Ah, Death. The cuddly, soul-reaping anthropomorphic personification of mortality that is ever humanity’s companion. Not sure what we did to get our collective selves handcuffed to his bony wrist, but we’re stuck with him…at least until we figure out a cure for aging, and then we’ll just have a whole new host of issues to deal with. Death certainly holds a prominent place in genre novels. With fantasy, you’ll encounter everything from styles of “death magic” to jaunts down to the Underworld to Death making appearances as a character him/herself. Science fiction often holds up Death as a specter to be conquered–with technology often applied to cheat or stall or cure that final fate. Horror novels? Well, no need to get too obvious.
Let’s stare the Reaper in the face and see how a handful of books portray life’s inevitable end.
THE RUNDOWN: Marius is what you’d call an opportunist–most recently, he’s taking the opportunity of thousands of corpses on a fresh battlefield to fill his pockets with ill-begotten goods. Problem is, the spirit of a dead soldier mistakes Marius for royalty and drags him down into the underworld, where he’s then given a quest: find a king for the dead who can act as a divine representative and remind God that they still need to be let out of limbo. When he’s set loose to fulfill this sacred quest, what else would Marius do but try to run away as far and fast as he can? Unfortunately, the dead are a persistent lot and he discovers he can’t shirk his duty that easily.
THE CONTRAST: When a story starts with corpse-robbing and gets more graphic from there, you know it’s gonna be a morbid ride. Yet The Corpse-Rat King isn’t without its sense of humor. In fact, the grim comedy throughout the story is what helps make some of the darker parts easier to stomach. Marius is a marvelous anti-hero, devoted entirely to his own survival and well-being, and his exposure to a much wider world forces his selfish perspective to slowly–and painfully–expand.
THE RUNDOWN: Not everyone who dies willingly “goes into the Light” to accept their eternal reward. Some have to be shoved into the Light, kicking and screaming. That’s Wendy’s job, as she has the ability to not only perceive the souls of the dead but also help/force them to pass on from this existence. But Wendy’s not the only one hunting down souls. A dark power is growing in the realm of the afterlife, seeking to restore its lost strength and gain total dominion over the dead.
THE CONTRAST: This is one of those YA urban fantasy/paranormal novels that reads just as well for the younger demographic as it does for adults. Wendy is a suitably conflicted teen, caught up not only in convoluted family drama but in the development of her supernatural abilities and ghostly relationships as well. She’s driven by the desire to do what’s right at all costs, but often fails to realize how her actions are hurting those around her. The story also provides a fun and unique mythology to all its paranormal elements.
THE RUNDOWN: In the flat-earth geography of Discworld, a hapless young man, Mort, gets the chance of an…er…lifetime when Death offers him an apprenticeship. As such, Mort gets to learn the ways of the Reaper, take care of Death’s horse, Binky, and enjoy other perks of the job. In the meantime, Death takes a break to learn more about mortal pleasures, such as fly fishing and line dancing. Complications arise when Mort fouls up a soul-gathering job involving a beautiful princess, and the resulting chaos threatens the very fabric of reality.
THE CONTRAST: This is one of the first books in Pratchett’s beloved and hilarious Discworld series that gave Death–previously a more cameo character–much larger focus and development. It’s great contrast to see Death learn how to act more human while Mort becomes caught up in the rather depressing reaping business. The humor here is in strong form, as you’d expect with Pratchett, and readers will love seeing Death take center stage.
Some might think that Pratchett would be the heavyweight champion in this to-the-death cage match. However, my guess is that most readers will have encountered Pratchett’s Discworld books long before this, and are already quite familiar with the series and his depiction of Death. If you somehow have missed out, then by all means, fill that reading gap as quickly as possible! But let’s look at the other two contenders in the meantime.
Lightbringer and The Corpse-Rat King are two quite different books, and will likely appeal to a bit of a varied audience. Lightbringer is firmly planted in the modern world while The Corpse-Rat King opens up a whole different reality to explore. The characters also couldn’t be much more on opposite ends of the spectrum–a high-schooler stuck with the unenviable job of escorting souls into the afterlife and a thief void of all morals who would damn any soul if it saved his own.
I’ll put forward The Corpse-Rat King as the winner this go-round. It provides a great combination of worldbuilding, character development, morbid humor, and a quest that feels both epic and deeply personal. While you might not start off liking Marius all that much, that’s part of the adventure for the reader as well–not just seeing if he’ll succeed in his mission, but also coming to grips with all the grime and corruption that has built up around his soul. It might just gain a bit of a gleam by the end (no guarantees).
Now go and get your hands on these reads before it’s too late! As the saying goes, “So many books. So little time.”
(Fortunately, with my highly developed sense of denial, I’ve concluded that I’m immortal.)