Elizabeth Chadwick's first attempt at story telling was at the age of three when she was inspired to make up a tale around some fairies pictured on her handkerchief. She progressed from there to Champion the Wonderhorse and Lone Ranger fan fiction, before deciding as a teen, having fallen helplessly in love with a knight in a TV programme, that she wanted to write historical fiction for a living. While serving her apprenticeship she worked at shelf filling in supermarkets and also did a stint as a corsetry fitter in a department store. Eventually, while in the throes of bringing up two small children, she got the call from a literary agent and her novel The Wild Hunt, begun on holiday in a B&B in Bridlington, was bought at auction and went on to win a Betty Trask award, presented at Whitehall by HRH the Prince of Wales. Twenty-one years later, it is still in print, together with Elizabeth's other 19 novels. Her forthcoming paperback (August), To Defy A King, recently won the Romantic Novelists' Association prize for Historical Fiction. Her latest novel, Lady of the English, is published on 2 June in hardback. Below Elizabeth discusses Terry Pratchett's Mort.
Elizabeth Chadwick on Mort by Terry Pratchett
I became a fan of Sir Terry Pratchett over 20 years ago when I read Guards! Guards! At the time I had been on a Fantasy jag and had recently been reading novels by Anne McCaffrey, J.R.R.Tolkien, Terry Brooks and L.Sprague de Camp, among others. Pratchett appealed to me because he was writing fantasy that poked fun at fantasy, and at historical and mythological subjects but in an affectionate way, while at the same time telling a darned good entertaining and imaginative story.
I carried on reading Pratchett in sporadic bursts while bringing up a family and continuing to mature. It wasn't until I was a little older and wiser that I began to understand and really appreciate the true genius of the man. It wasn't just well told comedic fantasy he was writing, but sharp, satirical social commentary. People who have never read Pratchett often dismiss him as a novelist for geeks. They don't get him and I think this is such a pity. This was certainly the view of my local subscription library who until the BBC's Big Read debate didn't have a single Pratchett on their bookshelves – which I considered criminal. However, when four of Pratchett's novels made a showing in the top 100, they did begin adding him to their collection, and I notice the books are frequently borrowed.
Not everything that Sir Terry Pratchett has written is wonderful, but the books that do shine will make you laugh out loud, nod with recognition, and sometimes cry, such is the man's skill with words. His novel Mort does all this for me, and came in at number 65 in the 100 best books in The Big Read.
The surface narrative concerns the character of Mort, a farmer's son who, sadly, is not cut out to be part of the family business. He had 'about the same talent for horticulture that you would find in a dead starfish'. And a body that 'appeared to have been built out of knees'. Realizing that he's never going to make the grade as a farmer, his father takes him to the local hiring fair where Death arrives on the stroke of midnight and takes on Mort as his apprentice.
Death is a favourite character among Pratchett readers; his presence is always announced BY THE USE OF CAPITAL LETTERS. His task is to turn up at the moment of death and separate body from soul by means of a slicing blow from his scythe (or sword in the case of kings). The scythe blade is so thin that it is see-through, 'a pale blue shimmer in the air that could slice flame and chop sound'. Death rides a fearsome white horse who goes by the name of Binky. When asked by Mort's father where his business is located, Death replies: NO FURTHER THAN THE THICKNESS OF A SHADOW. WHERE THE FIRST PRIMAL CALL WAS, THERE WAS I ALSO. WHERE MAN IS, THERE AM I. WHEN THE LAST LIFE CRAWLS UNDER FREEZING STARS, THERE WILL I BE. Yet Death, for all that, is a jovial fellow, who lives in a gracious house with a lovely garden (albeit that the flowers are black), has a manservant called Albert, and an adopted daughter Ysabell. He is also very fond of cats and curry and not above declaiming OH BUGGER when things go wrong.
Death's apprentice, the aptly named Mort, bodges his first single-handed attempt at the job, when he saves a Princess whose soul he is supposed to harvest. This creates massive problems, because what was supposed to happen doesn't, and this causes a blip in time and history that has potentially devastating consequences. Pratchett uses the novel to explore matters of metaphysics, quantum physics, our attitudes to what we know - or what we think we know - and our responses to dying, death and the afterlife. Along the way, Pratchett takes time out to have fun with organic cider (here called 'scumble'), to ponder via the character of Death the utter futility of cocktail cherries and vol au vents, and to muse on what makes the perfect greasy spoon meal - here prepared by Death when he goes AWOL and applies for a job as a cook on the wrong side of town. 'The eggs were bright and shiny, the beans glistened like rubies, and the chips were a crisp golden brown like sun-burned bodies on expensive beaches. Harga's last cook had turned out chips like little paper bags full of pus.'
The good Pratchett novels don't just have occasional great lines in them. Nearly every sentence is guaranteed either to make the reader laugh aloud, nod with approbation or admire the cleverness of the writing. A Pratchett novel makes the reader think about the subject matter long after they have closed the book. Pratchett's work also stands re-reading because it is multi-layered. There is always something new to discover, and in between those discoveries there are old friends to greet with joy.
'Goodbye,' Mort said, and was surprised to find a lump in his throat. 'It's such an unpleasant word, isn't it?'
QUITE SO. Death grinned because, as has so often been remarked, he didn't have much option. But possibly he meant it, this time.
I PREFER AU REVOIR he said.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]