Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Mort

Go To
There is no fair. There is no justice. There is just me.

Fourth Discworld book and the first to really develop the character of Death, going from the sadistic lurker seen in The Colour of Magic to the complex, sympathetic-to-humans figure who merely has his Duty. It built upon themes raised in a brief foray to Death's house in The Light Fantastic.

Mort follows the story of Mort, a young boy who is chosen to become Death's apprentice.

Mort is one of the most popular early Discworld novels and won a contemporary award for best Gothic Novel of the year, despite Terry Pratchett's protest that it wasn't Gothic.

Adapted as a largely faithful but somewhat abridged graphic novel. Disney at one point was going to adapt Mort as a hand-drawn animated feature. They had to put it to a close because Disney thought the rights encompassed anything Death appeared in and Terry wasn't willing to relinquish that. An earlier discussion with another company foundered when execs wanted to "tone down the Death angle". At a Discworld Convention in September 2016, it was announced that a new big-screen adaptation is in the works. Terry Rossio, whose credits include Aladdin, Shrek and the first four Pirates of the Caribbean movies, will be writing a screenplay.

Preceded by Equal Rites, followed by Sourcery. The next book in the Death series is Reaper Man.

Tropes employed include:

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: Death's scythe and sword cut through reality because they are more "real" than it.
  • The Anti-Nihilist: This book is the one that really marks Death's progression into this, as seen with his motto shifting from apathetic to declarative. The universe doesn't have any fairness, except in Death.
  • Apothecary Alligator: The workshop of Cutwell the wizard includes, among various shabby decorations, a stuffed alligator. The narration notes that this is an obligatory accoutrement for wizards.
    There was a large crystal ball with a crack in it, an astrolabe with several bits missing, a rather scuffed octogram on the floor, and a stuffed alligator hanging from the ceiling. A stuffed alligator is absolutely standard equipment in any properly-run magical establishment. This one looked as though it hadn't enjoyed it much.
  • Arc Words:
    • "To tinker with the fate of one individual could destroy the whole world."
    • Also, "There is no justice. There is just me."
  • The Archmage: The founder of Unseen University, Alberto Malich. AKA Albert.
  • Aren't You Going to Ravish Me?: When Mort is about to enter Ysabell's room, she readjusts her clothes to be more revealing and says, "I hope that you have not forced your way in here in order to take advantage of your position in this household." She is, in fact, entirely hoping this is the case.
  • Awful Wedded Life: The fisherman rescued by Death enjoyed six months of marital bliss... some twenty years ago.
  • "Awkward Silence" Entrance: When Mort enters the Duke's Head:
    As one man, the assembled company stopped talking and stared at him with that honest rural stare that suggests that for two pins they'll hit you around the head with a shovel and bury your body in a compost heap at full moon.
  • Badass Boast: Death's line, later appropriated by Mort, is this, at first. Towards the end of the book, and in the later Death books, it comes to symbolise the fact that, no, there is no inherent justice or fairness or mercy in the universe. But people should strive for some measure of it anyway.
    There is no justice. There is just me.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Played With. As stated in a later book: "Between Mort and Ysabell there was an instant dislike, and everyone knows what that means in the long term". As far as this one goes, the two exchange insults after declaring that they will never ever marry, but in a peculiarly matter-of-fact tone, agreeing (after insulting each other's appearances) that they should never marry "if only for the sake of the children." Albert apparently told Death that this means "teenager attraction", and both he and Death assume it, making it appear to be a case of Wrong Genre Savvy. Then at the end, it's flipped on its head, and Mort and Ysabell really do get married, after having resolved their differences.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Mort's reaction to being called 'Boy'. He starts off calmly correcting people but it goes downhill. To the extent that Death calling him "boy" gives him the energy to fight back.
    • We see Death get angry for the first time when he finds a bag of drowned kittens.
    • The Librarian manages to not attack Albert for calling him a "monkey" twice, but he does hide the latter's staff without any remorse, suggesting that he was biding his time.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: The Librarian is directly responsible for Albert not having his staff at a crucial time.
