The Last Hero describes itself, on its cover, as ‘A Discword Fable’ and that’s a very good description for it, although the story is as ‘real’ as is anything else concerning this amazingly improbable and impractical creation.
Like Eric, it appeared as an oversized book, illustrated by the new Discworld cover artist, Paul Kidby. Indeed, illustrated is hardly the word, though most people append the adjective profusely. Kidby appears on virtually every page of this story, and is considerably more integrated into the book than was Josh Kirby, in Eric.
By the time The Last Hero appeared, in 2001, Kidby had already been working with Pratchett for several years, starting with the works quickly collected as The Pratchett Portfolio. He doesn’t just add art to the story, he gets deeply into it, and he produces several diagrams that are clearly co-works with the author, and which underpin this fable with lots of structural detail.
The story, which is pretty much a sequel to Interesting Times, is fairly straightforward. Cohen the Barbarian and the Silver Horde, motivated principally by the death of one of their number, Vincent, through choking on a fishbone, have decided to go out in a blaze of glory. They have decided to take fire back to the Gods, in their retreat, Dunmanifestin, at the spire Cori Celesti, at the centre of Discsworld.
The problem is going to be that it won’t just be them going out in a blaze of glory, it will be everyone, up to and including Discworld itself, elephants and turtle as well. Their little firebomb will cancel the Discworld’s magical field, leading to instant… well, instantness.
Something’s got to be done to head them off though, as this is the Silver Horde, who have got to their present age by outliving all their enemies, mostly by use of swords, that’s not going to be easy. The team that’s going to do this consists of Rincewind, as the only person that might be able to talk to Cohen, Leonard of Quirm to design and pilot a craft that can get the expedition to Cori Celesti, and Captain Carrot, to arrest the Horde if need be.
The ‘support’ team for this project therefore consists of the Faculty, directed primarily by the over-bright Ponder Stibbins and a for once out of his league Patrician. Bring ingredients to boil, stir well and pour.
Despite the fact that The Last Hero involves such a manifest and critical danger, it’s still a fairly slight story, written with little more behind it than the urge to have fun and create drama. In large part, that’s because it’s entirely external, to use the terms that I’ve been developing along this series of reviews.
Pratchett never internalises any of his mixed cast, preferring to keep us outside everybody’s head, except in the case of immediate emotions, mainly those of Rincewind (think fear, and flight). This is usually the case with Carrot anyway, as I have observed more than once, but as this book doesn’t include any characters that examine him for us, it renders him into a superficial character who, though an obvious choice for this mission, has nothing to do during the course of it.
The same goes for Leonard, who is Leonard throughout with very little variation on the perpetually brilliant inventor we’ve seen before. However, with no-one around to comment upon his detached perspective and his habit of designing extreme death war machines whilst doodling, again he comes over as something of a still-life.
Only Rincewind receives something of the attention we normally expect.
And, of course, Cohen. The Horde are out for their last ride. Cohen’s tried being Emperor of Agatea, and the Horde have tried living in the lap of luxury but it hasn’t taken. They’re just not trained for it, and the loss of Vincent to a death that they cannot but see as demeaning has fired off some primal anger. The age of heroes is gone, and they can see that, and see just how out of place that makes them. They’re the last ones, and they have no worlds left to conquer, so they’re going to take it out on the Gods themselves for, in some indefinable fashion, doing this to them.
They’ve even dragged a bard along to compose a proper saga about it.
Though the mission team get slightly more of the book, it’s Cohen’s journey, with the final shucking off of barbarian tropes that contains the emotional heart of this Fable. The Horde themselves want to make sure everything’s done properly according to the Code, one last time.
But when the Horde realise that their last time is going to be everybody’s last time, there is a change of heart. There’s got to be a world left behind them, in which sagas can be sung, otherwise there’s no point. So the final charge of the Silver Horde, into myth and legend and, also, the stars in the heavens, is outwards.
The Discworld is safe, and after all, no-one finds any bodies, and they were always difficult to kill. And there is the saga…
It’s a moving end, but it doesn’t disguise the main problem with The Last Hero, which is that it’s too thin. It’s got too little in it, when the truth is that it’s a bigger story than Pratchett wants to pretend, and it lacks the substance it should have had.
On the other hand, it was intended as a showcase for Kidby as well, and Pratchett had a lot of writing going on this year, so it’s understandable. For for me, The Last Hero goes down as a bit of a missed opportunity. It’s good, but it could have been much better.