Reaper Man — Terry Pratchett

Cover of Reaper Man

Reaper Man
Terry Pratchett
287 pages
published in 1991

Even before rereading the day after pTerry’s death, Reaper Man was mired in grieving for me. Because I reread it in 2012, the year after Sandra’s death, when I had fallen back on Pratchett’s Discworld series as comfort reading, something to lose yourself in and forget for a while. And then I hit Reaper Man, in which DEATH has been retired by the Auditors for having become too human, has to find a new living as BILL DOOR and a fragile, predoomed romance starts between him and Miss Flitworth, the never married widow he ends up working as a farmhand for. It’s a novel about death and life and humanity and the essence of it is captured by what DEATH argues at the climax of it:


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What can the harvest hope for, if not for the care of the Reaper Man?

The news is no less shitty for being expected. Terry Pratchett, long suffering from early onset Alzheimers, has died. I’d been worrying about it ever since he pulled out of the Discworld con last year. I’ve been crying ever since I heard the news, coming in from an after work dinner with co-workers.

It’s hard to underestimate the impact he has had on my life, through his books and his fandom. The humour came first of course, shining through even the idiosynchronatic Dutch translation; the deep humanity came later. And then, in 1997 pTerry came to the Netherlands for a book signing in Rotterdam and I came into contact with fandom, people who are still friends almost twenty years later. There was Usenet and meetups and irc and Clarecraft Discworld Events and Discworld Cons.

And then there was Sandra.

We met on lspace IRC in spring 2000, mutually annoying each other (in what turned out to be a flirty way), then getting to talking each evening on the phone, then she came over just after Christmas 2000 and that was that. We spent the next two years travelling to and from each other’s homes, until in 2003 she moved in with me. Cue seven years of bliss, or at least domestic comfort, all thanks to Terry Pratchett.

But that’s not the best thing Terry Pratchett did for Sandra and me. The best thing he did for her was to help her die at a time of her own choosing. It was watching his documentary when she was in the middle of a two year battle with failing kidneys and the side effects of receiving a transplant. Talking it over afterwards she admitted that she had been thinking of wanting to die herself, of thinking that there would be a point at which she felt her life would no longer be worth living, that she had to give up the battle.

In the end, she of course did. She had been afraid that if and when she died, it would’ve been in pain and fear, not at a time and place of her own choosing. Terry Pratchett’s documentary gave her the strength and conviction to do put an end to a struggle no longer worth fighting, when she still had the ability to do so with dignity and on her own terms.

That was the greatest gift he could’ve given her and me, but I’ve never found the words to thank him for it.

Faust Eric — Terry Pratchett

Cover of Eric

Faust Eric
Terry Pratchett
155 pages
published in 1990

Eric is a bit of an odd duck in the Discworld, out of place amongst the increasing sophistication of the last couple of novels coming before it, almost a throwback to the very first few books. It’s a lot shorter, a lot less serious and a lot more written for comedic effect than its immediate predecessors were. All of which can be explained by the simple fact that it was first published as an illustrated book, written around a series of Josh Kirby illustrations, which was later adapted into standard Discworld paperback format, losing most of its charm in the process.

A word about Josh Kirby is needed at this place. Kirby was of course the cover artist for all the Discworld novels up until his death, Thief of Time being his last novel. His work was incredibly caricatural in nature, with very exaggerated figures and bright colours, not really to everybody’s tastes. Some might have found it a bit childish even, but I always liked it. To me his covers were Discworld, especially the early novels when it wasn’t all taken that seriously yet even by Pratchett himself. Therefore it made perfect sense to do an illustrated Discworld story with his drawings, just like his replacement as cover artist, Paul Kidby, would do with The Last Hero.

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Guards! Guards! — Terry Pratchett

Cover of Guards! Guards!

Guards! Guards!
Terry Pratchett
317 pages
published in 1989

For me Guards! Guards! is the last novel you can describe as an early Discworld novel. From here on all the major subseries have appeared: Rincewind, Death, the Witches and now the Night Watch/Sam Vimes novels. It’s the first novel in which Ankh-Morpork becomes more than generic, somewhat over the top fantasy city, with the first extended cameo for the Patrician and the first insights in how he rules the city. Over time Ankh-Morpork and the Night Watch would come to dominate the Discworld series of course; every novel in the main series since The Fifth Elephant either set in Ankh-Morpolk or featuring the Watch or both, but of course we didn’t know that at the time. Back then it was just Pratchett taking the mickey out of yet another set of fantasy cliches.

In Guards! Guards!‘s case, he did that by importing another set of cliches, that of the hardboiled police procedural. Sam Vimes is a hero straight out of an Ian Rankin novel: the grizzled, older, cynical detective staying in the Night Watch because he has no other place to go. He remained in his post even as the watch has degenerated into a farce and he has become a captain of only three men: Fred Colon, a fat sergeant, Nobby Nobbs, a weassely corporal and a new dwarf recruit called Carrot Ironfoundersson.

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Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die

Last year Terry Pratchett made a documentary about his Alzheimer’s Disease and his wish to die when he wanted to, meeting other people in the same situation, actually following some of them to their moment of dying. It was a powerful, emotional and honest documentary about a difficult subject.

Sandra had had much longer than Pratchett to make up her mind on this, having had to live with her disabilities for decades, living on a precarious edge where a small push could sent her towards complete helplessness. She had come to the same conviction as Pratchett had, that it was better to chose the time of her death even if this would out of necessity earlier than it medically needed to be, than keep on living without hope for progress.

