Just don’t let anyone hand you a pearl that might erupt into a universe, okay? We’re back to complete the end of our journey with Mort.
Albert dons his wizard gear, recites a spell, and vanishes from Death’s domain. Mort and Ysabell head to the Agatean Empire to collect their first soul, the Vizier to the Emperor, which takes longer than Mort would prefer as it’s a failed poisoning. Albert has appeared in the Unseen University on the spot where he left, blows up the statue of himself, and runs into Rincewind (who is assistant to the librarian now). He tells him to gather the senior wizards and equipment to perform the Rite of AshkEnte again and find Death, then sets about getting a drink at the Drum, where he ends up having to turn the landlord into a frog over the subject of a 2000-year-old bar tab. Once he’s back, he tells all the wizards that it’s time to shape up, much to their chagrin. Mort and Ysabell head to the Pyramids of Tsort, and cross over a young woman who is meant to be a concubine in the heavenly court of Zetesphut after taking poison to join to him. Ysabell seems displeased with her choice, but Mort is changing, becoming Death.
Ysabell tries to snap him out of it, but the Rite of AshkEnte is being performed, and Mort thinks he is being summoned. Ysabell kneels on him to stop him from going, and Mort screams, insisting that he has to go. Ysabell knows that isn’t true—he’s not Death, he is what she thinks he is. They are almost summoned, but Ysabell clocks Mort in the jaw and Death finally shows up in the spell octogram. It takes him a moment, but he finally recognizes what’s happened, woes to himself for his foolishness, and vanishes with Albert to set about making things right. Meanwhile, Mort comes to and thanks Ysabell for stopping him. It’s midnight, which means he’s too late to save the princess, until he realizes that he might not be… and he and Ysabell set off on Binky. Meanwhile, the coronation of Princess Keli is going poorly, there’s an elephant, nothing goes right, and the Duke of Sto Helit is there to kill the princess. Cutwell sees the bubble of reality converging on them anyhow.
Mort and Ysabell arrive just in time, but Mort has no plan. Thankfully, Cutwell hits the duke over the head with a candlestick so he can’t menace anyone else. Mort still doesn’t have a plan, but Keli insists on being coronated, so Cutwell does the honors. Eventually, Mort decides that they should all climb on Binky and head to Death’s Domain. The reality bubble converges as they escape. They head into Death’s study, unsure of how to fix the issue, but Death is already there, and furious. He asks why Ysabell helped Mort and she admits that she loves him. Mort challenges Death for Cutwell and Keli’s existence, to prevent them from being consigned to oblivion. Death accepts the challenge. Albert retrieves both of their hourglasses and blades. Mort realizes he has an advantage in this; he has been Death, but Death has never been him. (Also, Death does want him to win.)
The fight knocks over a fair share of hourglasses leading to surprising deaths and various miraculous escapes. Mort manages to get the upper hand briefly, and pins Death down, but he refuses to strike a killing blow. Death knocks him to the ground and is about to end his life, when Ysabell stops him. She notes that Death has claimed meddling with an individual’s fate could destroy the world, but Death has done that already; her fate, Mort’s fate, the fate of the hourglasses that have shattered in this fight. Death points out that this doesn’t matter because the gods can demand nothing of him, which Ysabell doesn’t think is very fair. She takes up Mort’s sword, determined to fight. Death tells her to do as she’s told, but she won’t. Death disarms her and casts her aside, approaches Mort with his hourglass in hand, its sand running out. Death says that Mort doesn’t know how sorry this makes him, but Mort replies that he might. Death laughs. And once the last grain of sand and run through Mort’s hourglass, he turns it over.
Death winds up having a word with the gods; Keli is allowed to live with Cutwell as her paramour, and Mort and Ysabell are set up as the duke and duchess of Sto Helit now that Keli’s uncle is dead. They still have to unite the kingdoms as he would have done, but the gods were sentimental to give them this life. Mort and Ysabell have just gotten married and Death shows up at the reception—he hadn’t thought it was appropriate to attend the ceremony. Death gives Mort their wedding present, a giant pearl made of the actualities Mort created; Death tells him that one day this pearl will be the seed of a new universe. Then he gives Mort a personal gift: his book, which is still being written. Mort asks Death how he feels about christenings, which Death isn’t too keen on. They say their goodbyes.
