So, it’s nearly the final page of Terry Pratchett’s 1989 Discworld novel Pyramids, and his recurring character, called Death (because he is), suddenly finds himself with a problem:
THIS IS MOST IRREGULAR.
We’re sorry. It’s not our fault.
HOW MANY OF YOU ARE THERE?
More than 1,300, I’m afraid.
VERY WELL, THEN. PLEASE FORM AN ORDERLY QUEUE.
Small and dark and boring
There is Pyramids in a nutshell. For thousands of years, the kings and queens of Djelibeybi, the Discworld version of Egypt, have, upon death, had to put up with their bodies being locked up within pyramids.
Each found himself or herself in a space that was small and dark and, worst of all, boring, dead but never freed by Death — that rather bony character with the hood and scythe — to go do whatever a spirit does after its body is finished.
All this begins to come to an end when 19-year-old Teppic, having just won a degree from the Assassin’s Guild in Anhk-Morpork (which means he survived his final exam), learns that his father has died, and he must come home to be king. Home to a nation that Pratchett describes in this way:
Djelibeybi really was a small, self-centered kingdom. Even its plagues were half-hearted. All self-respecting river kingdoms have vast supernatural plagues, but the best the Old Kingdom had been able to achieve in the last hundred years was the Plague of the Frog.
An asterisk on the word “Frog” sends the reader to a footnote that adds:
It was quite a big frog, however, and got into the air ducts and kept everyone awake for weeks.
“As immutable as the Third Law of Sod”
Being king should be fun and games. Not for Teppic, though.
He’s not, well, comfortable when told that one of his jobs will be to marry his aunt (!!!). And all those pyramids creep him out.
(Pratchett does a lot of referencing to how pyramids bend and twist energy which was lost on my liberal-arts-major brain but, I suspect, gave great glee to readers of greater intellectual attainments. The nature of the pyramid is also key to some important plot twists that I had to take on faith.)
Worst of all, Teppic finds himself under the thumb of Dios, the Grand Vizier and High Priest
Which is only to be expected, right? As Pratchett notes:
It’s a fact as immutable as the Third Law of Sod that there is no such thing as a good Grand Vizier. A predilection to cackle and plot is apparently part of the job spec.
High priests tend to get put in the same category. They have to face the implied assumption that no sooner do they get the funny hat than they’re issuing strange orders, e.g., princesses tied to rocks for itinerant sea monsters and throwing little babies into the sea.
This is gross slander. Throughout the history of the Disc most high priests have been serious, pious and conscientious men who have done their best to interpret the wishes of the gods, sometimes disemboweling or flaying alive hundreds of people in a day in order to make sure they’re getting it absolutely right.
“Now their gods existed”
The plot of Pyramids ambles along as Pratchett’s novels usually do, and then, suddenly, the gods of Djelibeybi are wandering in the streets and hills in all their quirky weirdness.
Belief is a force. It’s a weak force, by comparison with gravity; when it comes to moving mountains, gravity wins every time. But it still exists, and now that the Old Kingdom was enclosed upon itself, floating free of the rest of the universe, drifting away from the general consensus that is dignified by the name of reality, the power of belief was making itself felt.
For seven thousand years, the people of Djelibeybi had believed in their gods.
Now their gods existed. They had, as it were, the complete Set.
(That last word “Set,” by the way, is an in-joke to anyone who knows enough of world history to know that one of the great gods of the Egyptians was a guy named Set.)
Having the gods all over the place bothers Teppic’s dead father rather much.
Everything we believe is true? And what we believe isn’t what we think we believe.
I mean, we think we believe that the gods are wise and just and powerful, but what we really believe is that they are like our father after a long day. And we think we believe the netherworld is a sort of paradise, but we really believe it’s right here and you go to it in your body and I’m in it and I’m never going to get away. Never, ever.
But, if Teppic’s dead father is disconcerted, Dios and the other priests are dumbfounded, bewildered and flabbergasted:
Dios’s hands opened and closed fitfully. He felt like a royalist might feel — a good royalist, a royalist who cut out pictures of all the Royals and stuck them in a scrapbook, a royalist who wouldn’t hear a word said about them, they did such a good job and they can’t answer back — if suddenly all the Royals turned up in his living room and started rearranging the furniture.
“Loss of privileges”
All of this is pretty wacky (and, let’s admit, somewhat thought-provoking about the ways of humans in our own world).
Yet, for my money, the best part of Pyramids is the first 40 pages in which Teppic is studying to be an official assassin.
For instance, for the final examination, the student must inhume — guild jargon for “kill” — a victim. As Teppic begins the test, he sees a figure on a nearby rooftop.
Fairly solid classroom rumor said that if he inhumed his examiner before the test, that was an automatic pass. He slipped the Number Three throwing knife from its thigh sheath and hefted it thoughtfully. Of course, any attempt, any overt move which missed would attract immediate failure and loss of privileges.
An asterisk on the word “privileges” sends the reader to a footnote that adds:
Breathing, for a start.
“Death for free”
Teppic knew the exam wouldn’t be a walk in the park.
Nothing the examiner could do could possibly be unfair. An assassin’s clients were invariably rich enough to pay for extremely ingenious protection, up to and including hiring assassins of his own.
An asterisk on the word “own” sends the reader to a footnote that adds:
It was said that life was cheap in Anhk-Morpork. This was, of course, completely wrong. Life was often very expensive; you could get death for free.
“For the money”
In the classroom, Teppic’s teacher had explained to the students that assassins didn’t murder or massacre or execute of torture or act out of hatred or passion.
“No, we do it for the money.
“And because we above all must know the value of a human life, we do it for a great deal of money.
“There can be few cleaner motives, so short of all pretense…
“Remember: No killing without payment.”
He paused for a moment.
“And always get a receipt,” he added.
Patrick T. Reardon