Sir Terry Pratchett died last week. My household is beyond sad, as he was a favorite author and meeting him was a family treat that we’ll never forget. His Discworld series, of which this is the most recent (number 40!), is one of the richest, funniest, worthwhile fantasy worlds ever created.
I bought Raising Steam for my partner’s birthday last year; he was putting off reading it, in case it was the inadvertent end of the series. (Sir Terry was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease a little more than seven years ago, and we knew he might not be able to complete another novel.) So he was saving this book, and I waited almost a year before deciding to go ahead and read it before he did (something that has NEVER HAPPENED with a Discworld novel). I’m glad to return to the series after a couple of years (the book before this, Snuff, was published in 2011 and we read it almost immediately), and I’m really glad that I finished it before Sir Terry passed away. It was still a little sad, as all things Pratchett have been since he announced “the embuggerance,” but mostly I just laughed and cried over the story itself.
As a big fan of steam locomotives, I was thrilled to have them introduced to the Discworld. In previous books, Pratchett has pursued a theme of modernizing the world (“dragging it kicking and screaming into the Century of the Fruit Bat”), both in terms of technology and attitudes, with lots of insightful commentary applicable to our own world. In this case, the question arises whether this is technology people are really equipped to handle, whether the convenience outweighs the dangers, as well as the recurring question of whether the changes wrought by technological advances are really “improvements” in every sense.
But wonderful as these themes are, they aren’t what makes the book so amazing. It’s the way the themes are carried out — wonderful, complex characters at the center of the story, interacting with characters who seem like stereotypes and then, suddenly, aren’t. And through it all, humor — wit, both high and low, ranging from laugh-out-loud funny to wry, reflective, “yes, life IS like that, isn’t it” chuckles. Favorite recurring characters include Commander Sam Vimes of the City Watch and some of his watchpersons, Lord Ventinari (the Patrician of the city), Sir Harry King of the sewage rubbish empire, and Moist Von Lipwig, the former con-man turned civil servant who has already salvaged the postal service and the royal bank in previous books. New characters include the inventor of the steam locomotive, Dick Simnel, and King’s niece, Emily, who provide the romance subplot of the novel.
The story is about how Dick, having figured out how to build the trains, comes to the city of Ankh-Morpork, hoping to build his engine. He gets backing from King and they work to build the first railway. Moist is appointed as the government representative in the development, and the process meets various obstacles, including saboteurs and safety concerns. Dwarvish fundamentalists are at the root of many of these problems, and the train ends up being the only way to thwart their attempted coup. During all of that, there’s a lot more going on, including everyone falling under the mystical spell of train travel.
If you’ve read Pratchett, you’ll understand why I can’t do the book justice in a review. Cory Doctorow did a better job when the book was first released; his review is here. I tried to write more than this, but I just ended up a)crying and b)rereading, so this will have to do.
If you haven’t read Pratchett, you shouldn’t start with this book anyway. You can see a chart of the first 37 books (through 2009) and how they relate here ; the orange code for “starter novel” suggests possible beginnings. The Wee Free Men is also a great place to start, if you enjoy Young Adult fiction.