When the side effects of our kidney transplant started to become chronic, especially after the first or second time she had slipped into coma this became her worst fear, that she would wait too long to die and it would slip out of her control, that she might end up phsyically alive but mentally destroyed.

She had always been a fighter though and she saw no reason just then to give up, though it was hard on her. There were also her sons to consider, the eldest of which was in trouble we need get into right now what she needed — and did — sort out from her hospital bed and of course there was me. She didn’t want to leave us, but she knew there would be a time she had to.

Watching that Pratchett documentary in June of last year crystalised a lot of these things for her, as it did for me and we had some long, serious talks about what and how we would handle it if she did come to a point of no return. At the time actually she had started doing better, she would be out of hospital not too long after, come home and for a while it looked we finally had all the support we needed, that she was finally stabilising and moving back to a “normal” life, before it all came crashing down again in September.

And this time she had made up her mind. She stopped treatment, said her goodbyes and died, a year and a week ago. She died as she lived, in as full a control of her own destiny as she could get.

She would’ve done the same without Pratchett’s documentary, but it did make it easier for her, for us, to go through with it. It’s one more thing I have to thank him for: thanks to him we met and fell in love and thanks to him she could die with dignity.

Oh no Terry Pratchett, No!

News to make the blood of any Discworld fan curdle:

What happened next is that Pratchett collapsed. “I had to kneel on the back seat of the taxi and give him CPR,” Rob says. “It was fingers down throat stuff. He nearly died.”

According to the interview extracts in the New Statesman, if the unthinkable does happen, which looks more and more likely, his daughter will take over the series:

The author tells me that he will be happy for her to continue writing the Discworld books when he is no longer able to do so. “The Discworld is safe in my daughter’s hands,” Pratchett assures me.

For any science fiction or fantasy reader this may not be a comfort, knowing what somebody like Brian Herbert made of his father’s legacy, but I do trust Terry Pratchett enough to give Rhianna Pratchett a chance. I just hope it will be some time yet before she gets it…

Pyramids — Terry Pratchett

Cover of Pyramids

Terry Pratchett
380 pages
published in 1989

A reader asks:

I’ve uh, never read any Pratchett before and have been wanting to tackle the Discworld novels for sometime but I’ve been intimidated by the reading order issue. It actually doesn’t help matters any that this is one of the most frequently asked questions, it all seems so confusing. Where to begin?

A good question. With a series that has almost forty novels, quite a few spinoff books and theatre, movie and television adaptations, the Discworld can look daunting to get into. Yet it’s not as bad as it looks. There are a couple of natural starting points: The Colour of Magic of course, but that’s not very representative for the rest of the series. A better starting point might be Guards! Guards! as that is the novel in which the whole Sam Vines/Night Watch/Ankh Morpork sub series was set up that has dominated the Discworld ever since. But of course since we’re discussing this question in a review of Pyramids, I’m going to make a case for it as the best starting point for getting into the Discworld.

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Wyrd Sisters — Terry Pratchett

Cover of Wyrd Sisters

Wyrd Sisters
Terry Pratchett
331 pages
published in 1988

The wind howled. Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin. Thunder rolled back and forth across the dark, rain-lashed hills.

The night was as black as the inside of a cat. It was the kind of night, you could believe, on which gods moved men as though they were pawns on the chessboard of fate. In the middle of this elemental storm a fire gleamed among the dripping furze bushes like the madness in a weasel’s eye. It illuminated three hunched figures. As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: ‘When shall we three meet again?
There was a pause.
Finally another voice said, in for more ordinary tones: ‘Well, I can do next Tuesday’.

The opening paragraphs of Wyrd Sisters are a good indication of the rest of the book. This is MacBeth: Discworld style and the witches do not intend to stick to the script. That’s because Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are sensible witches and while the third member of the coven is a bit wet — as in, she actually believes in such things like covens — Magrat Garlick still has a steel core of good Lancrian common sense. They know better than to meddle in affairs (well, mostly) or dance with demons, never mind doing it skyclad. Yet when the king is murdered, his baby heir disappears and the usurper duke turns out not be just a bit evil, but actually uncaring about the land, they’re dragged into meddling against their own will.

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Sourcery — Terry Pratchett

Cover of Sourcery

Terry Pratchett
285 pages
published in 1988

Sourcery is the fifth Discworld novel and the first one after the initial two novels to star Rincewind again. Over time fan opinion has switched to thinking the Rincewind novels are the weakest in the series, but I’ve always liked them myself and I think Sourcery holds up as well as any of the other early novels. It’s the first novel in which there’s a real villain, the first tiem we get to see what makes a real villain in Pratchett’s eyes.

On a surface level there are some similarities to Equal Rites: again there’s a powerful, untrained magic user coming to Ankh Morpork to shake up the Unseen University, but this time he’s not so benign. Coin is not the eight son of an eight son, but the eight son of a wizard. And when a wizard has an eight son, that son doesn’t become a wizard himself, but a sourcerer, a source of magic. The magic he yields is not the tame, nice magic which is the only kind of magic the Discworld has known for ians, but wild magic, the magic from the dawn of times. Not perhaps the kind of magic you’d want a ten year old boy to have, even if his dead father has possessed his wizard staff to give him counsel.

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Mort — Terry Pratchett

Cover of Mort

Terry Pratchett
272 pages
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.

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