Terry Pratchett – Reaper Man

Terry Pratchett’s passing in March of this year touched me more than expected. I never thought I could feel so sad about a man’s death when I never knew him personally. But Sir Terry has given his readers so much joy, so many wonderful stories, that he has touched all of us in a way. When I saw his last tweets (posted by his assistant Rob), I cried non-stop for a full hour. The numerous tributes, memories, and quotes posted on the internet didn’t help. It’s probably telling that the next book I chose to read was one in the Death subseries.

reaper manREAPER MAN
by Terry Pratchett

Published by: Corgi, 1991
Paperback: 352 pages
Series: Discworld #11
Death #2
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: The Morris dance is common to all inhabited worlds in the multiverse.

“Death has to happen. That’s what bein’ alive is all about. You’re alive, and then you’re dead. It can’t just stop happening.”
But it can. And it has. Death is missing – presumed…er…gone (and on a little farm far, far away, a tall dark stranger is turning out to be really good with a scythe). Which leads to the kind of chaos you always get when an important public service is withdrawn. If Death doesn’t come for you, then what are you supposed to do in the meantime? You can’t have the undead wandering about like lost souls. There’s no telling what might happen, particularly when they discover that life really is only for the living…

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Death is fired from his job by the Auditors of Reality. He has become too emotionally involved in the fate of the humans for whom he provides a service, he even dared to become a personality. This leads to all sorts of trouble on the Discworld. On the one hand, Death now has to figure out what to do with the lifetime that is given to him, on the other – well, if Death is gone, it’s a bit difficult for people to die. Enter zombies, excessive life foce, Death counting his time (literally) and a beautiful exploration of what it means to be alive, regardless of having a heartbeat.

Death takes on a job on Miss Flitworth’s farm. Helping with the harvest, especially using a scythe, is the perfect job for him and so he becomes a literal reaper man. Taking on the name of Bill Door (chosen in a really funny scene), Death not only sees what it’s like to be human, to watch your own time running out, but he also gets to know Miss Flitworth, his gruff but adorable employer. I cannot put into words how much I loved the scenes between these two.

The other big story arc of Reaper Man involves the wizards. I’ve never liked the wizards. They are a heap of bumbling old idiots that spend most of their time annoying me. But Windle Poons, recently deceased but not quite dead, was surprisingly likable and perfect for showing the other end of Death’s retirement. At 130 years old, Winlde waits for Death to come… but nothing happens. Newly un-dead, Windle discovers that he is not the only one and that undead does not equal unperson. He tries his best to die properly at first, only to realize that there’s still so much stuff to do, that he might still be needed. The city itself is, in fact, positively overflowing with life force.

This excess life force has a bizarre impact on Ankh-Morpork – which turns into an invasion of snow globes, who grow into wire baskets on wheels (so, shopping trolleys). Honestly, this part was a tad too silly for me but I did chuckle at the wizards trying not to curse because cursing agitates the trolleys. Darn it to heck, indeed! Apart from its obvious humor, I found the idea rather silly. It makes Reaper Man into a strange book that I both love and am kind of indifferent about. Death’s story – absolutely LOVE. The wizards – meh.

My general dislike of the wizards definitely plays into this, but I felt there was entirely too little Death and too much wizard stuff going on. Windle Poons’ story line was fun and I actually enjoyed his meetings with the other various types of undead, especially the boogeyman. But my favorite parts, and the heart of the novel, in my opinion, were the ones involving Bill Door (Death) and Miss Flitworth. His is the story that delivered heartbreaking scenes, when Death shows once again that – yes – he actually is too emotionally involved with humans and their fate. For the first time, Death has to learn what it means to have Time, and to not have an infinite amount of it.

reaper man simonetti

art by Marc Simonetti

I also love what Pratchett did with Miss Flitworth. This old spinster could have been a Discworld incarnation of Miss Havisham – and I guess Pratchett wanted us to think exactly that – but instead he gives her warmth and heart and pragmatism. No wonder she and Bill Door get along the way they do. While Death comes to understand humanity better by having a limited amount of time, his relationship with Miss Flitworth also changes him as a person anthropomorphic personification.

Although I really, really, really wanted Death’s story to be more prominent in this book, I adored the story we did get. It shows Death the way I want to imagine him. He has the best come-backs, he clearly cares about people, he is kind and even has a sense of humor. And it turns out, he actually really likes his job. The ending hit this point home again and made me cry like a little baby.

No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…

Although I didn’t care for the wizards and their wire baskets, Reaper Man will probably always be a favorite Discworld novel, in part because of its perfect ending. There is drama, there is sacrifice, and there is Death, back at his job, making the kindest gesture you can imagine, embracing his personality and being better for it. Even without the knowledge that Sir Terry is gone, I would have cried at this ending. But believing (and I’m not alone in this – see the petition to get him back) that it is this Death that has come to take Terry Pratchett with him, is heartening. After all, Discworld’s version of Death is nothing to be afraid of. More like joining a kind friend, for a game of chess, and then a walk in the black desert…

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Second opinions:

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