  • Bewitched Amphibians: Alberto Malich, upon returning to Ankh-Morpork, has a quarrel with an innkeeper over a two-thousand-year-old bar bill. When next he's seen, he's got a bewildered-looking toad with him and remarks how that's one landlord who'll never talk back to wizards again.
  • Big Ol' Eyebrows: Mort compares Ysabell's eyebrows to a pair of mating caterpillars.
  • Bigger on the Inside: Death's house looks small but it contains many rooms and two of them contain the autobiographies and lifetimers of everyone who has every lived.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Sto Lat in Polish means "a hundred years".
  • Blue Blood: Mort and Ysabell are appointed as the duke and duchess of Sto Helit, so that they will unite with Sto Lat to keep the future Keli's uncle was supposed to make.
  • Butterfly of Doom: Though the butterfly effect is not part of the cataclysmic aspect of the Interface, it is referenced. On one side of the Interface, the clouds are distributed differently to the other, because the small changes added up to alter the weather patterns. When Mort sees the Interface sweep through a pub, not only does the name change from the Queen's Head to the Duke's Head as a direct result of the retcon, but also the landlord's clothes change because he happened to decide to put on different ones in the altered timeline.
  • Calling the Young Man Out: Death is not happy when he learns of the crisis that has ensued because of Mort saving Keli; normally a fairly Benevolent Boss, he reads Mort the riot act in a List of Transgressions that concludes with ALL IN ALL, BOY, NOT A GOOD START TO YOUR FIRST JOB. However...
    • Calling the Old Man Out: ... when Death insists that Keli and Cutwell have to die to square the debt to reality, Ysabell follows this up by pointing out that Death himself has broken the rules more than once, even drawing a sword on him and turning his Arc Words into an Ironic Echo.
  • Catchphrase:
    • "Mort", Mort's response to being called "boy". (Which also makes him a Phrase Catcher.)
    • Cutwell has "I'm a wizard. We know those things."
  • Celibate Hero: Cutwell has it worse than any other Wizard on the disc. While there is always an official rule most wizards are Married to the Job or find magic literally Better than Sex anyway (and a few outright ignore the celibacy rule with no issues); for Cutwell just being attracted to a woman renders him completely magically impotent.
  • Chair Reveal: After rescuing Keli and Cutwell from the collapsing timeline, Mort takes them back to Death's domain with no plan beyond "I'll think of something." Cue Albert slamming the door behind them and Death spinning round in his chair.
  • Characterization Marches On:
  • Character Overlap: Rincewind and the Librarian feature in a cameo at the university.
  • Coins for the Dead: Mort wonders why his boss is not short of money to use as petty cash - then realizes the coins come from all eras and they always come in matching pairs...
  • Compound-Interest Time Travel Gambit: Inverted. When Albert returns to Ankh-Morpork after 2000 years, an innkeeper hits him up for a fortune in interest on the three copper pieces he'd owed on his bar tab.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • Farmers where Mort comes from grow reannual crops (you plant them this year, they come up last year) which were first mentioned in The Colour of Magic.
    • Cutwell is evidently Sto Lat's regional purveyor of Granny Weatherwax's marital aids, or at least of knockoff products marketed under her name. Selling such "neveryoumind"s is how Granny made a living during her sojourn in Ankh-Morpork during Equal Rites.
  • Cool Horse: Binky is supposedly a normal horse but he is much more real than a normal horse so he can cross great distances quickly and travel to Death's Domain.
  • Cosmic Retcon: The Interface is the physical manifestation of the universe gradually retconning away Mort's 'mistake' in not taking Keli's life. More accurately, Mort changed how history is meant to go, and the Interface represents the inertia of history Cosmic Retconning it back again.
  • Creative Sterility: Death can't create. He can only copy.
  • Desperate Object Catch: When Mort and Death duel in the Hall of Lifetimers, Ysabell and Cutwell catch several of the hourglasses that are knocked off the shelves. Across the Disc, the corresponding people are miraculously saved from fatal falls.
  • Delayed Ripple Effect: The Interface is a variation on this trope, but with the change travelling across space instead of time—the world as a whole is running on the 'proper' timeline and the pressure on the changed timeline causes it to collapse inwards towards Sto Lat.
