Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: Mort, Part III

This week we’re going to talk a lot about booze because that’s how my brain works when you talk about strange bottles in bars, sorry everyone. It’s time for the next part of Mort.

Summary

Mort is heading into the palace, going through walls unthinkingly, and part of him is very jealous at the thought that Cutwell might be sleeping with the princess. Once he finds Cutwell he realizes that is not the case, and they have a chat about what the wizard has been doing—knowing the other reality is descending, Cutwell has been trying to get enough people to believe that Keli is alive in the hopes of changing reality. Belief has a great deal of power; without belief, gods die, for instance. In trying to explain the issue, Cutwell pulls out the Book of the Magicking of Alberto Malich the Mage, and goes looking for a passage. Mort catches sight of a picture of the author and realizes he looks an awful lot like Albert. It turns out that he was the fellow who founded the Unseen University roughly two-thousand years back, and rumor had it that he blew himself into the Dungeons Dimensions… They figure that the reality bubble won’t converge until roughly midnight tomorrow, which is when Keli is to be coronated. Mort decides that he wants to see Keli.

In Ankh-Morpork the Patrician is having a party, and Death is at the party doing the Serpent Dance and trying to figure out what fun is. Mort is fixed on the idea that he can take Keli away from her death again somehow; Cutwell shoots him in the back with a crossbow. Death then tries his hand at some gambling (in a dice game) getting in trouble with the local crooks, who believe he’s cheating—he doesn’t understand why humans would find pleasure in the reiteration of the laws of chance. He reveals himself to the crooks, and forces the fellow running the game to throw his own dice, telling him that if he wins he should stop suggesting that chance governs the affairs of men (if he doesn’t win, the consequences will be much worse). The fellow does win, and Death walks off, enjoying this change coming over him. In the meantime, Cutwell notes that the arrow from the crossbow he fired went straight through Mort; he’s changing with the work he’s doing, and they talk about his ability to sometimes walk through walls and how he drank that pint of scumble. Mort decides he will figure out how to save Keli, and vows to come back with a solution.

Death is at The Mended Drum trying every single weird alcohol in the place. He gets very drunk and tells the barman that he has no friends because everyone hates him. The bartender eventually has to help him out of the bar (though he was willing to put up with the weirdness for all the extra money). The next day, Death is thinking about all he’s tried and can’t figure out what the point is… but he feels glad to be alive and less than keen to be Death. Mort wakes Ysabell from sleep and asks for her help in saving Keli; Ysabell is very keen to know about a real princess and whether Mort is in love with her and whether it’s unrequited and so on. They go to the library, down in the Stacks (where the biographies over 500 years old are kept) and look for Albert’s biography, and finally find the place where they can still hear a book being written—the problem is, Albert’s is a whole shelf of books at this point. They read the last book and learn that Albert is coming after them for prying, so Ysabell drops a book on him from their ladder perch. Mort begs for Albert’s help in stopping this thing, but he’s not interested. Ysabell tells Mort that he needs to sleep, and he doesn’t mean too, but he does.

Death talks to a job broker named Keeble about getting some work involving cats or flowers. His interview with the man isn’t going well, and he attempts to show his ability to walk through walls, but finds he can’t do it. Death then shows the man who he actually is and terrifies him so badly that he has to handle his next customer. He tries to frighten her, but she’s unbothered, so he pays her to leave. Once he goes back into Keeble’s office, the man has collected himself as much as he’s able, and he gives Death a referral for a new job—the cook at Harga’s House of Ribs. Death is excellent at the gig, and leaves out milk and meat for cats, and he’s happy there. (The all-caps start to leave his voice.) Mort is having a nightmare and is woken up by Ysabell, who’s in a panic because Death didn’t come home. Albert is also in a panic because Death needs to work out the nodes or Balance is destroyed. Albert and Mort look at Death’s node ledger and can’t figure it out… but it turns out Ysabell can. Mort asks if she’ll help, but she says no: “I can do them and you can help.”

Cutwell is making preparations for the coronation and talks to Keli about their plan, and about Mort, who he believes can walk through walls because he’s becoming as real as Death. Ysabell balances the nodes, and they head to the hourglass room—she notes that Mort is changing. His eyes are turning blue, his voice is turning all-caps, and he threatens Albert… whose pact was with Death, not with him, so he doesn’t feel bound to honor it. He tells Ysabell to fetch Albert’s book, saying he wouldn’t kill him, but he could send him back to the world where he’d die anyway. Albert asks what he wants of him, and Mort tells him he wants him to change Reality. Albert laughs that off as a fruitless exercise. Ysabell returns with the book and Mort explains his reasoning; Albert may lie to him, but the book would tell the truth. Sure enough, the book reveals that Reality cannot be changed, but it can be slowed down. Albert will give Mort the spell, but it comes with a price: he has to do the Duty or everything goes wrong and he’s dropped back into Time anyway. Mort doesn’t have time to do both, though. Ysabell insists he could manage it if she comes with him, and tells him that she’s going despite his protests.

Book Club Chat

We come back to the concept of belief again in the talk between Cutwell and Mort about gods and how believing shapes reality. (The conversation that gods eventually die when people stop believing in them would be drilled down into even harder by Neil Gaiman in American Gods… which makes me wonder if this wasn’t where he first came across the idea?) So we’re getting deeper into that conceit, deeper into the philosophy behind it and how important it is not to discount the role belief plays in shaping our lives and indeed our realities.

