Friday, January 16, 2015

Book Review 2014 #5 - Terry Pratchett's The Last Hero

The Last Hero: A Discworld Fable by Terry Pratchett
Published by: Gollancz
Publication Date: October 18th, 2001
Format: Hardcover, 160 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

In Discworld, more then most places, what we take as myth is more literal. In the beginning, the great hero Mazda, maybe known elsewhere as Prometheus, stole fire from the Gods. Well, Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde have grown wealthy and old in the hero business themselves, but they don't like the old part, in fact, they have a beef to pick with the Gods about the whole "old" situation. So they've decided to return Mazda's ill gotten gains. With interest. The problem with most heroes though is they don't realize that sometimes their actions have consequences. The consequence of them going to the home of the Gods is that Discworld will cease to be. The Wizards bring this outcome to the attention of Lord Ventinari who quickly gets all the Disc's best minds, including Rincewind to his own dismay, to find a solution. Yet no one seems to be asking the obvious question. What if this is just another game the Gods are playing, and what if it's revenge for all those temples these so-called heroes sacked?

In Neil Gaiman's introduction to A Slip of the Keyboard he says that "Terry Pratchett isn’t jolly. He’s angry." This to me is the truest thing I've read about Pratchett. Some might place him in the jolly elf category, but to me he is in the cantankerous wizard one. When I met Terry Pratchett he reminded me of someone very close to me, my mother. Like Pratchett she is ill and old before her time. She survived two rounds of cancer in my childhood to have Parkinson's arrive early because of the chemo that saved her rapidly aging her body. Here are two people who know the truth that life isn't fair. You might have a good life, you might have a bad life, you might have an easy life, but in the end death comes for us all. The indignation of the Horde at this universal truth is both poignant and relatable.

While this book was written prior to Pratchett's diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's he understood how the world works so it seems even more of a cruel joke that this would happen to him. One wonders if he has railed against the Gods as his heroes did. Because what would you do if you could actually accuse the Gods of being unfair? Would you gather yourself a posse and head into Mordor with a keg of explosives? The anger just sparks off the page at the unfairness of life. This will to live, this rage, fuels the book and makes it more vital and alive then any book I have read in a long time. It might be about turtles and wizards and old men who were heroes in their day who want sagas written about them, but the human truth behind all that pageantry is what makes Pratchett's books so universally wonderful, if heartbreaking at the same time.

Though Pratchett isn't one to not let the Gods have a say. Sure they might be blind and think of people as pawns in their games, but all the Gods live together and therefore have similar vested interests. It would be like Jesus hanging out with some Egyptian Goddess like Isis, with a few Roman and Greek deities on the side. All Gods, while not necessarily equal, are aware of each other and take an interest in what they each do. So to look at the "heroes" from their point of view, they see a rag tag group of people who have spent their lives looting and pillaging their temples and places of worship. They might be heroes to us mere mortals, but to the Gods, they are a nuisance, and Pratchett is will to show us this in all his irascible splendor.

But in amongst the hard truths Pratchett peppers his story with little asides, little jokes, that if you get them they're wonderful. Besides the battle of Gods and man, here he takes aim at the space program, Leonardo da Vinci and his inventions, science, but my favorite of all was the discussion of Schrödinger's cat. This is a quantum-mechanical paradox wherein a cat is placed in a box with a substance that may or may not kill the animal. The cat being in the box and unable to be observed means that the cat is both alive and dead simultaneously. It is the observation of the cat when the box is opened that determines the cat's state of being. DEATH and his manservant Albert get into an argument about this theory. Albert is trying to point out the two states of simultaneous being while DEATH just thinks it's cruel to the cat, and anyway, he's DEATH so he'd be aware the instant the cat died, and therefore it makes no sense to him. This scene is worthy of a vaudeville stage and top billed act with the subtlety and wit. Priceless.

What sets apart The Last Hero from any of Pratchett's other books is that this is an outsized format with beautiful illustrations by Paul Kidby. While I actually have many issues with the layout of the book, text lines being set too long, sepia drawings not getting the attention they deserve being set behind type, drawings badly placed within the story (ok, the graphic designer in me will stop now), the illustrations add so much. Kidby has this way of channeling Pratchett so that his drawings sync up with the images that have always been in your head. You see this picture of DEATH with one of his beloved kittens and you think, yes, that's right. Carrot Ironfoundersson has proved difficult to dream cast, like I am wont to do, but there he is rendered flesh by Kidby's pen! I hope this symbiotic relationship lasts for many years, and above all I am grateful that the US Publishers have FINALLY started to release Pratchett's books with Kidby's covers stateside. Why would you do otherwise?


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