Friday 28 May 2021

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

Windle Poons, the oldest wizard in Ankh-Morpork, has died at the grand old age of 130. To his bemusement, Death does not show up to collect him and he is forced to return to life as a zombie. Across the Discworld, people are dying, only to find that they're not moving on. On a remote farm, a new worker shows up to start cutting the corn. Fortunately, he's a dab hand with the old scythe...

Terry Pratchett was, as is well-known by, something of a "gardener" when it came to writing. He started books with an idea and maybe a character and just kept writing until he bumped into something approximating a plot, often working backwards in edits to stitch the whole thing together cohesively. By the time he got to Reaper Man, the eleventh book in the Discworld series, he had this structure down pat and could write an entertaining yarn with his eyes closed. For whatever reason, though, Reaper Man, doesn't quite work as a cohesive novel in the same way as most of the rest.

In this case it seems that Pratchett had two separate ideas competing for attention, neither strong enough to propel an entire book, and decided to fuse them together. In the first storyline, something of a sequel to the earlier Mort, Death's growing affection for the lifeforms he has to cull has caused some controversy among the Auditors of Reality and Death is fired. He's given some time to put his affairs in order, but rather than do this he decides to live as a human for the last few days of his existence, taking up the role of Bill Door, handyman for hire, and going to work on a remote farm for Ms. Flitworth. This story is entertaining, well-characterised and even somewhat moving.

In the second storyline, strange artifacts are appearing all over Ankh-Morpork (nominally caused by the growing lifeforce left behind by people who can't move on from this plane of reality, though this connection feels strained), initially snowglobes and then shopping trolleys, culminating in the horrific appearance of the out-of-town shopping mall, a parasitical commercial tic which drains the life from the urban host. This isn't a bad idea, per se, and ties in with Pratchett's preferred scheme of finding a facet of human existence - movies, cops, opera, the press - and transferring it to Discworld to be poked around satirically. However, you can't quite shake the feeling that Pratchett's idea here is not fully-formed and may have been driven by an unpleasant parking experience at a shopping centre rather than a much stronger idea.

The result is arguably the most schizophrenic Discworld novel of them all, on one hand the splendid and enjoyable story of Death trying his hand at life, and on the other, the much more vague idea of the Unseen University wizarding faculty and an undead self-help group joining forces to taken down an, er, evil retail park.

Fortunately, the vagueness of the Ankh-Morpork storyline doesn't stop it from having some very funny lines and characters. The undead self-help group is great fun, populated by a traditional, Pratchettian cast of deranged-but-likeable characters, and the book delves deeper into the Unseen University faculty after their previous major appearance just one book earlier. The fact that the entire faculty survived that book into this one may cause hardened Discworld readers to pass out (the Archchancellor is the same one from the last book, which has never happened before) and enjoy the growth the characters show, or, in the case of the Bursar, the distinct decline in sanity. Unfortunately, the UU cast do have a tendency to reduce Pratchett to the most slapstick style of comedy, a style which he is not accomplished at, and later scenes of the wizards running around, being whisked off by self-steering shopping trolleys etc do become tiresome.

Still, Pratchett on an off day is still entertaining. Reaper Man (***) has some good laughs - Death trying to help out a cockerel with dyslexia, Poons mentoring a shy bogeyman - and the Death part of the novel is excellent. The rest just feels like it could have done with a few more rewrites. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Please note I previously reviewed the novel here.

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