Thursday, 3 January 2013

Terry Pratchett's Discworld 11- Reaper Man

Reaper Man
Terry Pratchett
'It can't be intelligent, can it?' said the Bursar.
'All it's doing is moving around slowly and eating things,' said the Dean.
'Put a pointy hat on it and it'd be a faculty member,' said the Archchancellor.

Ah yes, the Discworld. About a fourth of the way in I took a break from the series to concentrate on catching up with all of the fancy new novels I'd raced ahead with. I still haven't caught up, but I felt like taking a break from that serious deadpan stuff and getting back to my favourite fictional world. I also watched the first part of Sky's adaptation of A Colour of Magic the other day, and I was given two of the four (!) new Pratchett books for Christmas (A Blink of the Screen and Dodger, with The Long Earth and The Compleat Ankh-Morpork currently missing). So let's jump backwards twenty years for a retrospective review of book eleven, Reaper Man.

Generally considered the second Death book, Reaper Man differs from its predecessor Mort by upgrading Death from the sort-of antagonist of the story to the co-lead character. It also introduces a set of antagonists of Death's very own, beginning a storyline that continues many books into the future, in the Auditors of Reality; a group of literally shadowy characters who seem to have an influence in all reality. They condemn the scythe-wielding anthropomorphic personification we all know and love for becoming too attached to his living subjects, banishing him to walk as one of them. In the meantime, the temporary absence of a human grim reaper causes a bit of a problem, with all manner of undead apparitions appearing, mostly confused. One of these is Death's co-star, Unseen University wizard Windle Poons, who turns from a dribbling, demented old man into an invigorated, youthful, albeit undead version of himself.

While Windle Poons tries to get used to being undead in Ankh-Morpork, Death is living a humble life on a farm in the middle of nowhere, further experiencing the surreality of life as a mortal. 'Bill Door', as he's known, has existential conversations with the farm owner and shows off his remarkable abilities with a scythe. Alas, it's only a temporary retreat for Death, as his replacement New Death fully forms, and his first call of duty is to escort Bill Door to the other side. Meanwhile, Windle Poons, his undead friends from the Fresh Start Club, and the wizards of Unseen University discover and must face in the middle of Ankh-Morpork the power of a multidimensional parasitic demon entity that's hooked itself to the Disc in all the chaos, and which looks suspiciously like a supermarket.

The diversion in pace and tone between Death and Windle Poons' segments gives a somewhat schizophrenic note to the proceedings, and that they don't interact until much later on further seperates things. It's an interesting choice by Pratchett, but I'm not entirely sure if it doesn't hamper the full development of either stories. I get the impression with the Death character (from here, Mort, and later books) that Pratchett doesn't feel as though he can carry a whole narrative by himself. That's probably true, as not only is Death somewhat limited in his emotional range, he works best as a thoughtful, meditative, softly-spoken character.

Like most of the Discworld books so far, the comedy and satirical philosophy gives way a little for a lot of running about and perilous danger towards the end, and the events of both tales come together more to solidify the procedures, but it doesn't quite offer great resolution to the proceedings. This is the last we'd see of the Windle Poons character, who Pratchett clearly wasn't happy enough with to keep (he's a little generic, like Victor of Moving Pictures), while Death would continue his own development, and finally gain a static supporting character in the future. All of which leaves me to feel that Reaper Man is only really a B- in terms of the authors own standards, which still makes it really really good.