  • Death Is a Loser: At the beginning of the story, Death's apprentice Mort is very bad at his job, completely messing up his entrance and unable to go through with the actual scything. Thankfully his first customer is an understanding witch who walks him through it, and It Gets Easier as time goes by. Death even tells Mort that it's a good sign: had Mort shown sadistic pleasure in performing the Duty, his apprenticeship would have been cut short.
  • Death's Hourglass: Every living thing is represented in Death's domain by an hourglass showing how long they have left to live. (There's also one for Death himself, but it has no sand in it.) Breaking the hourglass immediately kills the person. Mort attempts to exploit this by breaking Death's hourglass during their battle, but his sword just passes through it harmlessly.
  • Death Takes a Holiday: Death goes on vacation, but leaves Mort in charge to make sure people die as they are supposed to. This leads to Mort becoming like Death while Death becomes more human.
  • Do Wrong, Right: A Grand Vizier tries to poison his emperor but is finally tricked into eating the poisonous object himself, then kept from leaving because the emperor knows he's leaving for the antidote. As he's dying, the grand vizier compliments the emperor on his technique in killing him.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: The Duke of Sto Helit, a major antagonist, dies in an offhand way near the end when his hourglass happens to be one of the ones Death accidentally broke during his fight with Mort. This drives home the point of Death being a hypocrite, as the fate he was defending involved the Duke becoming king of Sto Lat.
  • Drowning Unwanted Pets: While taking Mort on his rounds, Death takes a detour between two human souls to collect the souls of a litter of kittens whose owner drowned them in a rain barrel. This makes Death, a Kind Hearted Cat Lover, properly angry for the first time since Mort has known him.
  • The Dulcinea Effect: What first gets Mort into trouble is saving the lovely princess that he's seen for all of five seconds from her pre-destined death.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Mort and Ysabell visit a pyramid in Tsort. In Pyramids, Djelibeybi is established as the Egypt expy on the Discworld, and it's even pointed out that while the adjacent Tsort is similar to it in culture, the Tsorteans never got into building pyramids - although, this could mean that they did build the Great Pyramid of Tsort to see if they liked that sort of thing, and decided that they didn't.
    • There is a callback to Granny Weatherwax's impotence cures from Equal Rites. Later books would establish Granny as being a very prudish person.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: If someone doesn't deal with Death's node charts, people don't die on time and the fabric of reality unravels. (Luckily, Ysabell knows how.)
  • First Girl Wins: Mort falls for Princess Keli at first, but eventually comes to realise that he and Ysabell have more in common.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: Death's mighty steed, able to travel through the sky, through space and through dimensions, is named Binky. Mort takes note of the strangeness of that name, thinking that the woodcut he saw as a child of Death on his pale horse would've been less impressive if he'd known the name then. Albert also comments that he would have expected Death's horse to have a much more intimidating name.
  • Food Porn: Inverted, creating Food Gorn. The description of a meal in Harga's House of Ribs is described thusly:
    "[Customers] don't go in for the fancy or exotic, but stick to conventional food like flightless bird embryos, minced organs in intestine skins, slices of hog flesh, and burnt ground grass seeds dipped in animal fats; or, as it is known in their patois, egg, sausage, bacon, and a fried slice [of toast]."
  • Foreigners Write Backwards: Examining Death's node charts, Mort and Albert can't even tell if it's supposed to be read left to right or right to left. Ysabell explains that it spirals out clockwise from the center.
  • Gargle Blaster: This is the book to introduce scumble. A naive Mort orders a pint of it in the Queen's Head/Duke's Head pub, and a clue that he is taking on some of Death's nature is that he survives.
  • Giftedly Bad: Whereas most of Death's attempts to reproduce human activities and creations are just slightly off-kilter, his attempt at making his own fly-fishing lure results in a monstrosity that causes every fish in the vicinity to swim away from it as fast as possible.
  • The Grim Reaper: Death's first character focus book and thus the one to introduce The Duty.
  • Groin Attack: Hit in the gonads by a skeleton. Think about that for a second.
  • Glowing Eyes of Doom: It's an extremely bad sign when Mort starts to develop Death's blue star-like eyes.
