Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett is the 11th novel in the comic fantasy Discworld series and the second book in the Death subseries. The Auditors of Reality, godlike beings that act as bureaucrats for the cosmos, have decreed that Death (the being) of the Discworld has developed too much of a personality, which they believe is improper for his position. As such, Death is suddenly issued a new timepiece counting down to his impending demise. Officially retired, with the populace left to sort out manifesting a new reaper to fill his shoes, Death decides to do what he’s never been able to before; spend Time. Meanwhile, the Wizards and other citizens of Ankh-Morpork must deal with the consequences of excessive life force filling the world during this transitional time when passage to the afterlife for all living things has been interrupted.
Death’s imposed retirement at the start of this novel has him plant himself in a remote, tiny village, where he assumes the name Bill Door and becomes a farm hand for the elderly Miss Flitworth. His story is juxtaposed with that of Windle Poons, a 130-year-old wizard who can sense his death approaching. Traditionally Death always makes a notable appearance when a wizard dies, yet on that evening he does not show up at all when Windle passes. With his spirit left in the world between the living and the afterlife, Windle returns to his corpse and becomes undead, much to the alarm and perplexment of his fellow wizards. I really enjoyed the contrast between the situations for these two characters. They both have to adjust to new forms of existence and each learned to cope in different ways.
Death is not omnipotent, but his typically timeless existence and insight into the ways of the world gives him a substantial amount of wisdom compared to most other characters. He can reason things out exceptionally well, but he does not understand learned human idioms, idiosyncrasies, or nuances very well, making much of his story both humorous and heartfelt. He takes to everyday chores with a muted enthusiasm; nothing about his form changes as Bill Door—most adult brains just ignore the idea of walking, talking skeleton because they can’t accept it—so he can perform tasks with his usual unnatural efficiency. He reaps the wheat, feeds the pigs, and when he notices the rooster cannot properly crow, he sets about instructing it with a chalkboard. His interactions with other people are amusingly sincere yet detached, remarking for instance that he’s fascinated by how much people enjoy his company if he’s subpar at something recreational, making the other person look good in the process.
Moments like those were delightfully amusing, but what struck a chord best were moments when mundane life tripped him up. As necessary for country living, Miss Flitworth prepares poisoned bait for Death to set for rats so that they don’t ruin the harvest. Since he never usually kills anything, just sees that the passage from life to death is handled properly, the need to kill the rats distresses him. I loved that he remained such a wizened being, but by his very nature such an everyday act exposed him as surprisingly innocent too. At first he is also excited at the novel experience of having time pass and truly experiencing life the way a mortal does, yet it is not long before he has trouble coming to terms with his mortality. He is aware of how doggedly time marches forward, thanks in no small part of human interest in clocks, and has difficultly ignoring those anxieties, deciding ultimately to break convention and try to resist his demise.
On the other side of the story we have Windle’s experiences as a newly undead person and the Wizards of the Unseen University faculty trying to figure out what’s gone awry in the natural order. This is where I had some mixed feelings on the book. Windle’s story I enjoyed very much as a sort of mirror to Death’s experiences as Bill Door. Windle has come into a new awareness as well; since his spirit is possessing his dead body his mind has all the awareness that his physical body was holding back in life. This allows him to go out and see the world in a way he never did when he was alive, meeting new people and making new friends along the way. The cast of other undead characters that make up the Fresh Start Club he joins were quite amusing too, especially the werewolf woman and the wolfman forming a highly unusual prospective couple—the wolf-man being just a wolf when there isn’t a full moon—and the banshee who is too self-conscious to screech, so they just slide a note under someone’s door.
I did enjoy the banter and antics of the university faculty, headed by Archchancellor Ridcully, as it was amusing to read about the group’s growing incredulity with everything going wrong in their neck of the woods, but after a point it started to feel too much like it was padding out the novel. The growing threat, which is difficult to figure out initially, also felt only tangentially related to Death’s situation. It certainly seems to have been kick-started by his sudden retirement, but beyond that it as just another odd event for the citizens of Anhk-Morpork to deal with, which paled compared to the more interesting aspects of this novel for me.
Reaper Man is another great book in the Discworld series, showcasing once again how Death as a character is a great representative for dealing with the anxieties of life. He’s also just a wonderfully complex character on his own, imposing and otherworldly yet compassionate and even endearing at times. The story of Windle Poons was a nice companion to Death’s journey, especially since it marks a more developed return for the character from the 10th novel, Moving Pictures, where he was more simply a supporting character for comic relief. I would give this book the highest rating, but I feel I need to deduct a half-mark because the story around Unseen University faculty felt a bit too much like filler at times.
My rating: 4.5 out of 5