Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Once Upon a Time Challenge Post III

Pratchett, Terry. Mort. New York: HarperTorch, 2008. (The book was originally published in 1987)

(Just in case you didn't catch this from the title of my post, this is another one that I read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, which is quickly drawing to a close, and I've got two more books to finish.)

People generally define what Terry Pratchett writes as fantasy, and, really, that makes sense. After all, his books take place in an imaginary world, a planet known as Discworld. It's a flat planet that balances atop four elephants who travel through space, balanced themselves atop a giant turtle. What could be more fantastic than that? The planet is inhabited by wizards, witches, dragons, etc. Such characters living in such a place certainly sounds like fantasy. Perhaps fantasy in the hands of Bugs Bunny, but fantasy nonetheless.

I'm going to argue, though, that saying Pratchett writes fantasy is like saying Jonathan Swift wrote fantasy. Let's face it: Gulliver certainly traveled to places that don't exist, dealing with such fantastic elements as tiny people, but critics don't tend to describe Swift as one of fantasy's founding fathers. No, he's known for being a great satirist and father of one of English language's best parodies. I'm inclined to say that Pratchett is England's greatest living satirist, writing fabulous parodies. He's also bucket loads of fun.

Pratchett is a relatively recent discovery for me, so I haven't made too many trips to Discworld yet, but I'm eager to explore all it has to offer. Happily, I have lots to look forward to, as he's been a prolific writer. (I say "been" because, sadly, he is suffering from early-onset Alzheimers, so who knows how much he'll be able to produce in the coming years?). I'm sure he's not everyone's cup of tea, because a reader has to be willing to trust him when he does things like provide scientific explanations that are too difficult to follow. He also likes to litter his novels with footnotes, which I know some people hate (and I understand that, having read a novel or two that embraced this technique, taking it way too seriously), but he's the master of the appropriately placed (and often hilarious) footnote. Also, they're footnotes, not endnotes: no having to flip to the back of the book.

He creates wacky plots in order to skewer everything from science to religion to politics. Mostly, however, he's focused on just plain skewering human nature, sometimes blatantly, sometimes so subtlety, you can't blink or you might miss something brilliant. I have yet to read a book of his that didn't make me laugh out loud at least once.

This one, the fourth Discworld novel he wrote (and the first of those to feature Death as a main character), is no exception. The "Mort" of the title is a young man whose father decides it's about time for him to become an apprentice. Who better for a young man named Mort to apprentice to than Death himself? The trouble is, Mort's just a little too human for the job and can't quite embrace his duties fully. Soon we find he's done something that just might change history -- and not for the better, no matter how it might seem, judging from the characters involved. Luckily, history seems to be a little more flexible than we tend to assume it is (well, when written by the "right" sorts of historians, that is. Pratchett would probably note today that Sarah Palin's "history," for instance, seems to be quite flexible) on our own planet. So, for that matter, is Death, who proves he can sometimes be a bit flexible (and also feel a bit sorry for himself).

But that's all I'm going to tell you, except that this is classic Pratchett. If you've never read him, this would be a great place to start. If you have read him, but haven't read this one, you won't be disappointed.


Stefanie said...

yay for Pratchett! I've read about half a dozen but I don't think I've read this one. I love his footnotes. Does the Librarian make an appearance at all? the Librarian is one of my favorite characters, natch ;)

liliannattel said...

I love Terry Pratchett and you're absolutely right--Jonathan Swift is an apt comparison.

Emily Barton said...

Stefanie, oh yes, the librarian did make an appearance but basically it was a mere cameo. I love him, too.

Liliian, nothing not to love, huh? And I'm glad I'm not the only one who makes that comparison.