Everyone pick up your favorite rocks and bang them together—it’s time for a little Soul Music.
Death is in the middle of another existential crisis, wanting to learn how to forget. A girl named Susan who goes to an all-girls boarding school is informed that her parents are dead; Susan unnerves people because she has a peculiar ability to not be seen when she doesn’t want to be. Her teachers believe she skips classes when she simply cannot be noticed in lessons she doesn’t like. (She prefers math and logic courses to literature and history.) Imp Y Celyn, a harpist from Llamedos, arrives in Ankh-Morpork, but is told he needs to join up with the musician’s guild if he wants to play in the city. At the guild, he meets a troll named Lias Bluestone and a dwarf named Glod Glodsson; none of them can pay the fees and they all head out to eat together. Lias accidentally sits on Imp’s harp. The three head to a mysterious shop (that’s always been there) and look for a new instrument for Imp. A guitar seems to resonate with his voice, and Lias gives the proprietor one of his teeth (troll teeth are diamonds) to buy the thing. They decide they’re a band and Glod promises to find them a gig.
The band begins practice and starts finding a sound between the new guitar and Lias’s rocks. Susan notices the Death of Rats in class and is surprised to be woken by him in the middle of the night. She follows him outside, where the Death of Rats has brought a raven to translate for him. The raven tells Susan that she needs to go with the Death of Rats because her grandfather is missing—but Susan can’t really remember her grandfather, and absolutely refuses to go in for this tomfoolery. She heads back to bed and has strange dreams. The next day she is walking with Princess Jade (a troll) and Gloria Thogsdaughter (a dwarf) by the school’s stables, and she sees Binky there. She remembers riding him as a child, and other bits and pieces of having seen her grandfather. She gets on Binky and makes a jump, though she usually doesn’t have any interest in or talent for riding. The other girls notice that the horse doesn’t touch the ground after jumping, and she has to urge him back down.
Glod gets the group a gig at The Mended Drum. Susan heads into town in Quirm to speak to the raven again (he lives with a wizard), running into a Tooth Fairy as she does. The raven explains that he was only supposed to mention the horse when he saw her last, and that the horse had chosen her for something adventurous. Susan doesn’t set much store by adventures, but she creeps into the stables that night, puts a saddle on Binky and lets him carry her off. She winds up at Curry Garden, orders and eats some takeaway, and then Binky continues on. They arrive at Death’s home, and Susan finds that she remembers a great deal of it… and also that there are plenty of aspects that look like normal things but aren’t made like normal things. She meets Albert and he realizes that she’s been chosen to take over her grandfather’s job: She’s Death now.
Susan doesn’t believe this for one moment, but Albert fills in the bits of her memory that haven’t come back yet; her parents used to bring her around to see her grandfather, but rather than being frightened, she’d been delighted. This worried Ysabell and Mort, who determined that she would be raised with logic, according to modern parental tenets. They stopped letting Susan visit her grandfather, and he faded from her memory. Only Albert reckons that whether they wanted it or not, Susan inherited something of her grandfather—a truth that plays out when she accidentally use Death’s “voice” at breakfast. He tells Susan that she’s going to have to take up her grandfather’s job, despite her protests that she’s a normal kid. Imp, Glod, and Lias start their gig at the Mended Drum, and people start throwing food (and arrows) immediately. Susan bids an awkward hello to Colon and Nobby, who are out on their watch, and argues with the Death of Rats about whether or not she can do this job. She manages her first without a hitch however, a rude old man who left all his money to his cat and not a penny to his family.
Thing is, when you find yourself thinking “so comforting to be back with Death again,” you suddenly realize… oh, that’s really the whole point, isn’t it.
This particular Death story is important for the introduction of Susan, who really is the standard bearer for Pratchett’s “only children are more interesting than other people” point of view. And I can’t deny loving how we’re just dropped right into this story without the dramatic scene setting up Mort and Ysabell’s deaths. It actually has the effect of making the whole thing more upsetting, more devastating. Because we’re missing out on huge swaths of information that we’re grasping for—how they died, how Death first realized this was coming, what Mort and Ysabell were like as parents, how Susan inherited anything from her grandfather at all…
Her core trait is sensibility, which is an enjoyable one to give a younger heroine starting out on a grand adventure, because that can sometimes run in the other direction; you can pick out more than one vague reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland along those lines, where Susan makes it clear that she’s read stories like that and has no love for them whatsoever. On this point, I’m firmly with Susan—Alice drove me nuts as a kid. I couldn’t stand how overly trusting, surprised, and out of her depth she seemed at everything. (Fine, it’s a story meant to play on nonsense, but at a certain point you buy the conceit of the world and you muddle through like it’s normal. Adapt or die, Alice.)