Book Club Chat
Rincewind! It’s Rincewind, everybody. Say hi to Rincewind, he seems to be doing quite well. My favorite thing about this is how he seems to take all of this in stride because, honestly, given everything that he’s already been through, why would this bother him. Gee, there’s the university’s founder, back after two millennia and telling me to wake everyone up to summon Death. This might as well happen. For anyone who has dealt with Twoflower, this can’t be that big of an ask, really.
The transformation with Albert is really enjoyably because we get to see the difference two thousand years being Death’s butler makes on a person. Albert the wizard is an utterly different person, and frankly not a very nice one. Death is good for him.
Yet again, we come back to the concept belief shapes reality. And this is ultimately why I am all for the Great Expectations redux that is Ysabell and Mort, because of this moment. Pratchett is so exceptional at taking these incredibly profound actions and bits of dialogue and just dropping them into the text and walking away from them, which I love because it forces the reader to really mark them and imbue them with meaning. He’s trusting us to be smart and get it.
So when Ysabell sits on Mort and tells him that he’s not Death because he is what she believes him to be, my face screws up, I get all teary, and it’s time to close the book and walk away for a little while. That’s it—a distillation of what the book is saying about belief shaping reality and people, but also this perfectly laid out map of how love exerts pressure over our lives. Belief is reality, and Mort is saved because someone who loves him sees him, and believes him to be simply who he is. And then there’s a tangent here that you can extrapolate from, about how our love for the people in our lives shapes and changes them, how we make each other day in and day out through our belief in people. Pratchett doesn’t spend a lot of time on the concept of romance, but he doesn’t really have to because it’s right there.
The fight between Death and Mort is so damn good because there’s a special kind of dramatic tension that you get from an action sequence where the stakes are truly unknown. Sure, we’re aware of the fact that Mort is fighting for Keli and Cutwell’s lives (as well as his own), but we don’t really know the possibilities inherent in this fight until Ysabell calls Death out for his meddling. And the moment when Death turns Mort’s hourglass over is this perfect ah-ha, where you think oh of course he can do that, how did I not see that coming. Frightfully clever and satisfying stuff.
You have to love a story that gets rolling because a young man becomes besotted with a princess, and then neglects to do many of the things that you are trained to expect from that story. Mort does not win Keli over, but also Keli is not revealed to be unworthy of his affections by being a monstrous shrew of some sort. And the fact that Mort was wrong to save Keli’s life over a crush doesn’t mean that she winds up punished by having to die as dictated either, which is great. Also, there’s something wonderfully subversive about the concept of Keli and Cutwell, mainly for the fact that Cutwell is smart, but also largely average overall as a person. (So is Keli, honestly, but narrative tropes always insist that princess = special in that aggravating way.) They just work somehow. The same way that Mort and Ysabell work somehow. None of them are overthinking it, so why should we?
Of course, it ends on the thought that Death doesn’t believe he’s cut out to be a grandfather. Which is hilarious because, oh, he is. And he has no idea what’s coming.
Asides and little thoughts:
- Mort makes the comment that the Pyramids of Tsort are “mortared with the blood of thousands of slaves”, presumably meant to reflect the Egyptian pyramids on Earth, which were long-believed to have been built by slaves. In more recent years, however, tombs of builders were discovered close to the pyramids—it is now largely believed that the pyramids were built by employed workers, and that this would have been a pretty solid job at the time too. It’s one of those weird places where satire stops working because context has changed entirely. (The first builder tombs were found in 1990, so Pratchett was just a few years off from this being more common knowledge, unfortunately.)
- I do love the combo superstition of “walking under a mirror” (walking under a ladder and breaking a mirror). Now I’m trying to think of other weird superstitions to combine. Like… throw a black cat over your left shoulder if you cross its path.
- The drunk elephant is supposed to “see pink people”, which automatically makes me think of Dumbo’s “Pink Elephants on Parade”, right?
The assembled mages watched the big double doors as if they were about to explode, which shows how prescient they were, because they exploded.
Like a reluctant cork from a bottle, like a dollop of fiery ketchup from the upturned sauce bottle of Infinity, Death landed in the octogram and swore.
THE PRESSURE OF THIS REALITY KEEPS IT COMPRESSED. THERE MAY COME A TIME WHEN THE UNIVERSE ENDS AND REALITY DIES, AND THEN THIS ONE WILL EXPLODE AND… WHO KNOWS? IT’S A FUTURE AS WELL AS A PRESENT.
And it was good to see Rincewind because we’re heading back to his neck of the Disc next week with the first part of Sourcery. We’ll be reading up to “…and none of them knew what was about to hit them.”