Book review: The Last Continent

[Note: I originally began this post years ago – I have no firm record of the first draft, but it was well before the author had passed away, and that occurred in March of 2015. It was also before I read several of the author’s later works, and while certainly entertaining and quite strong in their own rights, none of those changed the opinion stated below. I was never quite satisfied with the post though, and I let it languish, insisting to myself that I’d get back to it at some point. That would appear to be now.]

book cover, The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett
There seems little reason to praise Terry Pratchett, since his following is only slightly less than JK Rowling’s (though his is much more deserved.) Everyone will have their favorite from his lengthy list of publications, but this is my demonstration that, if it isn’t actually The Last Continent, they’re all dead wrong.

Practhett created (or discovered) the Discworld, a world existing in a field of magic and composed of a flat disk (or disc, which would have come earlier I suppose,) carried through space on the back of four enormous elephants, themselves supported by a much-larger turtle. As might be discerned from that, he’s borrowed heavily from numerous legends, and this realm serves as the setting for most of his books, yet somehow bears a striking resemblance to our own planet in many respects; the principal city of Ankh-Morpork is, by the most remarkable of coincidences, almost indistinguishable from Victorian London in layout, culture, and inhabitants. The writing genre of fantasy most often deals with sword-&-sorcery, medieval-period tales, and the Discworld is not exactly an exception to that, but Pratchett anachronizes such elements alongside contemporary British patois and curiously modern inventions, such as iconographs and the computer ‘Hex.’ This isn’t the laziness of not creating an entire universe of culture and language and interminable elven songs, nor any form of deus ex machina to solve a tricky plot hole, but a clever incorporation of recognizable elements within his curious realm. Many fantasy novels have a particular time period that they identify with; the Discworld series samples freely.

Unseen University, the Discworld’s premier college for wizards, has been a staple for many of the books, and the faculty within, over the course of time, have developed from minor characters into distinct personalities. I have the impression that this was an unintentional progression, as Pratchett discovered how much fun he could have with them, and in following the books chronologically, one can see the Dean’s shallow, snarky attitude take shape, and Ponder Stibbons’ quiet exasperation become not-so-quiet (to say nothing of the bursar, who was to become a euphemism for going insane.) All of this comes to a pinnacle in The Last Continent, where the characters mesh into a relentless circus of dialogue, with the reader realizing that they can often be identified through what is said without any attribution. One does not need to read any of the other books to understand this one, but it helps to appreciate the development of the cast – they had not always been this way.

Even better, however, Pratchett might have realized that the Discworld seemed notably incomplete. He had, at times, paid homage to China and France, Eastern Europe and Africa, Greece and Egypt, but missed the strange desert continent down under all of those – it is safe to say that he corrected this oversight. In fact, he managed to include nearly every trope that has ever existed about it, which is a tall order in itself. My personal favorite was the dwarven trader, who had me grinning broadly when I abruptly realized just who had been parodied.

There’s always a problem with reviewing a work of comedy, because it’s far too easy to oversell it, and this somehow ruins most of the flavor – I suspect that preparing to laugh spoils the spontaneity. [Long pause.] It is lucky, then, that this is not a humorous book in the slightest, and I can only recommend it for Pratchett’s sentence structure and deep philosophical insights, so astounding that at times they forced me to put the book down with tears in my eyes.

You can imagine my delight when, in a world where magic is routine and the gods really do exist (and are as petulant as portrayed elsewhere,) Pratchett serves up a lovely treatment on evolution. In fact, a subtle aspect of all of his Discworld books, at least, are the wry observations that sneak in. Many good authors are keen students of human nature, including the irrational portions, and there is something special about reading a passage that demonstrates, despite the frivolous plot or eccentric characters, that the writer is going a bit deeper. While humor is often just silliness, some of the best is the kind that reveals an insightful undertone, a satirical recognition that what we think we are, and what we are truly like, are often widely disparate.

