I had forgotten just how great this book is!
I am currently rereading the whole of the Discworld series in chronological order to commemorate the anniversary of Sir Terry Pratchett’s death, and Reaper Man is the first in the series that I have rated as unequivocally 5 stars.
Blurb: ‘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 Which leads to the kind of chaos you always get when an important public service is withdrawn.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…
It mainly features Death (obviously) and the Wizards of Unseen University, headed at this point by Archchancellor Ridcully, and many of the features that later became familiar start here: the Bursar’s shaky grasp of reality, the Dean’s enthusiastic grasping at new fads, the Senior Wrangler’s excruciating pedantism and Reg Shoe’s fight against the prevalent prejudice against the alternatively expired.
I particulary enjoyed my realisation on this read that Ridcully and his ‘gang’ very closely resemble grown-up (but not really adult) versions of another gang, headed by Just William and written by Richmal Crompton. (Fans know that this resemblance crops up again with Adam and the Them in Good Omens, Pratchett’s collaboration with Neil Gaiman).
‘It can’t be intelligent, can it?’ said the Bursar.
‘All it’s doing is moving around slowly and eating things,’ said the Dean.
‘Put a pointy hat on it and it’d be a faculty member,’ said the Archchancellor.
– Sir Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man
This book also perfectly illustrates on of my favourite aspects of Sir Terry’s writing, which is his balance of pathos with levity. There are some truly touching, heartbreaking moments in the scenes between Bill Door and Miss Flitwick; the loaded silences and awkward attempts at a ‘human’ connection are devastatingly true to life. But then just as your heart strings are twanging away and the Onion Fairy is knocking on your door there is a perfectly timed break in the tension: a joke, an aside, something that makes you smile or giggle. Just like many of us find in real life, that touch of humour just makes the sadness bearable.
She stood back and looked him up and down.
‘There’s still something about you I can’t put my finger on, Bill Door,’ she said. ‘Wish I knew what it was.’
The seven-foot skeleton regarded her stoically. He felt there was nothing he could say.
– Sir Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man
Having said that, this is a genuinely funny book, with plenty of more obvious and slapstick-style humour from the wizards and the Fresh Start club; Windle’s starring role gives you plenty to think about when it comes to aging and how we live the life we have, but without being bogged down in lecturing; and Death’s blundering towards a passable imitation of humanity is hilariously touching in its innocence.
Although the Guards series truly has my heart when it comes to the Discworld, I think Reaper Man would definitely have to sneak in there as one of my top 5 Pratchett books of all time. As it is a stand-alone plot, I can definitely recommend this one for readers who are considering giving Pratchett a go and don’t know where to start.
You can find Sir Terry’s website here. Obviously (and sadly) you can’t contact him, with him already having joined good old Bill Door, but you can certainly check out his Facebook and Twitter pages which have information about his writing, new editions and adaptations, and other useful/funny stuff.