  • Gratuitous Latin: At one point, Albert responds to a question with "Sodomy non sapiens", which he promptly translates as "Buggered if I know".
  • Healthy in Heaven: One of Mort's first solo jobs is to collect the soul of Goodie Hamstring, an elderly witch. After she dies, her spirit takes the form of a young, attractive woman.
  • Hey, You!: The other main characters all call Mort "boy" (except for Ysabell after a while) however many times he politely corrects them.
  • Hidden Depths: Albert is more than just Death's manservant. He's really Alberto Malich, the founder of Unseen University and a powerful wizard.
  • Hypocrite: Death is absolutely enraged when he eventually finds out Mort has tampered with the flow of reality by leaving alive someone who was supposed to die. Ysabell later calls him out on the fact that he, Death himself, tampered with her own fate, Mort's, and several other people's whose hourglasses he accidentally broke during his fight with Mort. She doesn't even mention that Death's attempt to take a vacation from being Death almost resulted in the collapse of all reality: sure, he taught Mort to reap, but he neglected to teach him to work the nodes so as to determine who to reap. Death seems to think that since he's the Death, those rules don't apply to him.
  • Ignore the Fanservice: When Mort visits Ysabell's room late one evening, she adjusts the neckline of her nightgown before letting him in. His response: "Put something on, you're overflowing."
  • Karma Houdini: The Duke of Sto Helit is supposed to be one according to the original timeline; he murders his ways to the throne, but once he gains it, he becomes a wise and successful king. Instead, his hourglass gets broken during the fight between Death and Mort.
  • Lip Losses: Mention is made of a past king of Sto Lat who amused himself by cutting off his enemies' lips and legs, and then promising them their freedom if they ran through the city playing a trumpet.
  • Living Forever Is Awesome: Albert is quite happy living the repetitive tedium of being Death's manservant outside time, and considers his plan to achieve immortality a relative success. However, this is because of an intense fear of the world after death, since he knows bad things will happen.
  • Magic A Is Magic A: It's revealed that Albert's presence in Death's country is a result of assuming this too much. Given that the Rite of AshkEnte summons Death and knowing that he was dying, he presumed that performing the Rite backwards would keep Death away from him. However, this turned out to invert the spell in a different way — instead of summoning Death to him, it sent him to Death.Alternatively 
  • Master Poisoner: Death comforts the ghost of an assassinated king with the knowledge that he has an appointment with the King's assassin later on. Apparently it isn't a good idea to let someone skilled in poisons and capable of contracting a killer prepare you a packed lunch.
  • Matter of Life and Death: Mort demands that Ysabell come help him in the middle of the night because he's trying to save someone's life.
  • Meaningful Name: Mort is the French word for death. This is lampshaded.
    Death: Thank you, Boy. What is your name??
    Mort: Uh, Mortimer . . . sir. They call me Mort.
    Death: What a coincidence. Help me up, please.
  • Men Can't Keep House: Cutwell's housekeeper is away and the resultant mess intimidates even Mort.
  • Mortality Grey Area: Princess Keli was scheduled to die, but Mort, due to having a crush on her, makes it so that the guy who was destined to kill her doesn't. This results in her being somehow dead but alive at the same time. It takes people a while to realize she's there; her skin is cold to the touch, the other people at the castle make preparations for a funeral before belatedly realizing they don't need to, and dogs howl, but then immediately wonder why.
  • Mugging the Monster: Lampshaded when three thugs try to mug Mort in the Shades:
    They had the heavy, stolid look of those thugs whose appearance in any narrative means that it's time for the hero to be menaced a bit, although not too much, because it's also obvious that they're going to be horribly surprised.
  • Narrating the Present: The books in Death's library write someone's life as a narrative as it happens. The last scene of Mort is actually Mort reading that scene from his own book.
  • Never Say "Die": Obviously averted, but pops up in a behind-the-scenes anecdote. Allegedly, a meddling executive trying to make Mort into a movie told Terry Pratchett to "lose the Death angle." For obvious reasons, Terry Pratchett pulled out of the project then and there.
