We have several articles that list the many books we love about death–and there are many (see part one, two, and three!). But death isn’t always just a topic or theme in a book; sometimes Death is a character, personified as a grim reaper; sometimes Death is an ordinary human given the power of death.
The following are some our favorite works of fiction that have Death as a character.
Death Personified: The Best Fiction with Death as a Character
Mort by Terry Pratchett (1987)
Death is the blue-eyed, cat and curry-loving skeleton in Pratchett’s Discworld Series who maintains the order of the universe. In Mort, Death takes on an apprentice, a human boy who has to learn the ropes of collecting souls. But Death isn’t the one who kills:
“I? KILL? said Death, obviously offended. CERTAINLY NOT. PEOPLE GET KILLED, BUT THAT’S THEIR BUSINESS. I JUST TAKE OVER FROM THEN ON. AFTER ALL, IT’D BE A BLOODY STUPID WORLD IF PEOPLE GOT KILLED WITHOUT DYING, WOULDN’T IT?”
The Sandman by Neil Gaiman (1989)
Although not the main character of the series, Death first appears in The Sandman vol. 2, #8 as the older sister of Dream and the second oldest of the Endless (the oldest being Destiny). Death has a goth vibe, but a very upbeat personality. Like Death in Pratchett’s Discworld, Gaiman’s Death is always pragmatic, but has a soft spot for humans:
“Anyway: I’m not blessed or merciful. I’m just me. I’ve got a job to do, and I do it. Listen: even as we’re talking, I’m there for old and young, innocent and guilty, those who die together and those who die alone.”
A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore (2006)
Unlike the eternal entities in other personifications of death in this list, in Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job, Charlie Asher is Death but remains mortal. In this telling, Death is a real job that must be kept a secret. He is recruited following the death of his wife.
A meditation on death and grief, we follow Charlie in his duty to collect souls around the city of San Francisco, which is not always easy.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005)
Okay, I’ll grant you that Death isn’t exactly personified in The Book Thief, but he is the narrator. Like many other Death characters, the voice of Death is somewhat sad, but sympathetic. The story follows Liesel Meminger, an adopted girl who is sent to a foster home to avoid Nazi persecution. During her time in her foster home, she steals books that others hope to destroy. In the end, Death says, “I am haunted by humans.”
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Canadian-Mexican novelist Silvia Moreno-Garcia writes the spirit of the Mayan God of Death in Gods of Jade and Shadow. The death god Hun-Kamé is bound to Casiopea, our protagonist, as they journey to reclaim his standing as the ruler of Xilbaba. Hun-Kamé is merciless, as death is, and is a distinct figure from the European Grim Reaper. In this telling, as he stays bound to Casiopea, he becomes more mortal as she begins to die.
“Dreams are for mortals.”
“Because they must die.”
Find a copy of Gods of Jade and Shadow
Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago (2009)
In this other female-identifying depiction of Death, Death With Interruptions begins with the end of death. In one small country in the world, people suddenly stop dying, and with that turn, chaos ensues. Further into the book, we meet death (lowercase “d”) who announces that her experiment has ended and people will start dying again, this time with a one-week warning in the form of a purple envelope.
One cellist, however, will not die. As her relationship with him grows, we see death again take on human feelings.
Find a copy of Death Without Interruptions
Scythe by Neal Shusterman (2016)
The future has arrived and, with it, the eradication of death. And yet, death must continue–for population control, for sanity, to remain human. And so scythes are employed to do the work that nature has historically done and they are the only ones allowed to take human life–permanently. In this book, we meet the two newest scythes, Citra and Rowan, who must learn as apprentices who lives, and who dies.
The scythes are dressed in linen robes that can be any color but black, because “Black was an absence of light, the scythes were the opposite. Luminous and enlightened, they were acknowledged as the very best of humanity–which is why they were chosen for the job.”
Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers (2012)
Death in Grave Mercy recruits handmaidens to destroy lives on His behalf. The nuns who serve Death, called here Saint Mortain, are trained as assassins. We don’t actually meet Saint Mortain until near the end of the book, but He appears to help the main character Ismae realize the true potential of her gifts.
The character of Death clearly captivates and fascinates us. Fiction allows us to explore Death as remorseless and cold or sympathetic and merciful. We contend that by personifying Death, we have an opportunity to learn more about life itself.
Which other books would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments!
On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony
Absolutely! How could they leave such a great book about Death out???