Imagine having the audacity to not only become the apprentice of Death himself, but to try and steal his job and seduce his daughter. No? You wouldn’t ever want to do that? I’m sure that’s what Mort, the titular protagonist of this book, thought until he kind of… fell into it. Mort was one of the first Discworld books I ever read, and it is still one of my favorites (to my knowledge, it is one of the most popular non-Sam Vimes books in the series).
I mean, look at it. A guy named Mort (naturally) is apprenticed to Death, starts taking on more and more of his duties, inadvertently prevents a princess from dying when she was supposed to, alters all of reality, is fired from being Death, and falls in love with Death’s (adopted) daughter Ysabell. That’s a hell of a story. And although Mort is officially the main character, I think Death is really the real focus here. This book is the first Discworld book to focus on Death, although he has appeared in almost all of them. You see, part of the reason Mort was taking on more of Death’s responsibilities is because Death decided he wanted to see what it was like to be human. This is not the last time Death does this.
Most of the Death-themed books of the Disc focus thematically on what it means to be human. It’s not as much the focus of Mort as it is in, say, Reaper Man or Hogfather, but it’s there. The whole reason that Death adopted Ysabell is because he wanted to be closer to humans. I’ve written before about how much I love the kindly, human-loving Death of the Discworld, and this is no exception. That’s not to say that the righteous fury of Death is not something to be feared – it is. When Death finds out just what exactly it is that Mort’s been up to, it is actually a legitimately frightening scene. You know that expression “I’ll smack you so hard your grandkids will feel it?” Death literally does that. He slaps Mort so hard, that years down the line, his daughter has three white scars on her face in the exact location of the strike. Holy shit. Oh, whoops, spoilers – Mort and Ysabell have a daughter, who ends up being the primary focus of most of the other Death books. My actual least favorite thing about this book is that we never really see Mort or Ysabell again. We hear of their fate in later books, but they don’t actually appear on the page.
And let me tell you, I love Ysabell. She actually first showed up (albeit briefly) in The Light Fantastic, which is one of my favorite things about the Disc books – characters you thought were just one-shots can reappear at any time. Ysabell, from all appearances is a 16 year old girl. The problem is, time doesn’t pass in Death’s Domain. Not at all. So Ysabell has been a 16 year old girl for approximately 35 years. Mort’s first impression of Ysabell is that she’s… a little off the rails. But I have to say, if I was stuck at the age of 16 for 35 years, I would probably also be more than a little bit crazy. But she’s a good and compassionate person, and Mort falling for her instead of the shrewish Princess Keli, is a big part of his character development. I’m not saying that Mort isn’t a good protagonist, but I can only imagine how much better it might have been if Death had apprenticed Ysabell instead of him. Thankfully, we do get a teenage girl with all the powers of Death, a little later on, in the form of Susan Sto Helit, the aforementioned granddaughter of Death.
I mentioned that one of the recurring themes of the Death books is Death trying to figure out what it means to be human. One of the other ones, is how unsuited anyone else is to the role of being Death. It is shown in other books that Susan is being groomed as his heir, but she has a long way to go before she’s truly ready (and willing) to step fully into her grandfather’s role (as is, she substitutes for him when needed). In Reaper Man, the New Death created by the Auditors of Reality is a cold and logical creature, feeling nothing for the souls he takes. And he wears a crown. Death should never wear a crown. And Mort shows that a human could never be fit to be Death either. It’s a cliche to say that he “went mad with power”, but uh, that’s pretty much exactly what happened. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and there is no power more absolute than the power over life and death. It’s unfortunate, perhaps, that we never got to see Mort in his role as the Duke of Sto Helit (a title granted to him at the end of the book), because I think it would be really interesting to see how that power changed him, and how it influenced his style of ruling.
And it’s not just the human characters who developed over the course of the story – Death does too. Despite his status as an anthropomorphic personification, he is not exempt from learning and growing, just like the rest. Notably, he never again takes an apprentice or adopts a child, though he does try to act in a grandfatherly way towards Susan. If his goal in taking in Mort and Ysabell was to gain a better understanding of humanity, I’d say that worked out pretty well. And the Death at the end of the book, who shows mercy to Mort despite winning their duel, is a sharp contrast to the Death seen in The Color of Magic, who seemed much more active in causing deaths, and was more casually cruel and uncaring.
The next time we get a Death-focused book is Reaper Man, which is about six books away. Reaper Man is… it is delightful. Just so you can prepare yourself: Death takes on the guise of a human farmer named Bill Door. Bill Door. It is adorable. The next book, going in publishing order, is Sourcery, and it’s the last of the books that I haven’t read. We’ll be back to Rincewind and the wizards of Unseen University, so that should be fun. This is sort of where the reading order starts to come into play – a lot of fans debate over what order to read the books in, although the consensus generally seems to be that you can read them in any order you want and they’ll still mostly make sense. I basically read the City Watch books backwards, reading Night Watch first and Guards, Guards last. But a lot of readers will choose to, for example, read all of the Wizards books, then go back and read all of the City Watch books, or the Death books, or the Witches books, or whichever thread they want to follow next. I don’t think there’s really any problem reading them in the order they were published, however, since the books do follow a sort of loose chronology that keeps roughly in sync with our world (the new millennium, for example, is the Century of the Anchovy in Disc terms; the previous one was the Century of the Fruitbat). It helps that I’ve read them before, at least.
“THAT’S MORTALS FOR YOU, Death continued. THEY’VE ONLY GOT A FEW YEARS IN THIS WORLD AND THEY SPEND THEM ALL IN MAKING THINGS COMPLICATED FOR THEMSELVES. FASCINATING.”
“Well,—-me,” he said. “A—-ing wizard. I hate—-ing wizards!” “You shouldn’t—-them, then,” muttered one of his henchmen, effortlessly pronouncing a row of dashes.”