‘The Last Hero’ is a bit different, as far as Discworlds go, and very exciting. It was published as a ‘Discworld fable’, shorter than the other novels but still the official number twenty seven. The most exciting thing is the fact the book itself is giant and lavishly illustrated on every page.
The illustrations were done by Paul Kidby, Pratchett’s constant companion since his original cover designer, Josh Kirby, died in 2001. I did wonder, beginning this book, if it was fair to include the pictures when I was making my judgement of the story, as the rest of the books do not have this luxury to offer. In the end I decided I would, mostly because I was only ten pages in when my mind was already blown by the addition. It was a two page spread of Ankh-Morpork that did it for me; until now, we’ve had mostly character portraits, which are great, but the city laid out before me actually made me a bit emotional. Pratchett always said that Kidby’s drawings were the closest he ever saw to what Discworld looked like in his head and, knowing that, I could hardly ask for more myself, could I? I’ll say this for sure; I did not appreciate these illustrations the first time around.
The fact this story is shorter means it moves faster than a lot of the novels tend to, although I don’t think that is a bad thing. Essentially, Lord Vetinari receives information that Cohen the Barbarian (last seen in the ‘Interesting Times’) is planning on blowing up the city that houses the gods of the Disc. When the wizards inform him this is a very bad idea indeed – Discworld runs on magic and the magic emanates from that city – Vetinari commissions Leonard of Quirm to build a machine that will get him and several others to the city before Cohen and his Silver Horde does.
It is a simple story, probably the simplest of any Discworld novel that isn’t in the Witch arc, and definitely the simplest starring Rincewind and the Wizards. Rincewind is present here, of course; he knows Cohen, the only person Vetinari can find who does, and he is sent on the mission too. With Captain Carrot completing the three man crew of the Kite, Quirm’s madcap flying machine, it is an entertaining bunch. I really love the novels where several groups of characters come together, and this one is a definite success. Leonard of Quirm’s biggest role by far, we get to know him and his slightly odd thinking much better, and I adored his ‘notes’ scattered randomly around the pages. Rincewind and Carrot get on very well, as you would expect from two fairly affable characters and, of course, the combination of the Disc’s number one reluctant hero and the uncrowned king saves the day.
The real star of this story, of course, is Cohen the Barbarian, for whom this is the last appearance on the Disc. He’s in a philosophical mood here; having lost one of his friends in a choking-on-cucumber incident, death is on his mind. He is old, after all, much older than most of the other warrior heroes have lived to be. His minstrel, kidnapped in order to write a saga about the Horde and their mission, tells him a story of an old Disc emperor, who conquered the world and then ‘stood on the shore and wept. Some philosopher told him there were more worlds out there somewhere, and that he’d never be able to conquer them.’ When Cohen agrees that he sees how the emperor felt, it is more insight into his thoughts and why he has decided the gods themselves are his next target than anything else he actually says. When he and the Silver Horde sacrifice themselves at the end, to save the world, it really comes as no surprise.
The last hero of the title is actually surprisingly elusive to pinpoint in this story. You could argue it is Cohen, who does make that sacrifice and then goes on to ride amongst the stars with his Silver Horde. The horde themselves think it could be Carrot, who is really responsible for talking the gods out of taking any revenge on the peoples of the Disc. I would actually go so far as to say it is Rincewind; aside from a small cameo in ‘Unseen Academicals’, this is Rincewind’s last story on the Disc. He was our first hero, way back in the beginning, and this is his swansong, just as much as it is Cohen’s. Maybe the identity of the hero doesn’t matter and it could be all three, or someone else entirely. Either way, this is certainly one of the stories I have enjoyed the most, and it’s left me wishing that more of the books could have been illustrated in this way.