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This time I’m armed. With Quotes.
“Reaper Man” is the tenth instalment of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld collection; if you haven’t read the previous nine, then don’t worry, you’ll be finding the time later. And then you’ll be searching for the next fifteen or so. And since the man is still not dead, you’ll find yourself as addicted as the rest of us in keeping up with the goings-on in a world not so much resembling the watched ball but the half-time refreshment. No-one has died yet from a case of the Pratchetts, but there have certainly been a few near scrapes. And anyway, there are surely worse ways to go than laughing your head off…
Death, it seems, has gone on strike. Lives are ending, but not going away. And, perhaps surprisingly given their experience, the Army can’t cover this one. It’s come as something of a surprise to the ancient wizard Windle Poons that the next world is in fact the same one, but with no automatic pilot. Once he’s figured out how to operate all those squidgy bits inside – including the bit that gurgles in the dead of night – he’s left only with the puzzle of what to do with his, er, afterlife. Having been an old man for most of his previous life and glued* to his wheelchair for most of *that*, the first thing on the agenda is, naturally, a stroll outside and a drink.
“He turned around very slowly and saw the small figure of Modo, the University’s dwarf gardener, who was sitting in the twilight smoking his pipe. ‘Oh. Hallo, Modo.’ ‘I ‘eard you was took dead, Mr. Poons.’ ‘Er. Yes. I was.’ ‘See you got over it, then.’”
(Modo is one of those minor characters that contribute to Pratchett’s appeal. His books are littered with them; some pop up in several volumes, but they’re all as well-drawn as the major protagonists. Later on, Modo is musing the imponderables after another unbelievable wizardly display:
“Teamwork, that’s what it was. They looked after the cosmic balance, the universal harmonies and the dimensional equilibriums, and he saw to it that the aphids stayed off the roses.”
Another such character – who really can’t be labelled as minor anymore, since he appears so often – is the Librarian of Unseen University (the Disc’s premier school of magic, in which Harry Potter would not last five minutes). A magical accident long ago turned an unassuming man into a 300-lb orangutan who has since resisted all efforts to change him back, as he finds the prehensile arms rather useful for reaching the higher shelves and wrestling the occasional difficult grimoire. Literally. Besides, habits are difficult to break, although at this early stage of the Disc’s development, the odd character still forgets how wise it can be to disagree with your ancestors:
“‘You? We can’t take *you*,” said the Dean, glaring at the Librarian. ‘You don’t know a thing about guerrilla warfare.’ ‘Oook!’ said the Librarian, and made a surprisingly complex gesture to indicate that, on the other hand, what he didn’t know about orangutan warfare could be written on the very small pounded-up remains of, for example, the Dean.”
But I digress…)
On a small farm on another part of the Disc, a rather thin gentleman is asking to be a hired hand. Miss Flitworth knows he’s asking, or how would she remember the words? There’s something odd about Bill Door, though she can’t quite put her finger on it… But after all, sixpence is sixpence. And as it turns out, he’s a good worker, even if he does have the most unusual harvesting technique – one stalk at a time – she’s ever seen…
Pratchett is famed for his humour, and it is indeed difficult to turn a page without registering at least a half-smile. And if the regular text doesn’t get you, then sure as death and taxes, the footnotes will:
“People have believed for hundreds of years that newts in a well mean the water’s fresh and drinkable, and *in all that time* never asked themselves whether the newts got out to go to the lavatory.”
But there’s more to Pratchett than the laughs. No doubt the Oxbridge grads among you will laugh at *this*, but read carefully and you’ll notice the quiet philosophy in there too:
“I’VE NEVER BEEN SURE ABOUT WHAT IS RIGHT, said Bill Door. I AM NOT SURE THERE IS SUCH A THING AS RIGHT. OR WRONG. JUST PLACES TO STAND.”
And of course there’s the beautiful prose. Being Pratchett, there are still laughs to be had in a simple scene-setting:
“These weren’t old mountains, worn down by time and weather, and full of gentle ski slopes, but young, sulky, adolescent mountains. They held secret ravines and merciless crevices. One yodel out of place would attract, not the jolly echo of a lonely goatherd, but fifty tons of express-delivery snow.”
So will Bill Door manage to bring the harvest in before the sands run out? Where *are* all the beautiful snow-globes coming from? And just what does a bogeyman look like anyway? Or, as the Librarian might ask, “Oook?”
There are those that will argue that “Reaper Man” is Pratchett’s best work to date, although for me, it tries to follow one too many groups. The three-way dance of the narrative threads form, if not a crowd, then a small cocktail party. In my opinion, Pratchett excels when there are only two groups (“Mort” and “Thief of Time”, for example). That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth a read or six of course.
Oh, and my title? It’s not what you think, unless, of course, you’ve already read the book. Fok-a-doodle-ick!
Best price on 20/12/02: £5.99 (P&P free), Blackwell’s Online (http://www.blackwells.co.uk)
* Not literally of course. Except during Rag Week.