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It seems hard to believe that the Discworld series is now 40 books old. What's perhaps most surprising is that (with the odd dip here and there), the series is as strong now as it has ever been, and I'm happy to report that Raising Steam does not let the side down.
Steam trains have come to the Discworld thanks to engineer Dick Simnel and his creation Iron Girder. This brings great possibilities to the Discworld - faster travel, the ability to move large amounts of cargo and, of course, paying customers. However, some people - especially the Dark Dwarves - are not happy with anything that comes out of Ankh Morpork and are (literally) seeking to derail this new invention.
The hallmark of the Discworld series has always been Pratchett's ability to blend science fiction and silliness. In many ways, Raising Steam is a return to the old style Discworld books. The pages are littered with footnotes (at times perhaps a few too many), there is clever word play and plenty of clever gags along with some great characters. There were so many times when Raising Steam made me laugh that it was a damn good job that I read most of this book at home and not in public, otherwise I would have disgraced myself frequently.
It's not necessarily that Raising Steam is funny in the way that a good joke is funny; it's just that Pratchett has that rare ability to see the amusing, ironic or absurd in just about any situation. He then has the intelligence and talent to put it into words in a clever and amusing way. Along the way, he also tells a fun (if slightly bonkers) story.
As ever, the book covers pretty much every style of humour going. There are absurd situations, daft dialogue, outright jokes, amusing misunderstandings and lots of lots of in-references. Not all of them work, but the hit: miss ratio favours the former. It's littered with in-jokes and references to earlier books and these are real fun for the veteran Pratchett reader to spot. Sometimes it might just be the way he uses certain phrases; at other times it might be a particular line of dialogue, whilst there are a few explicit references to earlier books. This helps to give the overall impression that Raising Steam is simply another part of a larger, on-going story and this in turn helps to bring the Discworld to life.
Of course, this does bring certain difficulties for new readers. Raising Steam (understand) assumes that it is addressing an established readership. Newcomers might struggle to understand certain references or ideas. But that's perfectly understandable - this is book 40 in the series after all - so the author is entitled to make certain assumptions. That said, even if you've never read a Discworld book it's not so dependent on previous books that you won't find plenty to laugh out - you just won't get quite as much from it.
Perhaps most crucially of all, the book is littered with my favourite type of Pratchett humour. This is where he takes a fairly unassuming and unamusing situation or line of dialogue and makes it rib-ticklingly funny simply through his choice of words and phrasing. Pratchett has a real mastery of the English language and knows just the right way to phrase something to raise the maximum possible mirth. Other writers can make dialogue funny; Pratchett makes it sparkle.
There's no-one can create characters as odd, yet as human as Pratchett. It's not necessarily that they are particularly imaginative or do anything especially surprising. It's more the way they interact. Their inane (yet somehow apt) musings on life, their bickering, the way they manipulate each other and the way they spark off each other all somehow adds up to something wonderful. It's hard to define exactly what it is, but (to paraphrase Dick Simnel) Pratchett has the knowing of writing good characters.
If you were going to criticise it, you could argue that the central plot (an idea taking physical shape and becoming almost sentient) has been used before in the series (Soul Music, Moving Pictures). That would be a little churlish, though, and rather like accusing a murder-mystery writer of only ever writing books in which people kill other people. The fact is Pratchett is good at what he does. He has proved it time and time again and (as if he needed to) he proves it again with Raising Steam.
Raising Steam might not make it into my top 10 Discworld novels, but it would certainly be somewhere in the top 25. Many series get stale long before they reach book 40. There's no evidence that that's about to happen with Discworld.
The book costs around £9 (hardback) or £7.50 (Kindle)
(c) Copyright SWSt 2014
Published in 2013, Raising Steam is the latest novel in Terry Pratchett's famous and long-running Discworld series. With the publication of this book Pratchett is now up to 40 Discworld books, and that leaves out all the young adult books and collaborative works he has done over the years.
-- The Plot --
Set after the events of his last book, Snuff, Raising Steam introduces some old favourites and recent additions to the series. The action focuses on a new character, Dick Simnel. After his father died in an engineering accident when he was just a child Dick managed to get a proper education and work out where his father went wrong. Through his ability to work with advanced mathematical formulas and a talent for tinkering with anything mechanical, Dick manages to harness the power of steam and create a steam engine which he names Iron Girder.
Here enters some familiar characters. Dick takes Iron Girder to Ankh Morpork where he shows it off to Sir Harry King, who has made his fortune through waste disposal and recycling (Harry was first introduced in The Truth and featured in Making Money). With funds from Harry King, marketing help from Moist Von Lipwig (who was the main character in Going Postal and Making Money) and the reluctant blessing of Lord Ventinari, Dick Simnel creates a network of "metal rails" across the land outside Ankh Morpork, resulting in an increase in mobility for both people and goods.
