Rereading Terry Pratchett: Mort

Mort-Terry-PratchettFor such a short book, it certainly took me a long time to listen to this. I think it’s not so much the book (though that’s part of it) but the fact that I’ve been listening to a lot more music recently. But, I finally finished Mort and while I enjoyed it, I’m not sure I liked it.

The story starts with Mort and his father at, well, a job fair. Of course no one picks Mort to be their apprentice, he’s a gangly, not-much-to-look-at boy. Eventually, after everyone’s left, it’s just Mort and his father, waiting around. And then, of course, Death shows up. Unlike in real life, most Pratchett fans are big fans of Death. He’s a truly great character and I’m looking forward to the other books where he’s a main character. Unfortunately, Mort is not one of the better Death offerings. That’s not to say that Death’s not great, there are just other things going against it.

As with all Discworld novels, there’s magic and magicians involved. But also some rather overt sexism, which is disappointing but not surprising. But more on that later. Where were we? Oh, yes. Death wants to take a holiday and decides to train an apprentice — Mort. Unfortunately for Mort, not only does no one remember his name (they all call him boy, much to his dismay), he has no idea what he’s getting into. Being Death is a whole lot of work.

The novel follows Mort’s (all too brief) training and then he’s set out on his own to gather the souls of three people who are set to die. Death, on the other hand, has embarked on his vacation (this, too, will not end well). I will give Mort credit, he gets the first two right. And then there’s the princess. On one of the training missions (I don’t know what else to call them), Mort and Death arrive at a castle to take the soul of a monarch. Mort makes a (one-sided) connection with the Princess and when he shows up again to collect her soul, well, you can imagine it doesn’t go well.

The idea is actually pretty interesting. What happens in the Discworld when someone who is supposed to die, doesn’t? Chaos, basically. The world tries to correct things and Mort tries to get in the way. In the end, of course, things work out and Death realizes he doesn’t really need an apprentice after all (and Mort finds that reaping his not his calling, either).

While Mort is wrecking havoc in space and time, Death is wrecking his own havoc. He’s eating and drinking, getting drunk and then, toward the end of the novel, he actually gets a job — as a cook! But as things are wont to do, they go awry and Death must swoop in to fix things, and he does, sort of.

But then there’s the sexism. The way Mort treats the princess, the way the wizard (who is kind of in love with the princess) treats the princess. And then you have Ysabell, Death’s adopted daughter. She’s described in rather annoying terms (and described as being rather annoying), but she turns out to be the best character in the novel. I like her because she’s got her head on right and she understands how the world works, while the men in her life (Mort, Death, and Albert, Death’s manservant and a former wizard) are basically bonkers.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. And while I did enjoy how Mort and Ysabell ended up together and it felt mostly natural, I was annoyed at how she’d been portrayed in the earlier portions of the novel. It’s been so long since I’ve read these books that I’m hopeful that the sexism decreases and my enjoyment increases. Though so far, all four of the Discworld novels are sexist, but I do acknowledge that and try not to let it color my view of the novels too much (Mort aside).

Rereading Terry Pratchett: Equal Rites

Cover of Equal Rites by Joe McLaren

Cover of Equal Rites by Joe McLaren

As I said in my first post about rereading Pratchett, it’s been a very long time since I read these books. I had vague, possibly fond, memories of Equal Rites, but I really didn’t remember anything other than it’s about a girl who wants to be a wizard or something along those lines. And, basically, that’s what the book is about — except, you know, since it’s Terry Pratchett, there’s way more to it.

Before I started reading it, though, I talked to my sister about it. She’d recently listened to Mark Reads Equal Rites (you can listen/read his recaps here). One version (found here, on the left) describes the book as such: [when] feminism and sorcery collide. Which, um, is not really what the book is about. My sister, therefore, was disappointed when she finished it and I don’t blame her.

You see, Equal Rites is FULL of sexism and misogyny, which is surprising considering that wizards in the Discworld are basically quite sexist. That’s not to make it okay, because it’s not, but that’s kind of the point.

The story begins with Eskarina’s birth — a wizard shows up in her village and proclaims that since she is the 8th son of an 8th son, she’ll be a wizard. And in spite of protests from a woman we later learn is a witch named Esmerelda Weatherwax (though everyone calls her Granny), the wizard gives his staff to Esk and then promptly dies. Which is also when he finds out that the baby is a girl, not a boy, and girls certainly cannot be wizards, it just isn’t done.