It’s just a bit devastating to know that Death was cut out of Susan’s upbringing due to their fear of how he might affect her. It’s not surprising, certainly—we know that Ysabell was unhappy being trapped in Death’s realm, and Mort was happy to stand up to him on more than one occasion. But we know how much these things matter to Death, despite his absence of brain chemicals. Denying him contact with his only grandchild has a very “why don’t you just kick that poor kitten” feel to it. Especially when we abruptly find out from Albert that she loved being there. The first person in Death’s family who’s truly gleeful to be around him, and they rip her away.
However, her school is a fun place to begin the action, though perhaps not as terrifying as the boarding/private schools that I’ve heard tell about from friends who attended them. But I do appreciate that we have arrived at an acknowledgement of Horse Girls on the Disc: “There is a type of girl who, while incapable of cleaning her bedroom even at knife point, will fight for the privilege of being allowed to spend the day shoveling manure in a stable.” I’ve known many a horse girl, and I’m sad to say that I’m with Susan on this one as well: I have no desire to be on or around any horse unless that horse is supernaturally inclined and fond of me, like Binky is of her.
But we’ll get into that as we continue, and there’s another side to this story—being the music. Which is extra fun for me on a personal level, coming from my musician family. (Mom and dad were in a society band that played weddings, fancy clubs, film premieres, galas, and the like when I was little. They met doing a dinner show musical.) There’s a bit where Imp, Glod, and Lias are noting that they’re all getting along great despite being different species and Glod says, “We’re musicians. It’s not the same with real people.” and the thing is, this is delightfully true? Not to say that band members don’t fight, but musicians are… they’re just different. Whereas actors will try to upstage one another (I’ve got a lot of those in the family too, and combos of musician/actors all over the place), a true musician’s musician just wants to play the gig with other people who want to play the gig, and give everyone their time to shine. It’s its own mindset.
Then there’s a bit here where Imp says he’s going to be the greatest musician in the world and the narrative then says, “Stupid words. As if any bard cared for any opinion except those of other bards, who’d spent a lifetime learning how to listen to music.” Which, this is typically true for most forms of expertise, and art specifically—especially the kinds that don’t get as much pop culture recognition. Writers want to impress other writers, dancers want to impress other dancers, painters want to impress other painters. You want the validation of your peers because they’re the people who know quality.
Unfortunately, the Mended Drum isn’t a great crowd for that sort of appreciation. (Glod saving the fruit chucked at them is too real, though—if you ever hire a live band, please remember to FEED THEM. Not cheap shit, either. They deserve whatever your guests are getting. I speak as the child of parents who were given Domino’s pizza at millionaire country clubs.) But we’ll get to how that all pans out next week.
Asides and little thoughts:
- I just keep thinking about how tiny Susan wrote “I staid with grandad” and I having feelings about using staid instead of stayed, because maybe it was an accident, but also it’s completely likely that a kid like Susan somehow knew the word staid (and not stayed) and thought it made sense to drop in there because that was the word she knew, and that’s exactly the sort of weird spelling error I would have made as a kid.
- The footnote about Medusa’s underarm hair does beg some deep well questions that the footnote is not addressing because humans technically have hair all over their bodies. Does the peach fuzz on her cheek also snake-ify? Nose hairs? I’ve got a lot of questions now.
- Look, all I’m saying is that the holy man straight up asks Death if he’s male, and Death doesn’t answer. Which, sure, gender doesn’t really matter to Death. Because he doesn’t have one.
- I feel like I need a separate quote section for all the ways that Pratchett indicates that someone is not-a-bad-man-per-se. In this case, Mr Clete of the musician’s guild is “not, by the standard definitions, a bad man; in the same way a plague-bearing rat is not, from a dispassionate point of view, a bad animal.”
- There’s a bit where it’s noted that humans in Death’s realm will default to a twenty-six hour day because human diurnal rhythms will go longer if we don’t have any outside cues to set them by. I assume this plays into the idea that the average circadian rhythm of a human is a little over twenty-five hours, but it tickles me because Deep Space Nine uses a twenty-six hour day (due to the Bajoran day being situated as such).
Then the oil from the coach lamps ignites and there is a second explosion, out of which rolls—because there are certain conventions, even in tragedy—a burning wheel.
She was not an unkind woman, despite a lifetime of being gently dried out on the stove of education, but she was conscientious and a stickler for propriety and thought she knew how this sort of thing should go and was vaguely annoyed that it wasn’t going.
Gods plays games with the fates of man. But first they have to get all the pieces on the board, and look all over the place for the dice.
He liked black. It went with anything. It went with everything, sooner or later.
She got on with her education. In her opinion, school kept on trying to interfere with it.
It was very much like its owner, who was what you would get if you extracted fossilized genetic material from something in amber and then gave it a suit.
Imp hesitated as people do when, after having used a language all their lives, they’ve been told to ‘say something.’
“Could you stop pointing that sharp bacon at me?”
The Mended Drum has traditionally gone in for, well, traditional pub games, such as dominoes, darts, and Stabbing People In The Back and Taking All Their Money.
Next week we’re up to “If it’s really alive,” said Ponder,” then it’s very contagious.”