[From Critical Wave #23, 1991. This novel is currently available via Amazon as both a 2013 standalone hardback, and a 1998 single-volume collection entitled The Death Trilogy, which also includes Mort and Soul Music.]
As regular readers will be aware, I’m a great fan of the early Discworld books, finding much to comment even in the eighth volume, 1989’s Guards! Guards!, but this — the eleventh installment — provides a strong argument that the series has now passed its best-by date.
In part a reprise of 1987’s Mort, with Death this time forcibly retired rather than taking a holiday, the book comprises three separate plots running parallel to each other: the Grim Reaper’s new career, the effects upon Discworld of his disappearance (taking its cue from the old fairy tale about the soldier who imprisoned Death) and the antics of Ankh-Morpork’s supernatural community. The first is an entertaining novella which would have worked well on its own, the second a slapstick patchwork featuring the magi of the Unseen University and which reads like a re-run of all their other appearances, the third a parade of mildly amusing gags in the tradition of Charles Addams.
But there’s an air of desperation about it all, the restatement of certain plot-threads and jokes (one of which appears three times, as though Pratchett didn’t trust his audience) only serving to underline the novel’s failure. It may be that the next book — and there will be a next book, no doubt of that — will recapture the spirit and the flair of its predecessors; if not, it’s time to quietly move on. In the meantime, even die-hard Discworld fans would be best advised to wait for the paperback release.