As the novel progresses, Granny Weatherwax feels the same way. At first she, and Esk’s parents, hope that the magic never manifests itself, but when it does, Granny decides the only logical thing to do is teach her to be a witch. That goes as well as to be expected because Esk is, after all, destined to be a wizard.

Much of the middle of the book follows Granny and Esk as they try to make their way to Unseen University. Esk grows up quite fast in some ways — including when she runs off from Granny and one of Granny’s friends and ends up on her own trying to get to Ankh-Morpork and the University on her own. She befriends several people and slowly begins to learn the value of the staff she possesses. She also understands that most people aren’t fond of magic and she must learn to hide it.

But it’s not until she’s found a caravan traveling to Ankh-Morpork that Esk meets real wizards. She befriends a boy, probably her own age, named Simon, and the wizard taking him to university. Simon and Esk get on all right, but both of them firmly believe that Esk will never be a wizard because she’s a woman (Simon, though, is amendable because he’s much more worldly than, well, mostly people in the Discworld and also just a really nice boy who is friends with Esk). When the wizard accompanying Simon basically tells Esk she can’t become a wizard, she gets angry and runs away.

Lots of things happen, including her discovery of the creepy creatures that feed on magic and are attractive to magic. This is how Granny finds her and basically rescues her. The two finish their journey to Ankh-Morpork and the university. Once there, they slowly become accustomed to the pace of life in the city while trying to sort out how Esk will join the school. One day, they run into SImon and the wizard from the caravan, the latter generously (though in a horrible and patronizing way) invite Esk to join them. She does and is given the chance to prove she can be a wizard and, of course, she fails.

We learn, later, that it’s because the staff has been protecting her and using her as a conduit for the magic and not Esk using the staff. But before that happens, we follow Granny as she comes up with a very clever way for Esk to enter the university — as a maid, basically. This is all well and good until, as expected, Esk runs into trouble.

Obviously everything works out and I won’t go into detail, because half the fun of reading (or listening, as I did) to these books is how one gets both into and out of trouble.

Neither Esk nor Granny are feminists in the activist term of the word. In fact, Granny is very set in her ways and believes, as do most people in the Discworld, that women cannot be wizards (and men cannot be witches). There’s no movement of Granny and Esk trying to get the people of Discworld to change their view of the world and accept women into the university. Basically, Esk wants to be a wizard because that’s what she wants to do and Granny wants to make sure that Esk doesn’t destroy the world with her inability to control the wizarding magic she has in her.

According to Wiki, the definitely of feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men. There is none of that in Equal Rites and that’s fine, there doesn’t need to be (that would be a totally different book, actually). What the book is, though, is a start. There are hints of feminism, especially near the end when it looks like, perhaps, the wizards will in fact let women, not just Esk, into Unseen University.

I will say, though, that one of my favorites lines is when Granny and Cutangle (the wizard in charge of Unseen University) return to the university after [spoilers about their adventure] and Cutangle is all ‘I’ll have to make you an honorary wizard’ because all the wizards are starring at her. And Granny, because she’s so flipping awesome, says ‘well, that case I’ll have to make you an honorary witch.’

This is not a feminist novel in the same way the books listed here are feminist novels. But it is a novel that lives up to it’s title. Equal Rites is about equal rights — Esk is a wizard who happens to be a girl and she deserves all the same rights as wizards who happen to be boys. You can read into it, of course — I did major in English in undergrad! But you don’t have to, either.

Equal Rites is fun and it’s a shame we don’t get any more books about Esk’s life. Though I’m sure there’s fanfic out there, somewhere.

Rereading Terry Pratchett: The Colour of Magic & The Light Fantastic

Back when I was in high school, I somehow stumbled upon Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I don’t know if my parents recommended it to me or I found it while trawling through the shelves of the public library (or my high school library, which had a small, but decent collection of SF/F books). As I grew up, I devoured these books and then passed them along to my sister (she loved them, too). But at some point I stopped reading them. I read Good Omens, of course, which led me to read books by Neil Gaiman (I have since left him behind, too, but for other and often more complicated reasons). But I never really returned to Discworld or Terry Pratchett’s writing in general.