Okay so, various characters tell us that Death doesn’t really understand emotions at all because he doesn’t have glands or whatever, but… his confusion over existence is an entirely human thing regardless. I mean, the conversation that Death is having during the Serpent Dance is absolutely a conversation I’ve had with people about things that they find fun that just don’t resonate with me, and a conversation I’ve heard other people have. It’s a familiar conundrum in trying to relate to people, and then the way he tries to convince himself it’s fun by repeating it is just very relatable is all I’m saying. And that’s really Death’s charm, as a character, the fact that these things he’s learning are not very far off from what we all do.

Pratchett has this bit here in The Mended Drum where Death is trying all the weird boozes that no one ever drinks, and he mentions that every bar has a few bottles like this, usually stuff with fruit or twigs or lizards in that no one ever wants, and it’s funny because it’s true. As a bartender, I was taught that it was usually the Galliano (which is an herbal vanilla liqueur that comes in a very tall narrow bottle), but it’s not anymore because people actually started making cocktails with it again because it’s a perfectly nice liqueur. Go figure.

Thing is, Pratchett is actually a bit wrong about why these bottles are in the bar in this case—it’s not because the bartender believes that the way to putting their spot on the map is to have this weird thing that someone will magically want one day. Often, the weird bottles are the result of a “flavor of the moment” liquor that everyone needs suddenly and fiercely, and then no one wants ever again. Remember when Hpnotiq was a thing? Yeah, we don’t drink that anymore. The Galliano was there because it was a early-to-mid-20th century after-dinner drink component that people were accustomed to seeing in steak houses and fancy spots, but stopped getting used in the period where cocktail culture died off a bit. I’m also going to disagree about the “treacle dissolved in turpentine part” because plenty of liqueurs and fortified wines are awful, but plenty of them are actually fabulous when you know what to do with them… you know, if you like cocktails.

Sorry, I have a lot of feelings about the taxonomy of bars.

Also, as a former bartender, I can say that everything about that exchange is 112% accurate, especially the staying open until the wee hours and being willing to put up with a lot for a customer who’s just a bit odd, but harmless and significantly overtipping you.

Conversely, I also have a lot of feelings about the discussion of Ankh-Morpork cuisine, specifically that wonderful thing about living in a city: access to all the greatest food. I mean, sure, you can order ingredients specially and try to do everything in the comfort of your own kitchen with a lot of time and effort, but the joy of living in a city is so very much about the wide variety of cuisine you can call up at a moment’s notice, or with a short trek. Nothing compares to it.

What’s happening to Mort is certainly the more dynamic part of the story, of course. With his myriad of mistakes and his becoming too real and his threats to poor old Albert, all to save a princess he barely knows for reasons he doesn’t fully understand. But for me, it really all comes down to this: “It struck Mort with sudden, terrible poignancy that Death must be the loneliest creature in the universe. In the great party of Creation, he was always in the kitchen.” And it’s also in the difference between Mort and Death as someone with human experience and someone without. Albert’s fear of Mort-Death because he has “the human seasonings of vengeance and cruelty and distaste” is a right thing to be terrified about. Death may be learning about human experience, but even when he’s pulling drowned kittens out of a well, he doesn’t go out in search of revenge on the person who put them there. That’s not what his existence is geared toward.

It makes Death a very special sort of deity. Of course, he’s not a god, not in the Discworld sense, but I’d argue that he is very much so in Pratchett’s own… worldview, I guess you’d call it? And there’s something genuinely comforting about the thought of a godly figure who dispenses literally no judgment. There’s something pure and crystalline in that intention. It makes you genuinely sad for the fact that people don’t appreciate him. It makes you wish he could have that life as a line cook with all those cats about.

Asides and little thoughts:

  • Love the description of hearing the magic between the pages of Alberto’s book being like “anyone who has ever sat next to someone wearing a Walkman”, but damn does that reference date the book.
  • The Morporkian Serpent Dance is basically just the conga. Which puts me in mind of the James Acaster bit about the conga and how it is never really all that enjoyable.
  • Mort has a moment of insight where he realizes that Keli has been crying, but more to the point that she knows it and it’s made her “even angrier than before” and there is nothing more real than that feeling, y’all. I hate the fact that you know I was crying, and I’m mad about it.
  • Obviously Queen Ezeriel is supposed to be a take on Cleopatra, and it is scathing(ly true) when Cutwell points out that she was a queen who made laws and declared war and ruled for decades, and she only gets remembered for what she bathed in and how she died dramatically.
  • Mr. Keeble suggest that because Death has “no useful skill or talent whatsoever” maybe he should try teaching. On the one hand, you could view this as a dig against the way many people view teachers, but if you take it at face value then what the hell. Don’t even get me started on how undervalued (and criminally underpaid) teachers are.
  • “TIME IS NOT IMPORTANT.” I mean… right?

Pratchettisms:

HOW IS THIS FUN MANIFEST?

The sun crept over the horizon, decided to make a run for it, and began to rise.

I THINK… I THINK I COULD BE FRIENDS WITH THE GREEN BOTTLE.

SLEEP? SLEEP? I NEVER SLEEP. I’M WOSSNAME, PROVERBIAL FOR IT.

The room wasn’t so much furnished as lingeried.

He laid down his pen and gave the kind of smile that suggested he’d learned it from a book.

Next week we finish the book!

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