At the same time the Low King of the Dwarves, Rhys Rhysson (who was first introduced in The Fifth Elephant and also featured in Thud) is facing problems while on a diplomatic mission away from his mountain. With the new railway expanding daily it soon becomes the quickest way to return Rhys home, but requires the assistance of Dick Simnel's engineers, Moist Von Lipwig's cunning and the brute force of Captain Vimes and his merry men.
-- The Bad --
Normally I would start with the good, but I feel the need to put this first. I'm sad to say that I really did not find this to be the best of Pratchett's work. Were it not for the fact that his battle with Alzheimer's has been well publicised, I'd wonder if he was losing his touch.
It certainly isn't as bad as Unseen Academicals, which I really struggled to enjoy even though it was about two things I love; football and Discworld. But it certainly isn't what I would normally expect from Pratchett. I'm not sure if it's because it's about something I don't have much interest in, I must be honest when I say that the development of railways and the whole history of the Industrial Revolution has never been an area I've paid any kind of attention to. Or perhaps it's because it focuses on too many characters. The last book, Snuff, was an excellent read and right up there with some of the best books that he's written featuring Sam Vimes as a main character. But Raising Steam has Dick Simnel, Harry King, Moist Von Lipwig and then Vimes and the Low King all mixed up together.
There's no particular hero for you to cheer for, no bit that makes you anxiously turn the next page, worried that you'll find something you really don't want to read. Naturally Pratchett has multiple aspects that normally keep you guessing, but unfortunately I had managed to guess most of how it ended (there were one or two surprises that I didn't foresee). On the one hand it's nice to be right, on the other hand it's also nice to be surprised.
It's difficult to get a sense of time in the book as well. The railway seems to spread across the Plains with ease, is it taking weeks or months? Likewise the changes in Moist Von Lipwig's domestic arrangements puzzled me, he's now married and living in a very grand house with plenty of servants, but how much time has passed between Making Money and Snuff, or Snuff and Raising Steam? Am I looking at one year later, or five years later?
-- The Good --
Despite what I said about there being too many main characters, it is nice to see the old favourites back. Sam Vimes is a great character and he's accompanied by some of his well-known officers. Likewise it's good to see that Moist Von Lipwig did get a happy ending but is still a scoundrel at heart, as he so often tells people. It's also nice to see the development of the tentative peace that was created between dwarves and trolls after Thud, and the way goblins have carved out a niche for themselves after Snuff.
There were still little comments made in the text that made me laugh out loud, and a few that I had to read out to my boyfriend because I found them so funny. They are some of the best bits about Pratchett's books and it's nice to see that they're still included from time to time, even if the Alzheimer's is starting to have an effect it still means that there's that spark of humour still there.
Most importantly though the best part of this book is the message that it conveys. The problems in dwarf society are caused by one key faction, which rejects the Koom Valley Accord announcing peace between dwarves and trolls. This faction consists of "Grags", dwarves who have studied the histories closely over the years and give advice on what it means to be a dwarf, how to bury your dead and perform marriage ceremonies and the like. The Grags dislike the changes, they believe that those who go along with them are not really dwarves, and they try desperately to cling on to their old authority by sowing the seeds of discontent and misunderstanding. Those who oppose them believe that it's time to make peace with ancient enemies and move together towards a better future together, where all species can work together in harmony and create a better world for their children and grandchildren.
Through this book Pratchett shows that the biggest problem is those who argue against change. Things are going to change sooner or later, why make yourself look an idiot by arguing against it? After years of being mistreated and abused, goblins have taken a rightful place in the Discworld and are proving to be an asset in many ways. In lands where dwarves and humans have always lived and worked side by side, relationships between both are being openly acknowledged. Even though the Grags argue that any dwarf who befriends a troll is not really a dwarf, there are streets in Ankh Morpork where the two species live harmoniously. Given all the debates and controversies there have been in recent years about gay rights, feminism, multiculturalism, religion etc etc, it's not hard to see what Pratchett is trying to say about the world we currently live in. If this is the last message of a man fighting a long-term incurable illness, then it's a very powerful one.
-- Overall --
If you are a fan of Pratchett's work then you should read this book. It may not be his best work, but it's still a decent read and is worth the time you put in to it. If you are new to the Discworld then this is not the book to start with, it makes a lot of assumptions on how much you know and you're likely to get a bit confused. Go back a few books and start there, then work your way forwards.
The one I bought is the hardcover version, because I've bought several of these in hardcover recently and so this makes a nice addition to my bookcase. But if you're not a "serious" book buyer then you might as well save yourself a few pounds and get the paperback version, if I'd spent the full £20 on this (I got it cheaper off Amazon) then I'd feel a tad disappointed. Go in to it with open eyes, don't expect too much from it, and you'll probably enjoy it more than I did.
Judging by the ending I think Pratchett may have another book or two up his sleeve, how good they will be though is something only time will be able to tell us.