Hero Worship – The Last Hero

The-last-heroIt’s what ordin’ry people remember that matters. It’s songs and sayin’s. It doesn’t matter how you live and die, it’s how the bards wrote it down.

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.

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7 Comments

  1. *cough*
    Second spaceship!

    [And yes, I’ve not read his ‘designated-YA’ books yet, but I’m not sure how they could be younger-A than Equal Rites or Mort. Actually, ER and Mort are almost kid’s books, and my impression of the YA books was that they were more kid-oriented than YA-oriented? (Soul Music may be the purest ‘YA’ book he wrote…)
    Also, you mean Discworld’s first YA. By this time, Pratchett had written the Carpet People, the Bromeliad trilogy, and the Johnny Maxwell trilogy. Unless you’d argue they were children’s books instead. But I’d say at least ‘Only You Can Save Mankind’ is more of a teenager book]

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    1. Aspects of the Tiffany novels and Amazing Maurice are among the darkest things he’s written so it’s definitely YA.

      I still can’t get over the opening of I Shall Wear Midnight – a girl gets beaten so badly by her father she miscarries and then the dad tries to hang himself. Great stuff!

      (I’m just sticking to Discworld so Maurice is his first dedicated YA novel within that series. As good as Truckers and the like are, I gave them a wide berth in this project. Forty books are enough to read!)

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      1. Wait, darker means it must be YA? I’d have thought the contrary, if anything – parents, at least, tend to think the darkest stuff is not appropriate for kids. Would you call ‘Night Watch’ YA as well, then?
        [Have you read any Lanagan? ‘Tender Morsels’ was sold as YA, and won prizes as YA. In the UK, its front cover was a girl who had been beaten up. The first ten pages or so are…

        SPOILER (not for the book because it’s the first few pages, just for your lunch)

        …the first few pages have violent incestuous child rape, forced (primitive) abortion, miscarriage, violent gang rape, and attempted suicide. Maybe also attempted infanticide, can’t remember.

        Childhood has clearly changed since I were a lad]

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      2. Young Adult as opposed to kid-oriented, as you suggested above. They are great books, especially the Tiffany ones.

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  2. Oh, I like how the helmets in that picture you link to display the characters so perfectly. Leonard has an all-glass pure-sphere helmet – a mathematically perfect helmet that also maximises his ability to observe the world around him. Carrot has a striking, kingly, yet fundamentally professional military helmet, combining visibility with protection. And Rincewind has a nondescript bag to put over his head, with as little visibility as practical so that he can’t see things to be terrified by, with, of course, his wizard-obsession incorporated into it.

    Reminds me how great Kidby’s illustrations were.

    Here’s hoping someone gets him to put out illustrated editions of the books!

    [Actually, here’s just hoping for illustrated books in general, by any author. I liked them. I don’t mean like this, but just a book with the occasional black-and-white picture thrown in to show a character or a location or whatever. Whatever happened to them?]

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  3. Definitely agree with this summary, not only is the book absolutely beautiful the story is concise but packs so much of what he was trying to say and achieve from the earlier books into it. Its what some of the early books would have been if they had come later in the sequence.

    As an aside I could never warm much to Kirby’s art and thought Kidby a massive improvement. I can appreciate that Kirby was very talented and had a very distinct and interesting style, but with one or two exceptions I don’t think he really captured the right feel and look for most of the characters. Everything was too exaggerated for my liking. Kidby on the other hand gets almost all of them absolutely spot on for me and I find it hard to imagine Nanny or Nobby looking any other way sometimes.

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  4. On the topic of Leonard, I think what his ‘punishment’ really brings home, at the end, is something Pratchett has toyed with with him for a while, which is the old quip (is it from Montaigne? Probably. If not, claiming something’s from Montaigne usually works, nobody’s ever read all of Montaigne to contradict you…) that you can never imprison an imaginative man. No matter what the gods (or Vetinari) do to Leonard, short of death, they can never imprison him, because he will always find a world of fascination in his manacles and the geology of the stone walls.

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