Book Review: Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam

So the last few books I’ve read haven’t impressed me that much. And, sure, it can be fun to read books of questionable quality, kind of like a literary version of MST3K. But, as things go, one can only take so much schlock for so long before needing to come up for air.

Terry Pratchett to the rescue!

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So yeah, in case you don’t read ‘genre’ fiction (in which case– why are you reading this blog?), Terry Pratchett is one of the premiere satirists of modern day literature. It’s just that he writes a lot of books about dwarves and trolls and stuff. But even then, Pratchett uses the fantastical setting of Discworld to talk about modern society to great effect. His writing isn’t just funny– it’s at parts heartwarming, heartbreaking, and all around brilliant. There’s a reason he was knighted, after all.

Raising Steam is Pratchett’s penultimate novel, 40th(!) in the Discworld series. Thankfully, Pratchett never was one to get bogged down in continuity, so you don’t have to read the 39 books before it to know what the hell is going on. This said, it does help to read at least a few directly related books to get a feel for the major characters and what they’re doing. (Off the top of my head, I’d say Going Postal, Thud!, and Snuff are the big ones to be familiar with, though really it’s hard to go wrong with Pratchett in general).

The fun thing about Discworld is that, while it started as a general pastiche of fantasy tropes, Pratchett soon veered off and started doing his own thing, introducing modern(ish) technology like movies, the printing press, telegraphs (well, Semaphores, but still), and even Rock & Roll. And so, Ankh-Morpork, the central city of the setting, began to evolve into a kooky mirror of London, or any other major world city.

In Raising Steam, Pratchett brings trains to Discworld. A brilliant young inventor figures out how to harness the power of steam, and then it falls on Moist von Lipwig, a fast-talking con man who’s employed by the city (again, go read Going Postal) to organize it and shape the railway into something productive. It helps that Moist is my favorite Discworld character, so I was predisposed to like Raising Steam from the start.

Of course, things are never easy for poor Moist– for even as he’s working on the railroad, an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist faction of dwarves is rising up in opposition to anything that resembles ‘progress.’ Eventually, Moist has got to build a railway that stretches all the way across Discworld in order to put the rightful Low King back in power. Don’t let the vaguely dramatic synopsis fool you– this is still a Discworld novel, so it’s still going to be pretty whacky.

It’s funny– Raising Steam revolves around steam power, but it’s not at all steampunk. There are no gears on top hats or nods to an idealized British empire, even if a few characters probably wear goggles at some point (for entirely practical reasons). Instead, Raising Steam is more interested in the magic of actual technology– which is to say, trains. The steam locomotive had a huge impact on the course of history, and Pratchett leans full into that, covering everything from commuter suburbs to changes in the price of fish to the rise of trainspotting culture.

It’s not just about trains, either. Pratchett emphasizes the ‘melting pot’ nature of Ankh-Morpork at every turn, contrasting it with the fundamentalism of the grags– that faction of ultraconservative dwarves. Furthermore, Raising Steam heavily features goblins (who were introduced in Snuff, I believe) as a new immigrant community within Ankh-Morpork. And sure, they have some weird customs and smell a little funny (everyone smells funny in Ankh-Morpork), but they’re clever and hardworking and otherwise a boon to the city. Pratchett doesn’t belabor the point too heavily, but it’s definitely a message to take to heart in the reactionary and xenophobic times we live in. Pratchett died in 2015, before the Brexit vote, but there’s no question as to which side he would’ve supported.

All of this said, Raising Steam isn’t a perfect book. Quite simply, it takes a hundred pages or so to really build up steam (I will not apologize for that joke). Furthermore, there are a couple of passages, especially in the beginning of the book, that don’t quite have the same old Pratchett ‘zing’ that his best works do. In particular, some of the characterizations feel just slightly off. Lord Vetinari, Ank-Morpork’s Machiavellian (but exceedingly pragmatic) tyrant suffers from this in particular, as he’s given a couple of bits of dialogue that end in exclamation points … which goes completely against the cool, collected, and vaguely Christopher Lee-ish characterization he’s had over a couple dozen books or so.

Another of Rasing Steam‘s weaknesses, and really a weakness of a lot of Pratchett’s writing, is the lack of a good villain. At every turn, the grags are shown as bloodthirsty, callous, mean-spirited and short sighted … but hardly ever competent. This is entirely intentional, as Pratchett naturally has a low opinion of bigotry in any form. Still, whenever the grags come into conflict with Moist or any of the book’s other protagonists, they’re summarily trounced and humiliated without too much effort, which drains a little tension from the book. I think one of the reasons Discworld books rarely have great or memorable villains is that Pratchett lets his heroes get the kind of snarkiness and style that’s usually reserved for antagonists. I mean, shoot, Lord Vetinari could easily be the arch villain of a different series, so long as you filed the serial numbers off (and maybe made him a little less competent so he didn’t murder the heroes right off the bat).

Pratchett’s not at the top of his game in Raising Steam— but honestly, the worst I can say about it is that it’s not as good as the stuff he was writing at his peak (Thud! or Night Watch come to mind for examples of his best books, though I’m sure there are a bunch more I’m missing). It’s a little sad that it’s one of the last Pratchett novels … but on the other hand, there are still dozens of Pratchett’s works I haven’t read yet, so at least there’s that!

But yeah. If you’re a Discworld fan, Raising Steam is well worth a read. Of course, if you’re a Discworld fan, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that anyway.

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