There are distinctly different genres in Pratchett’s Discworld books. Starting off as a spoof of the sword-&-sorcery genre in itself, they developed over time into almost fairy-tale like dramas, crime mysteries, and even thinly-disguised commentaries on current culture. The Last Continent, however, largely steps back to the roots, forgoing most of the thought-provoking undertones to let the fools run free for a bit. It is character interaction at its heart, seasoned with the not-quite-parallel-universe treatment that makes the Discworld recognizable yet distinct. If it helps, this is a Rincewind novel, largely revolving around fate’s (or Someone’s) abuse of the Discworld’s only wizzard, but the underlying cultural commentary of his previous appearance (Interesting Times) is mostly absent; it its place we have a lighthearted yet generous helping of cultural stereotypes. There are those who feel that any use of stereotypes is harmful, but it all depends on whether a stereotype is derogatory in any way, doesn’t it – yew bastard?

And of course, it isn’t a Discworld novel without Death, even if he only makes a token appearance. As he steps into his sentient library with his manservant Albert and requests more information on this curious land sometimes referred to as Terror Incognita, but known primarily as “XXXX”:

Death held out a hand. I WANT, he said, A BOOK ABOUT THE DANGEROUS CREATURES OF FOURECKS—

Albert looked up and dived for cover, receiving only a mild bruising because he had the foresight to curl into a ball.

After a while Death, his voice a little muffled, said: ALBERT, I WOULD BE SO GRATEFUL IF YOU COULD GIVE ME A HAND HERE.

Albert scrambled up and pulled at some of the huge volumes, finally dislodging enough of them to allow his master to clamber free.

HMMM… Death picked up a book at random and read the cover.

DANGEROUS MAMMALS, REPTILES, AMPHIBIANS, BIRDS, FISH, JELLYFISH, INSECTS, SPIDERS, CRUSTACEANS, GRASSES, TREES, MOSSES, AND LICHENS OF TERROR INCOGNITA, he read. His gaze moved down the spine. VOLUME 29C, he added. OH. PART THREE, I SEE.

He glanced up at the listening shelves. POSSIBLY IT WOULD BE SIMPLER IF I ASKED FOR A LIST OF THE HARMLESS CREATURES OF THE AFORESAID CONTINENT?

They waited.

IT WOULD APPEAR THAT—

“No, wait, master. Here it comes.”

Albert pointed to something white zigzagging lazily through the air. Finally Death reached up and caught the single sheet of paper.

He read it carefully, then turned it over briefly to see if there was anything written on the other side.

“May I?” said Albert. Death handed him the paper.

“‘Some of the sheep,'” Albert read aloud.

Often, the mark of a good writer is how many interests they have, the desire to investigate more than a narrow range of subject matter, and this novel underscores a broad sampling of history, folklore, dialect, and even geology – Pratchett includes a curious, subtle interpretation of causality as well. I had noticed an intriguing parallel between some of his new novels and interesting topics that had been featured in National Geographic somewhere around the time his books would have been written, but cannot say whether this is merely coincidence. Regardless, it gives an impression of how far Pratchett’s work departs from the idea of a typical fantasy novel, and contributes to his popularity as a novelist.

The Last Continent was first published in 1998, and falls roughly in the middle of the Discworld oeuvre. Unlike Durrell’s books, however, almost all of Pratchett’s will remain in print for years to come and will be easy to obtain. I won’t be so bold as to say that everyone will find them entertaining, but I’ve personally seen several people who had no interest in the genres end up pleasantly surprised when they checked out any particular tome, and the excellent BBC adaptation of Hogfather is a holiday staple around here despite The Girlfriend having no interest in fantasy or science fiction.

Of course, I have just recommended the best of the Discworld novels in an attempt to introduce even more people to them, which means those so affected are going to find the other novels incapable of matching the spirit of this one, so perhaps starting with any (or all) of the others first and building your way up to this one would be the wisest approach.* But whichever way you go about it, I’m confident that you can’t go wrong with The Last Continent, so if you haven’t had the chance yet, find yourself a copy before my legions of readers clear out all of those available, and you have to wait for the next printing. And while it’s a shame that Terry Pratchett is no longer among us to produce more novels, his collection is large enough to sustain his memory and everyone addicted to clever, dry, off-the-wall humor. Dedicate a shelf.

* I’ll be looking for my consideration from HarperCollins Publishers, Inc

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