Mort: Book Review

“‘How do you get all those coins?’ asked Mort. IN PAIRS.”

Mort is the fourth book in Terry Pratchett’s DiscWorld saga and first Death book. Death is a recurring character, probably the only one appearing in almost all the books of the saga (the only exceptions are The Wee Free Men and Snuff). And, let me tell you, he’s a wonderful character even when he only appears in small cameos here and there. His encounters with Granny Weatherwax are legendary, and his presence often gives rise to amusing macabre puns (and how could it be otherwise?1).

Mort is the first book with Death as the protagonist, or at least at the center of the action. In fact, the real protagonist in this case is Mortimer, known as Mort, a clumsy young man of the Ramtops who’s hired by Death as an apprentice.2 Mort finds himself living with Death in his domain along with his faithful servant Albert and his adopted daughter Ysabell. And there’s also Binky, the huge horse with which Death moves around the world.

The books of Death are few and, as Pratchett often did, they mostly start from a similar idea. In this case, Death not only hires Mort as an apprentice, but at some point decides to leave him all the work (and all the responsibility!) to try to better understand human nature by first exploring the vices of the flesh, for lack of a better term, and then getting a job in Ankh Morpork. There’s a problem: this causes Mort to become more and more like Death and… vice versa.

In all this, reality is collapsing due to a noble action of Mort who decides to save the beautiful princess Keli from death from a palace intrigue, which however doesn’t prevent the rest of the world from believing her dead (so much so that she must hire the young wizard Cutwell as Royal Recognizer, to remind those around her of her existence).

Mort can probably be considered the first book of the Discworld in which Pratchett managed to harness his overflowing imagination in a coherent structure from start to finish, in which the various acts of the story can be easily identified. The main characters here are well defined and all have complete and satisfying story arcs, up to an ending that is really perfect in leaving nothing unfinished.3

Of course, it’s easy to tell that Mort is one of the first books of the Discworld: it’s short, it’s fairly linear (said without any negative meaning), and there are other things like the character of Alberto Malich, a skilled wizard who more than anything else craves power (wizards have become more and more moderate going forward in the Discworld books4). Another clue that suggests that this is one of Pratchett’s early works are the references to the real world here and there, including highways, stereos, cinemas and the Titanic and Lusitania, references which are absent in the later books.

At the same time one almost gets the impression that the Discworld starts here (even if the subsequent Sourcery is in my opinion a step back from this point of view), given the incredible amount of world building and the presence of philosophical elements that from here onwards are almost always present (even in lighter books such as, for example, Eric). I’m thinking of the interesting considerations on death, fate and justice (or the absence thereof), which Pratchett gives us thanks to the dialogues between Mort and Death. Death exists only to accompany the souls of the living to the end of their earthly lives, without taking a position on the possible justice of the circumstances that determined such end. And when it does (or rather, when Mort does it), the consequences are dramatic.

And how can we not adore the piece on Death that Neil Gaiman then picked up word by word for a story of his Sandman, precisely Facade? Here it is: “He remembered being summoned into reluctant existence at the moment the first creature lived, in the certain knowledge that he would outlive life until the last being in the universe passed to its reward, when it would then be his job, figuratively speaking, to put the chairs on the tables and turn all the lights off.

In fact, the loneliness of Death is the very main point of the book, which is why Mort offers so much to think about. A particularly touching scene is the one in which Mort goes to the witch who’s ready to die, and she wants to do it peacefully. Touching, I say, because when Pratchett was struck by Alzheimer’s he chose to leave this world peacefully in a way that was decidedly consistent with how he presented this question in this book.

Sure, Mort is also a fun book, but probably much less so than the previous The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, and Equal Rites. Since normally all the Discworld cycles have improved going forward, maybe my knowledge of the following chapters of Death makes me lukewarm about this book? Don’t get me wrong: it’s great There are also the usual Shakespearean references that Pratchett loved so much! Well… just read it, ciao!


2. ‘It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever’, he said. ‘Have you thought of going into teaching?’

3. There are jokes, obviously, like the one that Granny Weatherwax is unable to tell in Witches Abroad: ‘Alligator sandwich,’ he said. ‘And make it sna —’ (sarebbe snappy).

4. And the wizards make fireworks like in Tolkien‘s books!

5. One I spotted is the following (from Sonnet XVIII): “if Mort ever compared a girl to a summer’s day, it would be followed by a thoughtful explanation of what day he had in mind and whether it was raining at the time.“, and there are lots of references to love tragedies like those read by Ysabell (and Death quotes Macbeth: BEGONE, YOU BLACK AND MIDNIGHT HAG).

Index of the Discworld Reviews


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