Johnny and his band of quirky pals are back in "Johnny and the Dead," the second book of Terry Pratchett's "Johnny Maxwell" trilogy. Pratchett was surer this time around, endowing this hilarious sequel with quirkier dialogue and stories, and snappier writing.
Johnny Maxwell sees dead people. (Yes, like the little boy in "Sixth Sense.") For whatever reason, he sees the dead in their graveyard -- not really ghosts, but not alive either: a crabby former soldier, a distant relative of Einstein, a sprightly suffragette who died in a freak mishap, and a staunch Communist who STILL doesn't believe in life after death. All in all, they are a fairly harmless bunch.
But a massive, mercenary, progress-obsessed corporation has just bought the graveyard for fivepence, and it will soon be razed for new construction. The only people more dismayed than the living inhabitants of Blackbury are the dead ones. So as the dead break their bonds to "unlive," Johnny and his friends will try to save the graveyard from... a fate worse than death?
Yes, it's the sort of bizarre, slightly twisted plot that only Terry Pratchett could cook up, and then pull off. And yes, the same could be said of "Only You Can Save Mankind." But by the time he wrote this -- pre-Discworld -- Pratchett had obviously grown into his skills.
In particular, the Big Message in this book is more subtle -- that money and progress aren't worth anything if they destroy the past. Despite that heavy moral, the handling of it is light and entertatining, such as when the dead Communist calls up a radio talk show host and speaks frankly about being "vertically challenged."
Despite half a dozen amusing dead people, the star of the piece is Johnny himself -- smart, quiet unless he has a reason to speak out, and inexplicably able to see the dead. He also plays straight man to the quirkier pals, like peculiar Wobbler, intellectual Yo-less, and perpetually hungry Bigmac. Although you'll need to have read "Mankind" to know who they are.
"Johnny and the Dead" is not just a sequel that surpasses the first book of this trilogy, but probably the best pre-Discworld work that Pratchett did. Funny, twisted and very well-done.