As a tribute to Terry Pratchett, I’m going to kick off a set of posts about favorite Discworld books. Technically, every book that Pratchett has written that is set in the Discworld is part of the overall series, (36 so far,) but in reality, there are subsets of books within the whole that star specific sets of characters. These characters sometimes meet and overlap, but there are still several streams of narrative that readers can follow through the Discworld. Some of the main subsets include books about these characters: the Night Watch, the wizards, the witches, and the anthropomorphic representation of Death. (You can see a nice categorical and chronological breakdown here.) I have a particular fondness for the Death books, particularly the later ones starring his granddaughter, Susan Death.
Back in the beginning, Death was just your basic anthropomorphic being, thinking only Deathly thoughts, doing just what people expected Death to do. But then he started to wonder. What was it like to be human? Why did humans want to be human so badly? So he built a house, and planted a garden, and got a servant, and adopted a daughter, Ysabell, to whom he gave frilly pink clothes with skeletal bunny rabbits on them, because as far as he could figure out, that’s what girls liked. Years later, he also decided to get an apprentice, Mort. As you might imagine, Death’s apprentice and his daughter, as the only real humans in Death’s realm, find themselves drawn together, after the obligatory failed adolescent attempts at flirting via cruel put-downs, sarcasm, and general awkwardness. They get married, produce a daughter, Susan, and die while she is away at boarding school as a teenager.
Ysabell and Mort decided to raise Susan without a lot of contact with her grandfather, so when her parents die and Death goes missing, it comes as something of a shock when she is tapped to take his place until he can be found. This revelation does explain some of her unusual traits and abilities, though, like the white hair with one streak of black, and the ability to turn invisible. When performing Death’s duties, she also finds that she can walk through walls, function outside time, and use the Death VOICE. She is quite smart, and extremely practical. Upon graduation from school, she pursues a career as a governess and then a schoolteacher, though she does keep finding herself in the position of needing to save the world, or at least right it before it all goes wrong, on a regular basis.
Here’s a rundown of the Death arc books, in chronological order:
Mort – The first Death book, in which we are introduced to the character of Death and his project of understanding humans when he comes to take a gangly young man from an isolated mountain village as his apprentice.
Reaper Man – The Auditors of Reality are displeased that Death has undertaken to develop a personality. Since he wants to understand humans so much, they send him to live as a farmhand until new anthropomorphizations of death can be created. This results in a plethora of Deaths: the Death of Ants, Death of Rats, Death of Horses, etc., etc. Humans take a bit longer to come up with a new version, though, and in that time, the amount of Life begins to build up a bit too much. Once the new Death of Humans takes shape, it comes after the old Death. It’s up to Death to take back his position, deal with all these new little Deaths of *, and restore some balance and order to the universe. The Auditors are most unhappy.
Soul Music – This book features the debut of Susan, and also introduces the concept of “music with rocks in” to the Discworld. Death has decided he’d like to see what it’s like to forget things, so he joins the Foreign Legion. Susan is called upon to fill in for him until he can be convinced to return (since we found out in the last book what happens when Death isn’t around to do his job.) However, Susan is just sixteen, and mostly human, which leaves her susceptible to the charming good looks of Discworld’s first rock star. She is supposed to take his life, but instead she tries to save him, which gets things a little out of balance. Contains hilarious parody of 1950s and -60s rock culture.
Hogfather – The Auditors are back, this time to hire an assassin to kill the Hogfather (Discworld’s Santa Claus), because he does not fit with their version of how Reality should work. Death, who isn’t particularly fond of the Auditor’s, decides to fill in for the Hogfather, but, being Death, isn’t very good at it because he takes wishes so literally. The absence of the real Hogfather is playing interesting havoc on the rest of the world, too, because there is now an excess of belief floating around, causing all kinds of demi-gods and curses to become personified. Susan, now working as a governess, is determined to find out what has happened to the real Hogfather and put things back right. Who has time to deal with all these disruptions to children’s perfectly working belief systems? (Just in time for the holidays!)
Thief of Time – The Auditors are fed up with these unpredictable humans. They decide that the perfect solution will be to stop time, freezing everything perfectly, immutable, predictably in place. To do this, the commission an extremely talented young clockmaker to build the perfect clock out of glass. Unbeknownst to the clockmaker, this clock will function as a prison for the anthropomorphic representation of Time. Death finds out and sends Susan to stop this all from happening. Through the course of the story, which also features the absolutely awesome History Monks (think kung fu masters who can control time as a weapon), Susan discovers she isn’t the only descendant of an anthropomorphic being, and also demonstrates the true power of chocolate over the human psyche.
If Pratchett doesn’t manage to write another Death/Susan Death book, I am going to be extremely sad. Susan is quite possibly my very favorite character on all of Discworld. She’s pretty much who I’d want to be, provided I had use of semi-magical powers and very dry wit at the same time. Not to mention I identify with her position as a renegade teacher, working to give her students an education that they can actually learn something from despite the educational intentions of her school administration. And Death makes both an excellent character-with-personality and grandfather.
-posted by Dana