We are here to collect a few souls and drink liquor that melts metal. It’s time for part two of Mort.
Mort goes to collect his first soul—a witch named Goodie Hamstring. Once he gets there, he has a panic over getting it all wrong and tells the witch that it’s his first time reaping. She is quite kind about it, and decides that even though Death was supposed to come get her personally, they should just get on with things. After she’s gone, she morphs into a shade of her younger self and teases Mort a bit that he may want to hold onto his job “but will you ever be able to let go?” Next, Mort heads off to collect an abbot of the Listeners, a specific religious order of the Disc dedicated to hearing the Words of the Creator. Said abbot has been conversing with Death on and off for a long while, as he’s been reincarnated over fifty times. He asks Mort to drop him off in his next life, saying that it can be downright irritating to feel as though he’s just got the knack of things by the time he dies again.
Next is Princess Keli. She is about to be assassinated, but Mort handily stops that from going down by killing the assassin. The princess demands an explanation, and he tries to give one as best he can. The next morning he leaves on Binky, arrives back at Death’s home and goes to check Princess Keli’s biography. It shows what should have happened, and Mort knows he’s screwed things up big time. He figures he should sleep and then maybe talk to Albert about what happened, but he hears a gasp and someone running away, only to find a few books on a stool and a damp handkerchief nearby. After sleeping he goes to the kitchen to talk to Albert, who says that Death wants to talk to him, but not to hurry; Death hasn’t had the evening off in a thousand years, and he’s humming. Mort asks Albert about how long he’s been there, and Albert isn’t really sure, but it’s before Ankh-Morpork was a city. Albert gives Mort a hard time about leaving tomes out in the library, books about the lives of young women, which isn’t Mort’s doing at all—it’s Ysabell, though he doesn’t know why.
In the meantime, Princess Keli is having a rough go of it because the universe is aware that she’s dead, even if she isn’t. Everyone keeps forgetting that she’s not dead, and then they are quite perplexed or frightened to discover the opposite. Keli demands that the maid tell her where she can find a wizard and is told of Cutwell, whom she goes to visit. She has him read her fortune, and keeps pulling Death cards out of the Caroc pack, which leads him to realize that she’s dead—he can see her because wizards are trained to see what is there. So Keli drags him from his home and appoints him Royal Recognizer to have someone remind people that she’s alive.
Mort has the opportunity to tell Death the mistake he’s made and doesn’t take it. So Death decides to take the evening off again, but not before bringing up Albert’s issue with the library. Mort doesn’t out Ysabell, though. Death tells them to get Albert to pack them a picnic lunch—they keep avoiding each other, and Death and Albert seem to think that means something good for their relationship. Ysabell thanks Mort for keeping her secret and finally lets him in on that plan to get them together. They both agree that they would never want to marry each other, and go for a walk in the garden while gamely insulting one another’s appearance. Then they shake hands and agree to end the jibe contest and sit by the garden pond. Ysabell explains that Death made all of these things for her, to keep her entertained, but none of it is real. She says that he’s trying to act more like a human since Mort’s arrival, however, and even tried learning the banjo. Apparently, Death cannot create things—he can only copy them.
She tells Mort that her parents were killed crossing the Great Nef, so Death found her and brought her there. She insists that she won’t hear a bad word against him, that he tries his best and means well. Mort manages to tell her that he’s screwed up the timeline with the princess, but Ysabell doesn’t really register it—she bursts into tears and explains that time doesn’t really pass there, so she’s been sixteen for roughly thirty-five years and she never gets to leave. She’s been reading the lives of women who died for love, and to her mind, that’s what love is about. Death has gone fishing, and left Mort with four souls to collect. Mort’s actions have created a splintered reality, cleaved in two, one where the princess is alive and ruling and one where she is definitely dead, but both are true. But the reality that is meant to be is closing in. Mort notices something is amiss, but he’s not sure what. He goes to an inn to get a drink, but doesn’t know enough to know that he shouldn’t drink a whole pint of scumble, and seems to do fine on it, impressing the locals. While he’s there, the mist of the main reality rolls in and changes everything around him, sending Mort into a panic. He finally realizes what that bubble is converging on.
Meanwhile on the island of Krull, an angler named Terpsic Mims has his untimely drowning stopped by Death, who is fishing nearby. Mort gets into Sto Lat and finds out that Cutwell is working for the Princess.
Book Club Chat
“It occurred to him that people needed to believe things.” So this point comes up more than once in the Discworld books, particularly as it pertains to Death, and it’s central to Pratchett’s general philosophy on humans and what we do and how we work. But the thing I love most about it is the fact that he expands this thought as the books go on. So it starts in this germinating form here, and by the time we get to Hogfather, he blows it wide open. It’s wonderful seeing it begin here.
