Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Blog Fantastic 006: Mort review

Mort by Terry Pratchett
Cover art by Josh Kirby
Published by Corgi Books

The main joke of Mort is rather simple, Death is a job like any other and a, uh, man I suppose, does the job like a baker bakes or a carpenter makes things out of wood. Being a master storyteller, Pratchett plays it smart and quickly gives us the joke and moves on to more interesting things. The real subject of the book is Mort's apprenticeship to Death and how he manages to mess things up and, in the end, makes things right again.

Mort is lanky, somewhat incompetent young man. He’s not very good at much of anything, especially not at the family business. He father brings him to market one day and tries to set him up with an apprenticeship in the hopes that somebody else will be able to whip Mort into shape and teach him to make a living. By chance or fate (or maybe history in this case) Mort ends up as an apprentice to Death. Somewhat clever, Mort’s name, short for Mortimer, is the French word for Death. As is to be expected, Mort doesn’t seem particularly suited for the job of Death which happens to be a blessing in disguise. Seriously, how boring would Mort have been if it ended after 20 pages with “. . . and Mort learned a trade and his was very good at it. The End.”? Thankfully, Pratchett has Mort inadvertently prevent the death of a princess he was supposed to guide to the afterlife and changes the course of history. He enlists the help of two wizards, Death’s daughter and tries to fix his mistake before the entire history of Discworld is affected. 

Overall Mort is a very funny book. Part if the humour is in the events that take place. Another more significant source of humour is in how Pratchett writes these events and his overall commentary as narrator on the story that’s being told. I'm continuously surprised by Pratchett's ability to include little snippets of world building throughout the entire novel. Some ore quick recaps of elements we've seen before, such as the fact that light travels slowly over Discworld due to the high concentration of magic. Other elements are new to this story. The most important new element is the uncompromising force of history on Discworld. Everything is preordained, historical events from the most important to the most insignificant, have already been planned and are simply waiting to happen. If for some reason history doesn't occurs as planned, the magic of Discworld ensures that it does. Certainly, for a time things are rather confusing but once more time has passed, things begin to make sense again and no one seems to remember what did or didn't happen and history continues to move forward.

Pratchett's description of history on Discworld is rather confusing; much in the way time travel can be in works of fiction. If all history is predestined, was it not predestined for Mort to inadvertently stop the assassination of princess Keli? I guess the simple answer is there is a correct history and sometimes incorrect histories are created at which time the correct one fixes the mistake and continues with its slow crawl toward the future. Another explanation is that this is a Discworld novel which means the Creator doesn't have to offer explanations to everything and it doesn't matter if explanations make sense or not when he offers some. Something things just happen a certain way and we and the rest of Discworld must learn to adapt.

Josh Kirby keeps it up with yet another great cover for a Discworld novel.

Just a little while ago I read The Maximortal by Rick Veitch in which he stipulates that ideas can be so powerful that they can become real. It's not such a strange idea in fantasy fiction where many pantheons of gods only continue to exist if people continue to worship them. In Mort, wizard Cutwell is given the job of convincing the kingdom of Sto Lat that their princess is truly alive and not dead as history says she should be. The people, believing she is dead since that's what history dictated as being true, have a hard time believing this or even noticing that the princess is alive. Town criers shout her name throughout the city but they don't seem to recall why, pictures of her are pasted all over walls but nobody seems to notice them. Since the people no longer believe the princess is among the living, then she will, over time, cease to be alive. There's also something to be said about free will on Discworld but I don't think magic and history really seem to care what people think. Despite the feeling of chaos that permeates the world, there is some order to the pizza shaped planet riding atop the shell of Great A’tuin. Now that I think of it, so far all the Discworld stories have been about people not following he rules and making their own paths. I guess Discworld is all about free will.

Some of the funniest moments I the book involve Death learning how to have fun. He has much more recreational time than what he is used to now that he has Mort helping him. Reading about Death trying to understand a conga line or fly fishing are pretty great. I particularly like the part about him going to a bar. That scene is done from the bartender's point of view and it’s pure comedy gold.

One of the things I love about Discworld is octarine. Pratchett describes it as "the eight colour of the spectrum, the colour of magic, the pigment of the imagination." It's a great little piece of world building that's accompanied by other elements of Discworld such as the number eight having magical properties (octagons, for example, are powerful magical symbols).

Four novels in and Pratchett's Discworld continues to impress. He always provides a strong and interesting story told in the most idiosyncratic way while also finding time and space to slip in bits of story that will have you spending the bus ride to work thinking deep philosophical and metaphysical thoughts. Welcome to Discworld where logic exists but Sir Terry tosses out the boring parts in exchange for fun and magic. Rincewind makes and appearance in this book and that’s one more reason why Mort is very funny and a very good book.

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