  • No Social Skills: This book introduces Death's inability to relate to people and normal life. Feelings are organic. He didn't feel sorry for Ysabell, he thought sorry. Developing true empathy is more or less his character arc.
  • Offerings to the Gods: Keli's coronation ceremony involves a nearly-blind priest and a confused elephant. The audience made sure to bring raincoats.
  • Older Than They Look: Ysabell has been 16 for 35 years.
  • One-Word Title: Protagonist Title, with his first name. Also because it deals with Death, which is connected to words that relate to "Mort" in Latin-derived languages.
  • Ontological Inertia: Played With heavily. When something happens that deviates from what should happen, the universe takes some time before realizing something's wrong and tries to smooth it over.
  • Parent-Induced Extended Childhood: By bringing Ysabell into his realm, which is a Place Beyond Time, Death prevented her from aging except when he actively enables time to pass. She tells Mort that she's been sixteen for decades, and that she suspects the only reason she's even that old is that Death thought she'd be easier to look after if she was old enough to supervise herself.
  • Pet the Dog: Instead of reaping Mort, Death returns him and Ysabell to the real world, where reality allows them both to live.
  • Picked Last: At the hiring fair, Mort is still waiting to be apprenticed at midnight, long after the wall-eyed kid with the stoop has been chosen by the local beggar.
  • Pimped-Out Dress:
    • Keli wears her mother's Vermine-trimmed dress for a coronation that is an attempt to avert reality trying to reassert itself.
      Whoever had designed the dress didn't know when to stop. They'd put lace over the silk, and trimmed it with black vermine, and strung pearls anywhere that looked bare, and puffed and starched the sleeves and then added silver filigree and then started again with the silk.
    • Cutwell's wardrobe for the same coronation:
      "the special ceremonial robe the palace seamstress had made up for him, digging deep into her workbasket for scraps of lace, sequins and gold thread to produce a garment of such dazzling tastelessness that even the Archchancellor of Unseen University wouldn’t have been ashamed to wear it."
  • Pink Elephants:
    • Mort's discovery of the reality interface and what it's doing occurs in a tavern, causing the other people present to write off his increasingly frantic descriptions of its effects as hallucinations caused by drinking.
    • At one point there is a drunk elephant and the narrator suggests that it is going to hallucinate pink people.
  • Place Beyond Time: Death's domain sort of works like this. Time continues to pass in the material world, but no one really lives or grows there, meaning Ysabell has been stuck as a teenager for decades, much to her despair.
  • Please Put Some Clothes On:
    • This from Mort after Ysabell's transparent attempt to seduce him: "And for heaven's sake, put on something sensible, you're overflowing."
    • Ysabell later gets one right back at Mort.
    Mort looked down. "Oh. Who put me to bed?"
    "I did. But I looked the other way."
  • Politeness Judo: Occurs between the Vizier and Emperor of the Agathean Empire, finding reasons to trade the poisoned bit of food back and forth so they do not have to eat it. The Vizier loses when he finally tries to claim he's not hungry, to which the Emperor replies by politely offering to have his royal guards cut open the vizier's stomach to "make some room".
  • Poisoned Chalice Switcheroo: In this case it is "Poisoned Squishi Tennis". The poisoned piece of squishi goes back and forth between the vizier and the emperor's bowls as each thinks of a better reason for the other to eat it, as they both know it's poisoned. It gets to the point that Mort starts grumbling about the fact that he hasn't got all day, so will somebody please eat the squishi so he can reap them and get going?
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: Death's glowy eyes change from their usually placid shade of blue to pants-crappingly-scary red when he's mad.
  • Relieving the Reaper: Death decides to do some soul-searching so he hires an apprentice to fill in for him and keep his adopted daughter Ysabell company. He ends up with a gangly teenager named Mort.
  • Rescue Romance: It's teased with Mort and Keli considering marriage because he saved her twice; first from an assassin and second from reality's retcon. They talk about it and ultimately decide against it to Death's approval. Too many young women leap into the arms of the first young man to wake them after a hundred years' sleep, for example.
  • Retired Badass: Albert used to be a truly mighty wizard at Unseen University. When he had about three months left to live, he sort-of retired to Death's domain.
