When non-Discworld-reading friends have asked my thoughts about their trying some of the books, I’ve always directed them to Mort. This has usually made them suspicious of why I’m telling them to avoid the beginning, but we’ve already been over that. If The Light Fantastic is where Pratchett first starts to sound like Pratchett, Mort is where he first begins to write like Discworld and not fantasy.
That’s an unusual argument to make about a book set on a flat world, revolving on the back of four star-sized elephants, themselves stood on the back of a galaxy-sized turtle, and which involves the day to day workings of an anthropomorphic Death, but I believe a case can be made for that claim.
As far as Mort itself is concerns, it’s one of the easiest books to summarise. There’s a tag-line that’s been around since the novel first appeared: Death comes for everyone. When he came for Mort, he made him his apprentice.
And as for the plot, it too can be encapsulated very smoothly. When Death gives Mort a go at the Duty, Mort gets involved and takes the assassin, not the Princess who was supposed to die. He then has to battle against Reality’s determination to set itself straight.
It’s that aspect that, to me, shows the first real appearance of the idea-shape that is Discworld. The first three books have basically been plotted according to fantasy tropes that Pratchett has set out to undermine, satirise and mock, whilst still setting his story within genre-archetypes. He’s not totally abandoned that here, indeed he never will, but for the first time, his story is not about a fantasy topic.
It’s about Death, and what it leads to. It’s about people’s individual responses to leaving life, and how their expectations shape what, for them, follows. It’s about Fairness, and Justice, and how, at the ultimate end of all things, they do not exist outside the shape given to them, from thin air, inside the human mind.
Mort begins as a gangling, untalented, inutile adolescent, looking for a role in life. His natural abilities are non-existent, his future is as much of a blank as he is. Death doesn’t even select him as an apprentice for the purpose of training him in the job of being Death (though, having taken such a step, he is assiduous in provide such training). Mort’s been picked out for a highly-unlikely arranged marriage with Death’s ‘daughter’, Ysabell (who we met, very briefly, in extremely creepy mode, in The Light Fantastic.)
But once Mort is selected, his presence is the catalyst for two very different, and frankly worrying developments. Like so many people, when given responsibility, Mort discovers capabilities within himself that he would otherwise never have suspected. But his simply being there is another step in the slow progression of Death himself from being merely an Anthropomorphic Personification to someone who, against all expectation, becomes invested in his job, and starts to get interested in the people he, er, collects.
And the moment Death starts to offload his responsibilities onto his apprentice, and to take nights off in which he can explore, unavailingly, just what is this fun that his humans spend all their time pursuing, is the moment when his and Mort’s roles begin to crossover.
It also keeps Death from perceiving what Mort, in a rush of adolescent enthusiasm for a fifteen year old red-headed Princess (entirely understandable: there really is something abut a redhead…) has done. It might be a pure (as in naïve) surge of lust that’s prompted it, but Mort’s refusal to take the Princess Kelirehanna (Keli for short, though the second part of her formal name was admirably foresighted for 1987) is also an act of Fairness and Justice.
But Death knows that, at the heart of all things, there is no Justice: there’s just him. All Mort can do is to create a brief, localised alternate reality that hasn’t a snowball’s chance in Hell of surviving the closing in of the real Reality (Pratchett borrowing here a concept that was a theme in Fritz Leiber’s SF work, the Law of Conservation of Reality).
And he has to face up to Death for what he has done, in a fight he cannot hope to win, with a egg-timer pouring out the very few remaining sands of his life. But Mort has two cards left in his hand: that he alone can understand what is demanded of Death, and that Death, despite his puzzlement, has become interested in humans…
Pratchett’s chosen method of resolution contains within it certain logical implications that, to his eternal credit, he would pick up, later in the series. Death himself would become one of those whose adventures form a sub-series in the main Discworld current, and of course his perpetually grumpy housekeeper, Albert, would return again and again, but although there were realistically no opportunities for them to reappear, I am sorry that we never got to see Mort and Ysabell again. I’d grown to like them.
I’d still pick Mort as the earliest book a Discworld virgin should read, though there’s an even stronger case to be made in the near future. It’s not only funny, but in it Pratchett dares to be serious for the first time. He would develop quite the taste for it, and discover that his readers were well prepared to go with him.