That’s not to say it wasn’t around. My sister still read it and after I became a librarian, we always had his new books in the collection and there are a couple of patrons who read anything he wrote, no matter what it was. And when I started ordering YA/teen books, I was always ordering his newest young adult books. But I still wasn’t reading them. Even when Pratchett announced he had Alzheimer’s and talked about his future as finite, I didn’t go back to reread the books. I admired them, he’d created this amazing world, but I really felt that I’d outgrown the series. And when people asked me why I stopped reading them, that was my answer.

But since Pratchett’s death, I’ve begun to wonder if that was the case at all. Ever since discovering audiobooks, I’ve come to realize that the problem is not with the books themselves, but with me. For those who know me personally, I harbor a strong dislike for comedy — especially comedy where people do dumb things and thus make me feel embarrassed for them (called secondhand embarrassment: Urban Dictionary definition and a short, but interesting, article on the topic from Jezebel). This extends, to some extent, to fiction, but not always in the same way. It’s far easier to read through it then to watch it — but I still don’t like reading a lot of comic fiction — either because I don’t find it funny (and instead find it dumb) or I just don’t get it.

I figured out a way to get over this and that was through audiobooks. I discovered this by accident, actually. I’d tried to read some of Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster series, but couldn’t get through the books. But then I picked up an audiobook version and found it utterly hilarious. I’ve listened to several other books that would otherwise leave me unable to finish (including more PG Wodehouse, but also some Horatio Hornblower). I’ve often thought that had I listened to Jane Austen, I might actually like her writing — but that ship has long since sailed. That being said, there are plenty of SF/F novels that I want to revisit (including, but not limited to, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I cannot stand in book form). Of course, I wasn’t sure this was going to work, because not everything translates well into audio, but once Pratchett died, I thought why not give it a try.

And, guys, it totally works. It’s been so long since I read any Pratchett that I’m sure my lack of memory has something to do with it. But I remember enjoying the books — I just don’t remember finding them so incredibly entertaining. Man, audiobooks are awesome and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong (or, you know, can’t listen, but that’s a different issue). Not all audiobooks are created equally, but these Discworld ones are turning out to be fantastic.

I decided, as with my reading of Murakami’s books, to start at the beginning. I picked up the audiobook version of The Colour of Magic (shout out to the Berrien Springs Community Library for sending me both The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic on CD through MeL) for my recent trip to Cleveland. I was astounded on several counts, the first of them being how enjoyable the narrator’s voice was. But what really blew my mind was how utterly hilariously entertaining the book was.

There are a couple of textual features to Pratchett novels that I wasn’t entirely sure would translate properly to audiobook format — the voice of Death (represented in small caps) and all of the fun and amusing asides (depicted as footnotes). Both of these were dealt with quite well using a bit of voice distortion, or something like that, I’m not entirely sure how to explain it. Without any hang ups left, the books are very enjoyable — at least the first two (as I write this, I’ve just started listening to Equal Rites).

The Colour of Magic introduces us to the Discworld itself through the eyes of a failed wizard, Rincewind, and the tourist, Twoflower, he unluckily comes upon, as well as one of the most memorable characters (after Death) in the Discworld universe — the Luggage. Together, The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic work hand-in-hand as a very long road trip around the Discworld.

Twoflower wants to see the world and Rincewind doesn’t want to, but ends up going with him anyway (he has little choice and it’s very amusing). Along the way, the two characters make friends — especially in The Light Fantastic and by the end of the second book, they’ve both grown as people and we, the readers, have fallen in love with the world they live in. Pratchett’s love for the world he created is evident from the first page of this series onward.

The adventures that make up these two books help to keep me interested, but what really makes this novels go is the humor. It’s everywhere! As I said to both my dad and my sister, I couldn’t believe how funny these books turned out to be. Sometimes I’d giggle, sometimes I’d chuckle and sometimes I’d just laugh out loud. It’s actually quite enjoyable to drive in the car while listening to something so entertaining. The Colour of Magic lasted me to Cleveland and back again, plus a day or so beyond and The Light Fantastic lasted me to visit my dad and back again, plus a day or so beyond that. I’ve managed to track down copies of the rest of the series and I plan to listen until I get tired of it or want to listen to something else.

If you can find copies of these audiobooks, I cannot recommend the first two enough. And, based on my first half hour of listening to Equal Rites, I’m enjoying that one as well. I play to write reviews, probably not this long, for all of the Discworld novels that I listen to.