  • Rubber-Band History: When someone changes history, reality will eventually overwrite the change. This is manifested in a shimmering silvery mist called "the interface".
  • Running Gag: Mort repeating his name whenever people call him "boy" or "lad". This happens often.
    • Death's rather limited range of emoting is brought up throughout the book. "Death grinned because, as has so often been remarked, he didn't have much option."
  • Sinister Scythe: Death wields a scythe in battle with deadly effectiveness.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Mort and Ysabell exchange insults, argue, and then marry.
  • Shipper on Deck: Death only brings Mort in so he can marry Ysabell.
  • Standard Hero Reward: Discussed when Mort saves Keli by accident the first time, and deliberately the second time with Ysabel's help. He could have married her, for saving her life, but decided it wasn't a good idea. She marries Cutwell instead and makes Mort the Duke of Sto Helit.
  • Stealth Pun:
    • Death's home contains written stories of the lives of every person on the disc who has ever lived. Stories that write themselves. Naturally, they're called autobiographies.
    • Cripple Wa is dicing with Death literally.
    • Mort is French for Death. Quite fitting for Death's apprentice
  • Tarot Troubles: Cutwell attempts to do a Caroc reading for Keli, and produces three Death cards — out of a deck containing only one Death card — before giving up.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Becoming Death for awhile made Mort a helluva lot scarier.
    Ysabell: Pardon me for living, I'm sure.
    Mort: No-one gets pardoned for living.
    • Mort also later challenges Death to one on one combat and calls him a bastard.
  • Try to Fit That on a Business Card: Keli's full title is Her Supreme Majesty, Queen Kelirehenna I, Lord of Sto Lat, Protector of the Eight Protectorates and Empress of the Long Thin Debated Piece Hubwards of Sto Kerrig.
  • Twisted Echo Cut: At one point there's a cut from Keli telling Cutwell, "I think there's something you ought to know," to Death saying There is? because Mort has just said the same to him — which is immediately lampshaded with a footnote about the technique. It happens again later, though much more subtly.
  • Undressing the Unconscious: Ysabell puts an exhausted Mort to bed. When he wakes up and she asks him to Please Put Some Clothes On, he asks how he got undressed in the first place. She replies that she undressed him, but she "looked the other way".
  • Unwanted Rescue: Death does this to a fisherman who was unhappy with his life but whose religious beliefs forbade deliberate suicide, and so was quite pleased to be drowning.
  • Volleying Insults: Mort and Ysabell take turns in insulting each other's appearance. Interestingly, they get on much better after that.
  • Wedding Bells... for Someone Else: At the end, the dialogue from Cutwell and the fact that he clearly has a crush on Princess Keli implies they're about to get married... nope. It's Mort and Death's (adopted) daughter Ysabel who tie the knot.
  • When the Clock Strikes Twelve: Mort and Death meet as the clock is striking midnight on Hogswatch Eve.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?:
    • When reaping an age-old witch, Mort is surprised that she is happy to be dying. She replies that while she will miss some things, life gets "thin" after a while. It's implied that she is Ascending to a Higher Plane of Existence so there's also that.
    • When Albert brags about how long he's lived, Mort retorts that all he's done is stretch things out more, as no one really lives or grows in Death's domain.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Death's battle with Mort could be seen as such. If Death wins, he punishes Mort for his perceived insolence and negligence; if Mort wins, he must take Death's place, which means that Death can finally rest.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Time only passes in Death's domain as Death wills it. This means that Ysabell has been 16 for over 30 years.
  • You Can See Me?: Played for humour. Mort asks this question to a random stallholder, who squints hard at him and concludes: "I reckon so, or someone very much like you."
  • You Can't Fight Fate: This story establishes that attempts to change the timeline are eventually self-corrected. Unless the gods decide otherwise.
  • You Kill It, You Bought It: If Mort kills Death, he will have to take over the Duty himself.
  • You Taught Me That: An Evil Vizier has a plan to poison his emperor but is outmaneuvered by the emperor and has to eat the poison himself. As he's dying he compliments the Emperor on what he's done and the Emperor says "I had a great teacher."