There is so much about Goodie Hamstring’s death that lands beautifully, so much about her grace in accepting death, in the acknowledgement that life does genuinely get to be a chore once your body starts failing you, and it’s hard not to think of Pratchett’s own views on that front. (He was a vocal proponent of assisted suicide in his final years, following his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s.) We like to talk about wisdom and experience, but the world we occupy makes aging a deeply ignoble exercise for many, and the ability to have some control over one’s death is a completely understandable desire.
But I’m also reminded of an essay I read a few years back from a woman on aging. It was, among other things, about how the process was a jarring thing because your brain doesn’t quite understand what’s happening to your body. She talked about looking in the mirror and expecting to see herself as she was decades previous, how perplexing it was to find someone different staring back at her. And that is perfectly encapsulated in the moment where Mort sees the shade of a younger Goodie, asks her if that’s who she was, and she replies, “It’s who I’ve always been.” That reminder of how perplexing it is to have a body that will inevitably wear out and turn on itself when your mind remembers being something else entirely. Kinda makes me teary, to be honest.
So when Mort thinks about telling Death about the mistake he made and doesn’t do it, it gives me terrible flashbacks to being in sixth grade when they made us keep track of stocks (???) for half a year as a way of believing they were teaching us something about the stock market. Which why, but also, I was absent one day and forgot to get caught up on my numbers from the teacher and then I panicked about it and stopped keeping the tracked information on my special chart, just wrote it down anywhere in the margins on my notebook, and I lived in fear that the teacher would find out I’d screwed it up, and my whole life would be over forever. (Anxiety? Pffft, I don’t know her.) So when Mort thinks about telling Death what he did, and then panics his way out of it, just… same, my dude. I, too, would rather melt into the floor.
Princess Keli’s experience of being a “normal” (i.e. invisible) person for the first time in her life is deeply satisfying to read through. Not because I’m laughing at her expense—there’s just so much that truly privileged people never think of, and it’s all so meticulously laid out here. No one’s there to feed her, dress her, open doors for her. And she still gets on with it, but she finally notices all those little things differently. This plays into Mort’s realization about Keli’s life, too, which he finds out would be rather unremarkable, while the Duke who means to have her killed brings about an era of peace. Mort is learning why Death has to take up the stance he has, that he’s not in the game of dispensing justice—because the world simply doesn’t work that way.
Ysabell admits to Mort that she’s been sixteen for three-and-a-half decades, and it’s interesting because this trope comes up a lot in fiction, right? And there’s a question of whether or not it’s creepy, often, when it comes to characters who look younger but effectively are older (particularly if romance is involved), and my opinion on this honestly always comes down to development. So, for example, Edward Cullen in Twilight is a creep because he’s been living around people for ages and is effectively an older person who looks like a teenager. But there are characters who are in similar situations who have had their development stunted due to trauma and/or isolation. Ysabell has only had Death and Albert for decades, and they’re not much by way of company or interaction. So Ysabell is, effectively, really still sixteen, as we can see by her belief that all love is Tragic™. And that’s important for how their relationship progresses going forward.
Asides and little thoughts:
- Look, I’m not saying that Pratchett’s description of the Listeners’ temple and how it occupies the position “that the one comfy chair always occupies in the home of a rabid hi-fi fanatic” is calling me out because I frankly do not have the wealth to be a hi-fi fanatic, but I would very much like a home with that chair one day.
- Brief aside for the mention that according to the reincarnation bit, soul enters being at conception, which is something I had definitely blocked from my mind. I’m just gonna keep skipping right over that one.
- Albert’s descriptive powers of the good ol’ days are a thing to behold, particularly describing wimples as “balaclava helmet things” and princesses so noble they could “pee through a dozen mattresses”, I will never ever recover…
- “She drew herself up to her full height, which wasn’t really worth the effort.” Calling me out again, I see.
- Scrumble is basically the Discworld equivalent of scrumpy, which I have had before and… yeah. It is like that.
The moon was setting, but the sky was full of hard white stars that made the winter seem colder still.
She leaned forward and gave him a kiss as insubstantial as a mayfly’s sigh, fading as she did so until only the kiss was left, just like a Cheshire cat only much more erotic.
He felt as if he’d been shipwrecked on the Titanic but in the nick of time had been rescued. By the Lusitania.
He’d never plucked up the courage to try Albert’s porridge, which led a private life of its own in the depths of its saucepan and ate spoons.
(That was a cinematic trick adapted for print. Death wasn’t talking to the princess. He was actually in his study, talking to Mort. But it was quite effective, wasn’t it? It’s probably called a fast dissolve, or a crosscut/zoom. Or something. An industry where a senior technician is called a Best Boy might call it anything.)
History unravels gently, like an old sweater.
It is a fact that the best remedy for a scumble hangover is a hair of the dog, although it should more accurately be called a tooth of the shark or possibly a tread of the bulldozer.
Next week we read up to “Now—are we going?” See you then!