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Where It Really Begins
Terry Pratchett

Chronologically, this is the fourth of the Discworld novels. In many ways, however, it may be the best place to begin the series, reading a few more and then later going back and filling in The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic and Equal Rites.

{A flowchart-style "Discworld Reading Order Guide" can be found here, BTW; it seems to disagree with me and to recommend beginning reading at the beginning with "Colour".
How unimaginative!}

"Mort" is the first of the "Death" sub-series within the larger Discworld series as a whole (which includes The Reaper Man, Soul Music and Hogfather). The Death of the Discworld is an interesting character -- and he is very much a *character*, rather than an event or a Presence, though he is those, too. Death, after eons of being basically, well, Death, has decided he wants to understand the Human Condition.

In this volume, we are introduced to young Mort, a farmer lad who just isn't suited for farming. Or any other trade anyone can think of. So his father takes him to the Hiring Fair in another town, rather in the manner of a man taking a horse that's only lame if you try to ride it to a Fair where no-one has ever seen it or him. But no-one seems willing to take on Mort, even so. Until the stroke of midnight, when a black-cloaked figure on a big white horse rides up...

And so Mort is apprenticed to Death.

He learns to take The Duty, as Death refers to riding out personally as a courtesy to the more important decedents (witches and wizards know in advance when they will die and they and priests expect a personal visit from Death as a professional courtesy, so to speak; Death also appears personally to Kings and Emperors and such). Eventually, Death trusts Mort to do The Duty on his own for a couple of days while Death takes a brief holiday to learn more about humanity.

Which explains why, when a rather nasty Duke attempts to asassinate his beautiful young cousin, before she can take the throne, Mort tries to change things and takes the Duke, not the Princess.

But history has inertia and elasticity, and soon the imbalance between What Is Supposed To Be and What Actually Is begins to threaten reality.

And Death is off on holiday and things Keep On Getting Worse.

This is the volume where Pratchett really begins to hit his stride and bring the Discworld to life -- an actual (albeit Strange) place with real (albeit extreme) characters whose problems are often recogniseable variations on our own. He begins to truly master the dry, sometimes sardonic, tone of narration that makes the goings-on so much more funny... and sometimes, unexpectedly, much more sad and throat-catching, as when Death is drawn to a rain barrel and collects the souls of several kittens drowned in a sack by someone, he remarks THERE ARE TIMES, YOU KNOW, WHEN I GET VERY TIRED.

Or, after Mort tries (the first time) to change who's supposed to die, Death isn't angry -- Mort, asks if Death is going to send him home. Death replies BECAUSE YOU SHOWED COMPASSION?  NO.  I MIGHT HAVE DONE IF YOU HAD SHOWED PLEASURE.  BUT YOU MUST LEARN THE COMPASSION PROPER TO YOUR TRADE -- A SHARP EDGE. 

The little touches -- the telling little bits of description not directly involved in the storyline as such but commenting or pointing out, almost as a tour-guide might, really begin to show up here, Unseen University begins to resemble the institution as portrayed in later books, and Pratchett begins explaining more of the physics, meta- and otherwise, of the Discworld.

The perfect introduction to the Discworld -- then, in my opinion, one should temporarily skip over the next three (Sourcery, Wyrd Sisters and Pyramids) to read Guards! Guards!, the first of the "Guards" subseries, then hop back to Wyrd Sisters, which plays merry havoc with Shakespeare (particularly The Scottish Play) for a proper introduction to the "Witches" subseries...

After that, you're on your own.

But they're all rousing good fun and will, at least once per volume, make you think a bit, too...
Incidentally - those reading this book for the first time who are already familiar with Mercedes Lackey's The Fairy Godmother, the first in her "Five Hundred Kingdoms" series may, in a neat little homage, notice something they've seen before - and, of course, ditto for those who've read this book and pick up the Lackey.
(Which is a good idea, anyway; it's some of her better Light But Highly Entertaining stuff.)