“YOU MUST LEARN THE COMPASSION PROPER TO YOUR TRADE”
“And what’s that?”
“A SHARP EDGE.” – Death
Pratchett’s fourth book in the Discworld series sees us focus on another core character in the books – Death. Death is, as he describes himself, an anthropomorphic personification – the phenomenon of Death made real. Once again, real world issues and ideas are introduced into the series, and the expansion of locations continues.
Death decides it is time to take on an apprentice. He heads to a small town in the Ramtops, to visit the annual hiring fair. Here, boys stand in a line, waiting for tradespeople of all kinds to select them for apprenticeship. Unfortunately for Mort, a tall lad described as being made of mostly knees and elbows, it is almost midnight. Nobody has picked him and the stallholders around are beginning to pack up. Until, of course, Death appears, and takes Mort on as apprentice.
A quick trip to the twin-city of Ankh-Morpork for a haircut and a hot meal, and Death takes the boy to his domain. Things aren’t the same in Death’s domain as they are on the Disc. It has features like a house and gardens, but they are all coloured in shades of black. Add to that, time stands still here. Mort meets Death’s surly, elderly helper, Albert and a sullen sixteen year old – Death’s adopted daughter, Ysabell. Here in Death’s Domain, Mort whiles away the days with menial chores, mostly tending to Death’s horse, Binky. Until one day, Mort is offered the chance to come out on THE DUTY, as Death refers to it. They head to Sto Lat, where Death reaps the soul of an assassinated king. Death, and by extension Mort, are unseen by all others except wizards and cats. It seems, however, that the king’s daughter can see Mort. And he cannot stop thinking about this.
Mort continues to work in Death’s Domain, yet he can’t shake the thought that the Princess saw him. He decides to do something about it, to pay her a visit, so asks Death for an afternoon off. While this seems a strange request, Death acquiesces, giving him until sunset. Mort arrives on the Disc, in Ankh-Morpork, where he attempts to procure a fast horse to get him to Sto Lat. Unfortunately, he finds himself in a less-than salubrious area known as The Shades. Here, he gets hassled by a group of thieves, determined to relieve him of his money. He attempts to flee, though ends up running through the wall of a bridge over the river in the process. It seems that Mort is becoming more like Death. He manages to source a fast steed, and rides for Sto Lat.
Mort meets a young wizard by the name of Igneous Cutwell. Mort hopes he can help explain these newfound abilities to walk through walls. Unfortunately for Mort, Cutwell cannot explain it and the time spent trying to work it out means it’s almost sunset. Death appears to take him back to Death’s Domain. Before long, Death decides the boy is ready to head out on his own, so sends him off to reap three souls. The first is that of a witch, who is very understanding of Mort’s inexperience and makes his first reaping easy. The second is that of an abbot of a group of monks. He is destined to be reincarnated for eternity, so is not surprised by the arrival of Mort. The third, however, is the Princess Keli.
Mort heads to Sto Lat, but instead of reaping the soul of the Princess, he kills the would-be assassin in the employ of the Duke – the man who had the King killed. As he leaves to head back, he feels something amiss. Fate and history are in a state of dismay – what was destined to happen, including the death of the Princess hasn’t happened. The problem is, fate is trying to move on as it thinks it should happen. Mort has changed destiny, but reality doesn’t know it.
The princess notices problems, too. People around her all wear black and seem highly emotional, though cannot seem to explain this. It seems as though they are all in mourning. In their hearts the people know the Princess is dead, even though their heads see her. She goes to see Cutwell, who proves the predicament she is in by reading Keli’s cards. She draws three Death cards – though a deck should only contain one. As a result she employs Cutwell in the role of Royal Recogniser, tasked with ensuring people remember Keli is alive.
Mort, meanwhile cannot face telling Death what he has done, so tells Ysabell instead. The resolve to tell Death, only to find he is gone, having left two jobs for Mort. Death is down on the Disc, experiencing human pleasures including gambling, drinking and fishing, before taking work as a cook. While Mort is becoming more like Death, Death is becoming ever more mortal.
