The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday, £16.99, 261 pages, hardback. Published 1998.)
What needs to be said about a new book from Terry Pratchett? To those who are already keen fans, all you need to say is, "It's out, it's Discworld and it's Rincewind," and that's enough. For potential readers who have never delved into either Discworld or Pratchett, all one can say is, "It's great, come on in, but don't start here!" as that would be like coming into a very long film halfway through. There are definitely better ways to start reading Pratchett, in the same way as there are much superior Pratchett books to read than this new one, which falls below his normal very high standard on several counts, all revolving around the central character of Rincewind, the incompetent wizard.
Discworld books can generally be divided into four 'series' (though the majority of the books are pretty much free-standing articles, with only two or three exceptions). Of those, my personal preference is first of all for the Guards books (Guards! Guards!, Feet of Clay, Jingo, etc), because of their more complex plots and better rounded nature. Then comes the Death (Mort, Reaper Man, Soul Music, etc) and the Granny Weatherwax books (Wyrd Sisters, Lords and Ladies, etc), complete with a cast of superb characters far more original than they first appear. Well down the line come the Rincewind books (The Colour of Magic, Sourcery, Interesting Times, etc), primarily because with Rincewind Pratchett reverts much too much to the pattern of the first Discworld books. These were essentially parodies of established fantasy cliches, and tended to be very episodic, a situation largely predicated by Rincewind being a cowardly character whose instinct when trouble looms is to run like hell. Things happen to Rincewind, and to a large extent he is the victim of circumstance. He's almost an anti-hero in the sense that he has little or no control over his life - things just happen to him.
This is just as true of The Last Continent as it has been of the previous books. This one could be subtitled "Pratchett spoofs Australia", and he does it very well, as Rincewind is chased all over scenery closely resembling the Australian Outback. Pratchett throws in some delightful rip-offs of just about every big Australian film you can think of, from Mad Max to Crocodile Dundee to Priscilla Queen of the Desert and it is all great fun. But it doesn't hang together as a plot, as an unfolding story, in quite the way that Jingo does, for a recent example. Fortunately, Pratchett does throw in a wonderful sidebar adventure involving a group of wizards from the Unseen University stranded on a South Sea island inhabited by a God of Evolution, which is simply rib-crackingly funny and worth the price of admission even without Rincewind's adventures. Here, even the much-put-upon Bursar finally gets a chance to shine, excessive intake of frog pills and all.
So, it's all great fun and there are plenty of occasions where chuckles grow into outright belly laughs. It's Pratchett, it's Discworld and it is worth buying. The only question The Last Continent leaves in my mind is whether the man himself hasn't outgrown the need for Rincewind, his most limiting character. It would be a shame if pressure from ardent fans kept Terry producing further Rincewind adventures with diminishing returns.
Oh, and no need to fret that TP's new hardback publisher Doubleday might have messed up the traditional Discworld cover arrangement. Josh Kirby's artwork is still there and, dare I say it, the cover actually looks a bit better than the last few Gollancz efforts. No worries.
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© John D Owen 20 June 1998