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Book review: “The Last Hero” by Terry Pratchett, illustrated by Paul Kidby

In the final pages, the Discworld does not end, and everything comes down to a copper doing his job and to what is described as “the peculiar mathematics of heroism.”

The plot of Terry Pratchett’s 2001 The Last Hero, the 27th of his Discworld books, has to do with Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde — i.e., several very aged sword-and-berserking hooligans (think: the Rolling Stones with decorative armor and sharp steel) — seeking to return fire to the gods.

It’s a grudge quest.

They are bringing a barrel with 50 pounds of Agatean Thunder Clay to the abode of the gods Dunmanifestin on Cori Celesti, a spike-like ice mountain at the Discworld Hub, and, there, they plan to detonate it.

This is payback for what the gods did to Mazda, the hero who, lo, those many eons ago, stole fire in the first place for everyone on the Discworld. It’s revenge for chaining the hero to a rock where, every morning, an eagle would come and eat out his insides and, then, each evening, those insides would grow back again. (If this sounds like the Greek myth of Prometheus, well, it is.)

There was also a more personal reason:

“Because…,” said Cohen, “because…they’ve let us grow old.”

“Within a few minutes”

That’s all fine and dandy and fit for the saga that Cohen has hired a minstrel to write, but there’s one catch: 

If the Thunder Clay goes off, not only will Dunmasnifestin be destroyed but, in addition, the world’s magnetic field will collapse and won’t get back into full operation for two years.

“Really?  Well, we can do without magic for a couple of years, can’t we?” said Mr. Slant [the zombie who is the head of the Guild of Lawyers in Ankh-Morpork], managing to suggest that this would be a jolly good thing, too.

“With respect,” said Ponder [Stibbons, a junior member of the Faculty of Unseen University], without respect, “we cannot.  The seas will run dry.  The sun will burn out and crash.  The elephants and the turtle [who carry the Discworld through space] may cease to exist altogether.”

“That’ll happen in two years?”

“Oh, no.  That’ll happen within a few minutes, sir.  You see, magic isn’t just colored lights and balls.  Magic holds the world together.”

Confessions, confessions

The Last Hero is a large-format novel in which Pratchett’s words share each page with the art of Paul Kidby. It features on its cover Cohen in all his aged scrawniness, wearing his leather loincloth and a right-eye patch.

I have several confessions to make:

  • As much as I’ve loved reading and re-reading Pratchett’s novels, Discworld and otherwise, I’ve never ever enjoyed the cover art by Kidby and, earlier, Josh Kirby.  Too silly for my taste, too cartoonish, too slapstick.  Pratchett often enjoys sending his stories into deep goofiness and high jejunity, but the humanity of his tales, their deep sense of human nature, give them the dignity of true art.  The work of Kirby and Kidby emphasize Pratchett’s wackiness without recognizing his profound appreciation for and delight in and insight into his fellow humans. (NOTE:  I recognize that Pratchett apparently really liked Kirby’s and Kidby’s stuff since he used it so much.  All I can say is: Alas and alack.)
  • One of Kidby’s great sins in The Last Hero is his image of Lord Vetinari, the Patrician who controls and runs Anhk-Morpork. On a full half page in the novel, Vetinari is portrayed as a Snidely Whiplash-Ming the Merciless-Jafar sort of guy.  NO!  NO!  NO!  The Patrician is no comic book villain.  Far from being the one-dimensional bad guy of one-dimensional stories, Vetinari is clever and calculating and exhibits a complex humanity. He even has an old girlfriend in Uberwald.
  • I am no fan of Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde.  The idea of the swashbuckling heroes of myth and legend ending up as old men who refuse to give up the road is mildly interesting.  But it’s a weak joke to carry a whole novel, and that was one of the problems with Pratchett’s Interesting Times which I find to be one of his less good novels.
  • The other major problem with Interesting Times is the wizard Rincewind who is also a single laugh joke — a coward of such great cowardice that he is able to survive the greatest of terrors.  His sole skill is running away.  Rincewind is also a major character in The Last Hero.  Alas.

A Pratchett novel

Well, that was a lot to get off my chest.

I expected that I would have to hold my nose to put up with all these negative aspects of The Last Hero. However, when I started reading, I found instead that I enjoyed this novel a lot.

First of all, neither Rincewind nor Cohen and his gang dominate the story.  This is more of an ensemble book with strong performances by Death and the Patrician and Captain Ironfoundersson, the 6’ 6” dwarf, and the brilliant and almost childlike Leonard of Quirm and the fractious gods of Dunmanifestin and, perhaps in the strongest performance of them all, Ponder Stibbons, the one sane man in a novel of measurably insane or insane-ish people.

Second, this book is a Terry Pratchett novel.  It is witty and thoughtful and merry and clever and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Just plain wonderful

Third, for all my carping about Kidby’s portrayal of the people in Discworld, he includes in The Last Hero some breath-taking images of that world.

Perhaps the best is a view of Discworld from a great height in space, looking straight down on the Disc with the head, arms and legs of its carrier turtle visible.

Another great image shows Leonard, Carrot, Rincewind and the Librarian standing on a hill on the Discworld moon, and over the horizon is the gargantuan eye of one of the four elephants who stand on the turtle and hold up on their backs the Disc.

I’m a huge fan of the 11th century Bayeux Tapestry, the embroidered cloth nearly 230 feet long and 20 inches tall, depicting the Norman conquest, complete with the Battle of Hastings and the death of King Harold.

So, for me personally, the wittiest of Kidby’s images is one that comes near the very end of the book, after all the deering-do by Cohen and everyone else. 

In a Bayeux Tapestry-like scene, it shows, in one frame, Cohen and his bunch facing a gang of Valkyries on horseback, and, in the next, the oldsters flying off on the Valkyries’ horses.

It’s just plain wonderful.

Patrick T. Reardon


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