published in 1987
If anybody can lay claim to being the first breakout star of the Discworld series, it has to be Death. Started off as a bog standard personification of an abstract concept, managed to work his way up through several cameos in the first three books to this, his first start turn in a novel. Four more would follow, though none in the past decade. He’s not quite his cuddly self here yet, still a bit on the evil side, not as human as in e.g. Hogfather.
Nevertheless Death is being humanised, or why else would he end up looking for an apprentice? Anthropomorphical personages don’t need successors, now do they? Yet still Death ends up on a dusty market square in a small village at the stroke of midnignt taking on a most unlikely apprentice: Mort. Mort is one of those boys who are all knees and legs, who think too much for what they’re doing. An apprentice with Death is literally his last opportunity, but as his father said, there may be opportunities for a good apprentice to eventually take over his master’s business, though Mort is not sure he wants to.
Somebody who is sure she doesn’t want him to is Ysabel, Death’s adopted sixteen year old daughter, who takes an immediate dislike to Mort from the moment he arrives in Death’s domain. Ysabel is eternally sixteen, somewhat on the plump side and spends most of her days reading the tragic lifestories of princesses. Not a good match for the relentlessly practical minded Mort.
Mort himself is more impressed by the princess he meets when on the duty with his master, when Death comes to claim the life of her father, the king of Sto Lat. Death tells him that she herself is due to die a couple of weeks later, as the result of an assassin hired by the same duke of Sto Helit who killed her father. Said duke is destined to unify Sto Lat and Sto Helit and be remembered as a great ruler. When Mort argues that’s not justice, Death says there’s not justice, there’s just us.
Needless to say, when Mort gets his first job alone as duty Death and one of the people he has to collect is the princess, things don’t go quite according to plan. He saves the princess’ life, but history isn’t stopped that easily. All around the princess people are behaving as if she died, while not too far from Sto Lat, the old history has taken hold, and is moving towards the city….
This sets up a great Pratchettian conflict between doing what is the right thing to do and what’s the human thing to do. The right thing to do would be to let the true history take hold and let the princess die; the human thing to do is to try and cheat destiny in some way. Mort choses the human side, Death has no choice but to be on the side of right.
This is quintessential Pratchett, the first time it has been put so clearly in the series, but not the last time. He’s always on the side of the sticky, complicated, illogical human side of things rather than necessarily the right side of history. It’s what gives heart to his novels.