This took me completely by surprise. As I mentioned when I was exploring The Truth a few weeks back, we are in something of a second Pratchett golden age, with excellent books stretching back as far as The Fifth Elephant. No one can keep this level of consistency up for long, which is why when I first picked up The Last Hero, I was not expecting much of it. It’s a mere 150 pages long and illustrated so I expected something akin to
Faust, Eric. It was an enjoyable read, albeit slight, and I got the impression it was a cool idea he wanted to get down somewhere. A bit of fun.
But The Last Hero is not a palate cleanser before we hit Pratchett’s first young adult novel and then the wildly applauded Night Watch. It’s a fantastic romp through Pratchett’s Greatest Hits, a wonderful throwback to the early Discworld novels and themes, an appreciation of art and science and a sideswipe against religion. It is splendid, really surprisingly brilliant and a book that can easily sit alongside the few that preceded it.
Cohen the Barbarian and his Horde, last seen taking over the Agatean empire in Interesting Times, have embarked on One Last Job, taking revenge on the gods by shoving the fire they handed down to the Discworld aeons ago where the sun doesn’t shine. The youngest members of the Horde are mere pensioners and they wanted to be remembered as heroes of the ages.
What they don’t realise is this reversing of the Prometheus myth will result in the Discworld being irrevocably shattered. So Ankh-Morpork’s greatest minds (and The Dean) unite to launch a rescue mission, which involves building the world’s first spacecraft and slingshotting it underneath the Disc to reach Cori Celesti, the home of the gods, in record time. Because Discworld.
The ship is manned by Leonard of Quirm, Carrot and Rincewind, because all million to one shot missions should feature the Disc’s greatest genius, the destined True King of Ankh-Morpork, and the most cowardly saviour of the universe.
The book is gorgeous. The illustrations of Paul Kidby, who took over as the Discworld’s cover designer after the death of Josh Kirby in 2001, are exquisite and include detailed blueprints of the works of Of Quirm. Taking a look at a web reproduction of one of the pages – an excellent astronautical representation of the three crew members of the mission – really doesn’t do it justice. If you don’t own this and are reading this write-up, buy the book. You won’t regret it.
This very much feels like an early 1990s Discworld novel, with the threats of world-ending calamity and gods toying with the fates of men and women (and dwarves, trolls, vampire, werewolves and any other species I have left out. Dragons! Bugger). But Pratchett has come off the back of my favourite novel of his and is just staggering in his ambition and range of writing at the moment.
The Horde’s push for immortality allows Pratchett to have a lot of fun with heroic tropes. Like how The Watch managed to sign an economic treaty by kicking a lot of arse and killing the son of one of Uberwald’s most respected families in The Fifth Elephant, it’s made clear that heroes are not exactly great people. History is written by the winning side, and all that:
‘You could say, I am a hero, so when I kill you that makes you de facto, the kind of person suitable to be killed by a hero. You could say that a hero, in short, is someone who indulges in every whim that, within the rule of law, would have him behind bars or swiftly dancing what I believe is called the hemp fandango. The words we might use are: murder, pillage, theft and rape.’
But raping and pillaging aside, Cohen does win over the reader. He wants something more than what he has. He doesn’t want this to be it. Barely a third of the way through the book, there’s a great scene where the Horde explain to the minstrel why they want to blow up the gods. Different reasons, from backache to fundamental problems with the concept of immortality, are blamed before Cohen pipes up with the simple ‘Because…because…they’ve let us grow old.’ It shouldn’t be like this. Like Alexander, he has no more worlds to conquer.
And then there’s Rincewind. I have perhaps been unduly harsh on the Discworld’s greatest coward. But my heart is in the right place. He’s not a bad character, he’s a bad protagonist because he can only do one thing – run.
Here he’s part of a wider ensemble and much more entertaining. The Last Hero is a book of two heroes – Carrot and Cohen. Actually, three heroes – I forgot about Leonard of Quirm. Wait, should it be four, as I’ve left out the unnamed bard? The book doesn’t hang off Rincewind and he breathes in the role of smart-arsed terrified comic foil without the bother of any responsibility for making things happen.
The illustrated format means that Leonard’s creativity is translated in a way the reader hasn’t seen before, with pages of his designs filling the book. I feel The Last Hero belongs to him, the purest creative force the Discworld has ever seen, forever sketching perfect circles or new inventions. Pratchett hearkens back to Moving Pictures in his belief that creativity, imagination and genius are great, but they are for naught without life experience. Leonard has spent years locked away by The Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, where he invents in benign captivity.
What The Last Hero does is take him to the end of the world and beyond. The scene where our adventurers land on the moon and watch the colossal elephants bear the weight of the Disc on their backs is wonderful. By failing to explain what they are seeing, Pratchett conveys the sheer wonder of their shared experience. Besides, there was just…too much. Too much of everything. He wasn’t used to seeing this much universe in one go. The blue disc of the world, unrolling slowly as the moon rose, looked outnumbered. In fact, Leonard’s close encounter with the Discworld leads to his greatest ever work. At the end of the book, the gods punish Leonard by demanding he paint the ceiling of the Temple of the Small Gods, with nods to Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. What he achieves because he experienced life was his greatest achievement and one that will live on for centuries.
This love letter to creativity stretches to the gods. In the Discworld, gods are created by humans according to what they believe in. The more belief, the more powerful the god. But they callously play with people’s lives and the new ones are simply not very nice. ‘All you can do here is bluff and illusion. And bullying! That’s what prayers are…it’s frightened people trying to make friends with the bully.’ Or when they meet Leonard: Like many professional religious people – and they were pretty professional, being gods – they tended towards unease in the presence of the unashamedly spiritual.
If gods are created by us, then clearly we can create better, as Leonard demonstrates. As does the minstrel. The Horde die in a blaze of glory at the end of the novel, taking their explosives away from the gods’ temple. While he was initially kidnapped by them, the minstrel is so inspired by their sacrifice and humanity that he writes a ballad for the ages, ditching the rubies he was given as payment. And, again, we see the importance of creativity. He didn’t know where he was going to go, or what he was going to do, but he suspected that life might be a lot more interesting from now on.
Regular readers (hi, and thanks for sticking with me) will have seen me bang on about Pratchett’s lack of embarrassment in revisiting old plots and stories and burnishing them according to his skills now. The Last Hero is the best example of this as it neatly wraps up a lot of the themes of the first 14 Discworld novels in effectively a novella sized book. And it’s wonderful. The book was not what I expected at all and was made all the better for it.
Right. A new chapter in the Discworld is born next week as I look at Pratchett’s first YA novel. Of course, you could argue many of his books are YA but I really hope I don’t get into that. Genre discussions can be a bit dull. See you next week.