In Death’s empty study, Mort finds two jobs waiting for him. He knows he must complete these, and does so in a hurry. He makes for Sto Lat, where he finds a troubling situation occurring – reality has worked out what Mort has done, and is taking steps to correct itself. Within in Sto Lat, reality is as Mort left it – with the princess alive. But a shimmery wall of sorts encapsulates the area, drawing in on the city at a walking pace, with Princess Keli at its heart. Everything outside the wall exists in the true reality – a reality where Keli is dead and the Duke is on the throne.
Mort lands ahead of the boundary of the two realities, presently unaware of what it is. He heads to a tavern, the Queen’s Head, where he enters through the wall and imbibes a pint of scumble. Scumble, made of apples (mostly), is immensely alcoholic and a pint would not be great for one’s’ sobriety, yet it doesn’t touch Mort. The boundary passes through the tavern, and Mort notices things are different – the clothes of the barman, and the name of the tavern, now the Duke’s Head.
He departs at speed through the wall, and strikes out for the city. Here, he tracks down Igneous Cutwell, and explains the situation. While looking through the wizard’s books for a solution, Mort spots a picture of the founder of Unseen University, Alberto Malich. He recognises the man in the image, it’s none other than Albert. He disappeared from UU two thousand years before while performing the Rite of AshkEnte in reverse, and has been living in Death’s Domain ever since.
He rushes back to Death’s Domain, where he tells Ysabell about Albert, and they go off in search of proof. They head to Death’s library, where the biographies of every person are kept. In the section for the oldest biographies, they find almost complete silence. Except for one volume of Albert’s that is still writing itself. The biography confirms things – Albert is Alberto. They confront him, and ask for help in stopping the reality heading for Keli. He refuses, so Mort is forced to use his new-found powers.
Under duress, Albert agrees to give them a spell that will hold back the advancing reality, as long as it is performed by midnight the next day. The following morning, with Death still enjoying, for want of a better word, life on the Disc, it falls to Mort and Ysabell to carry out The Duty. Unfortunately, the two jobs are in far flung parts of the Disc, nowhere near Sto Lat.
Angry that Death is still away, Albert heads for the University. He assembles the wizards, and begins to perform the Rite of AshkEnte. While on The Duty, though, Mort starts to be drawn in by the Rite. Ysabell punches him, the shock causing that which is Death within Mort to separate from the rest, and head into the vortex caused by the summoning. Back in Ankh-Morpork, a frying pan clatters to the floor in a restaurant kitchen as the real Death is summoned to Unseen University. Albert explains everything to Death, who flies into a rage and returns to his Domain.
Mort and Ysabell race for Sto Lat, arriving at the coronation of Keli. But as they arrive, so does the reality boundary. With only one option to save her, Mort takes her, and Cutwell, back to Death’s Domain, and outside of time and reality. Upon their return they are greeted by an enraged Death, who knows the gods will expect the sacrifice of Keli and Cutwell. Death and Mort enter into combat, fighting for the lives of the others.
The fight is long, energy-sapping and aggressive. It takes them through the room of life-timers, where a number are broken, killing their owners. As a happy coincidence, one of them belongs to the Duke. Eventually, Death wins. Ysabell tries to appeal to Death, declaring her love for Mort. Just when all seems lost, Death turns Morts almost-empty life-timer over, resetting time.
Death appeals to the Gods, who agree to allow Keli and Cutwell to live. Meanwhile, Ysabell and Mort marry, becoming the Duke and Duchess of Sto Helit. The Princess and wizard attend the ceremony. She has a big job on her hands, in unifying the cities of the Sto Plains, a role history had her uncle fulfilling. Death appears to Mort briefly. He hands him two gifts. One is an egg, really a small reality boundary that will expand into a new universe when this one dies. The second gift is a biography, Mort’s biography. It has a great many empty pages still waiting to be filled. And with that, Death says his goodbyes, and returns to his domain.
This book is one of my favourites. Well, one of many, anyway. The character of Death is really evolved here, along with his interest in humanity. He isn’t evil, or nasty, just very good at his job. We also see Terry Pratchett touching on wider Earth-like subjects. Chiefly, the idea that it would be a very bad thing to try and alter reality.