snow globes everywhere. Why? And how are they connected to the wandering shopping carts? Well, you'll just have to wait to find out, won't you?

Windle Poons, a wizard in good standing, is quite anxious for his 130-year-long life to come to end so he can begin the next one -- so imagine his dismay when he finds himself hovering over his decrepit shell with no place to go. The other wizards of the Unseen University aren't too keen to have him back, but their best efforts to lay him to rest -- with his full cooperation, mind, despite some rather extreme and undignified measures -- invariably fail.

Enter Mrs. Cake, a clairvoyant who holds no truck with supernatural hogwash. Speaking with the dead is a fact of unlife, she insists, and there's nothing unnatural about it. Same goes for her precognative abilities, which allow her to answer questions before they're asked -- creating some interesting continuity problems.

"You gotta ask the question. ... I gets a migraine if people goes and viciously not asks questions after I've already foreseen 'em and answered 'em."

Meanwhile, Death -- who has been gradually learning the skills needed to interact with his new human chums -- is suddenly faced with his own mortality. It's a riveting moment for a being who's never before even considered his own demise.

The Death books in Pratchett's unending series are my favorites of the bunch. Throw in the grand shenanigans of the senior university wizards, and you've got another winner on your hands.

And if there are morals buried in the story, lessons to be learned about living life while you still have it and about avoiding at all costs the proliferation of suburban shopping malls, well -- perhaps those are merely accidental byproducts of another ripping good Discworld yarn.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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