The Discworld saga began almost for a laugh with The Color of Magic, a book in which Terry Pratchett took a humorous take on traditional fantasy clichés. The protagonist of the book was the inept wizard Rincewind, who at the end of the sequel entitled The Light Fantastic seemed to have found a new beginning: he could finally learn spells after getting rid of the Octavo spell that had slipped into his head years before.
In fact, in later books Rincewind has remained the same character, as if Pratchett had decided to use him in lighter and less complex stories than those of his other recurring characters like Sam Vimes and Granny Weatherwax. The Last Hero is one of these books. It’s extremely funny, it can be read in a few hours, and it tells the story of Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde who, after having conquered an entire empire in Interesting Times, embark on a titanic mission: take revenge on the gods, guilty of having given short lives to mortals and depriving them of the possibility to explore the infinite worlds out there.
There’s a problem: if successful, this enterprise would destroy the entire Discworld. Thus, the people of Ankh-Morpork mobilize with an expedition that unites the wizards of Unseen University and Lord Vetinari who brings with him the brilliant Leonard da Quirm whose inventions prove crucial for the expedition itself.
This is the plot, but, as mentioned above, it’s a mere pretext to follow Cohen and his Horde at work on one side, and Rincewind on the other. The Silver Horde parts are extremely funny. The Code followed by Cohen and his generation of heroes and dark lords is nothing more than a series of fantasy clichés that Pratchett openly makes fun of.1 For example, it’s great when Evil Harry proudly presents his henchmen chosen for their stupidity and explains how he bought full helmets (albeit more expensive) for his guards so that the hero destined to defeat him could infiltrate his fortress unseen.
The part dedicated to the wizards who collaborate with Vetinari to send Leonard to Quirm, Carrot Ironfoundersson and Rincewind in a dragon-powered spaceship is also funny, of course.
But it’s worth underlining how at a certain point the serious part of the story sort of takes over, with several reflections on old age and on feeling out of place in a world that inexorably changes. They become more than simple pretexts for jokes and set a serious and interesting tone even in a little book like this that wants to be more light-hearted than most of the other Discworld books. Pratchett being Pratchett, he couldn’t NOT be profound even here!
To prepare this post I read The Last Hero a second time (the first time I read it as an eBook on my Kindle) in the version that I most recommend, that is the one illustrated by Paul Kidby (Josh Kirby had already died in 2001). There are many illustrations, each more beautiful than the other,2 that make reading even more enjoyable than it would be with the text alone. Leonard da Quirm’s notes on dragons and spaceships are particularly intriguing, not to mention his very personal version of the Sistine Chapel which irreverently takes up Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.
In short, The Last Hero is a well-written, well-illustrated divertissement that can be read in an afternoon. Pratchett couldn’t have gifted Rincewind fans with anything better than this (and it’s essentially his last adventure, by the way). Moreover, he’s in a book with other recurring characters such as other wizards (like Ponder Stibbons and Mustrum Ridcully), Carrot, Vetinari and above all Leonard da Quirm who’s used here to his full potential. He’s a clear parody of Leonardo da Vinci, and so far he had appeared in the books of the City Watch starting from Men at Arms. His presence is but one more reason to read The Last Hero, a book that, I repeat, offers more than simple laughs. Ciao!
1. He laughs at many other things, such as the Prometheus myth!
2. Eccone una qui sotto!