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Set on the Discworld, The Last Hero is written by Terry Pratchett and lavishly illustrated by Paul Kidby.

It deals with the quest of the elderly barbarian hero Cohen the Barbarian, and his cohort of equally aged marauders (collectively known as The Silver Horde) to return that which was stolen by the First Hero Mazdato the realm of the gods -- with extreme prejudice. This is not a quest that any of them plan to return from.

They take along a bard to write a saga about their glorious deaths, and along the way they run into a dark lord, and a warrior maiden, also well past their prime.

However, the quest puts the future of the Discworld at risk, so back in Ankh-Morpork a crack team of Leonard Da Quirm -- an artist, and gentle genius who designs weapons of mass destruction that he idealistically believes no-one would ever use -- and Captain Carrot --City watchman, latter-day hero, and rightful but not willing heir to the throne of Ankh)is put together to prevent The Silver Horde from reaching it's objective. Rincewind, the inept, cowardly, and much harassed wizzard (sic) voluntarily doesn't volunteer to join them to save The Patrician, Havelock Vetinari and the senior wizards from having to find him in order to draft him.

To outflank the Horde, the team will have to venture into space, and boldly go where no man has gone before -- and returned...

The book is good Discworld fare with the clever jokes, and allusions to literature, history and pop-culture that readers expect from Pratchett, with appearances by many of the favourite Ankh-Morpork based characters, and the inevitable cameo from Death.

The Kidby illustrations are a delight, with brilliant watermarks behind the text in addition to full-colour and brown/sepia plates, small illuminations and margin pictures. Unlike the surrealistic interpretations that Josh Kirby was known for on the covers of the UK editions, Paul Kidby (who produced The Pratchett Portfolio) is faithful to the text. The pictures of Cohen are particularly good, managing to show someone who is very old, very frail, and absolutely terrifying.

Perhaps the most telling praise of Paul's work is that on the alt.fan.pratchett newsgroup his portraits are considered to capture the essence of the characters with a much higher degree of agreement than is usually found on any subject within the froup.

This isn't the best place for a newcomer to the Discworld to start, as a knowledge of back story and previous character development is required to appreciate it, but if you are a Pratchett fan, buy it for the story, or the pictures, or both -- but buy it.

There are only two things a Discworld fan can think when encountering an illustrated Discworld novel. He'll either love it for giving him a concrete visual idea of his favorite people, places and things, or he'll hate it for the very same reason. You probably already know which type you are.

If you're the second type, though, be warned that the illustrations in The Last Hero: A Discworld Fable are still incredibly, incredibly beautiful. If you're a comic book afficianado, then think of Alex Ross painting caricatures. This isn't the first time artist Paul Kidby (not to be confused with the recently-departed Josh Kirby, who illustrated Eric and most of the British Discworld covers) has tackled Terry Pratchett's Discworld characters, but it is the first time he's tackled an entire story. His art appears next to, above, below, and behind the story on every single page of this oversized book, and despite his habit of giving each character exactly one expression for the entire book, they're always a joy to look at. They're lavish, detailed, stylized, detailed, believable, real. You'll have to be hard-set against having your literary characters drawn for you to object to how Kidby renders them here.

Of course, as they say at Pixar, all the pretty pictures in the world won't rescue a bad story. Which brings us to Pratchett's half of the book. This is a short novel even by Discworld standards, about the same length as Eric, which is probably why the art is there (instead of vice versa). The plot goes something like this: Cohen the Barbarian and his octagenerian cohorts have decided to embark on one last heroic expidition, to return fire to the gods. Specifically, fire in the form of a very large explosive keg, which he intends to detonate inside the home of the Discworld gods atop the mountain at the center of the Disc.

Impossible, you say? Probably not -- after all, Cohen hasn't gotten as old as he is by failing to kill people. And the residents of Ankh-Morpork, magical and non-magical alike, all have reason to believe that his success will mean the end of the entire Disc. So the ingenious Leonard of Quirm is given the assignment of getting himself and a select team to the center of the Disc as quickly as possible in order to intercept Cohen before he gets what he wants.

That "select team," it turns out, consists of Carrot Ironfounderson, the six-foot-tall, red-headed, large-muscled captain of the City Watch, and Rincewind, the worst wizard the Disc has ever seen and the only citizen of Ankh-Morpork who has anything approaching a friendship with Cohen. (They spent half of The Light Fantastic and most of Interesting Times together.) It's the first "crossover" story Pratchett has written with these two major characters, and has probably been demanded by fans for years.

You'd expect the embodiments of perfect courage and perfect cowardice to have some pretty interesting dialogue in this story, but surprisingly, they don't seem to interact that much. Rincewind doesn't have much patience with brave heroes, and Carrot is too polite to force his views on Rincewind. On the other hand, Leonard's relentless imagination and total faith in his own radical inventions makes him a far, far more interesting companion for Rincewind. The two of them get along absolutely dreadfully.

There's also a new villain by the name of Evil Dark Lord Harry Dread, but he's really just a supporting role. Mostly this book is an exercise in giving Rincewind and Cohen another story together, with Leonard and Carrot thrown in to make it all possible. But as Pratchett himself has said in the past, Rincewind just isn't a compelling enough character. His gimmick is that he's a coward, and a very good one, and while it's certainly funny, it's hard to write great stories around a character that refuses to be developed. Both Eric and The Last Hero star him, and both are about half as long as Pratchett's usual novels; I doubt this is a coincidence.

So Cohen's character is really the only one that sees any interesting growth in this book, which is probably why it's named after him and why he's the only one illustrated on the cover. And while it's short, it's still plenty interesting and chock-full of the humour and insights Pratchett's fans have come to love. It's a little annoying that the two teams of characters spend almost the entire book not interacting with each other, because the lack of a united plot has wrecked a few Discworld novels for me. (Soul Music comes immediately to mind.) But this time, the ending redeems it.

Diehard Pratchett fans will buy this regardless of how it's reviewed, of course. But the non-diehards and even non-fans should enjoy it, too -- it's a solid story that gives a quick, fun look at several recurring Discworld characters, and the artwork is so lavish it's almost impossible to say "no" to. The price tag is a bit higher than an ordinary Discworld hardcover, though, so it's really not for first-timers. Give them a paperback copy of Wyrd Sisters or The Light Fantastic instead, to get them hooked on the early stuff. The Last Hero isn't a literary main course, but it's an excellent dessert.

This has been Yet Another Slashdot book review.

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