Book Review: Raising Steam – Terry Pratchett

Raising Steam

Okay.

Confession time.

I haven’t – believe it or not – read many books about trains. I wasn’t a fan of Thomas the Tank Engine as a child (I know you’re outraged, but please bear with me, I do in fact have a point, which I am aware is somewhat uncharacteristic, but is, nonetheless, true), and when I had to study the influence of the railway in regards to the growth of the Woollen Industry – studying History at school was exactly as fun as it sounds – doing so was far more of a chore than a pleasure.

However.

Roughly ten pages into Raising Steam, I realised that I was reading one of the best books I’ve had the fortune to come across in quite some time. I love it, and I loved reading it (always a benefit when the ‘it’ in question is a book). In fact, I loved reading it so much that I actually made myself slow down when I reached the halfway point, so that I could spend more time reading it.

(Yes, I am a semi-independent, functioning adult. Yes, I forget that when I become immersed in a particularly good book and subsequently have to face the void that comes at the end of it)

So, why did I like it so much? Well, surprise surprise, Raising Steam isn’t really about trains. They feature heavily in the story, but so do the city of Ankh-Morpork, the always-fantastic Adora Belle Dearheart, and the sliding rule, to name but a few. Really – or, at least, from my perspective, a perspective I am sure that you all wish you had all-hours access to – Raising Steam isn’t really about trains, or industry, but the associated themes of progress, change, and invention, and, more importantly, because this is, of course, a Pratchett novel, the people dragged into the fray (in Moist von Lipwig’s case, quite literally).

 

Plot:

In Raising Steam, an enterprising sort of fellow named Dick Simnel comes to Ankh-Morpork with a few bright ideas, a flat cap, and a working steam engine. There, he intends to make his fortune, and after partnering with Harry King, employing a novelty – a truthful, dependable lawyer – and finding Moist von Lipwig at his disposal, it seems clear that he’s going to succeed. But this is Ankh-Morpork, and the wonderful citizens of that equally wonderful city, whether they be human, dwarf, goblin or troll, are not quite sure that that’s what they want. What follows is a fast-paced, clever story of invention, intrigue, and many other things beginning with the other similarly interesting letters of the alphabet, and it’s a story that I cannot recommend too highly.

Raising Steam is rollicking and fast-paced, wildly clever and wildly entertaining, and the speed with which it moves is, arguably – hello, yes, I studied English at uni – reminiscent of the movement of a train itself. Like a train, the narrative starts slowly and gradually increases speed, and like a train, the narrative has a destination that is neither rendered unimportant nor forgotten despite multiple stops made on the way (unless you’re having a really bad day).

Raising Steam is a novel blessed with both a main, over-arching plot and a number of side-plots that complement each other wonderfully without becoming over-complicated, inaccessible, and frankly rather ridiculous (yes, I am aware of the irony of claiming something might be ridiculous when I run a blog that is nothing if not the very definition of the word). It begins as a story of the origin of the railway and associated inventions in Discworld, another step forwards in the often-dangerous name of progress – and Vetinari, of course, because this is Ankh-Morpork, and with all due respect a benevolent tyrant is still a tyrant – and becomes an important side-note in the political movements of the Low King and a feather in Moist von Lipwig’s probably rather shiny hat, to, again, name but a few, and even involves a goblin or twenty, who apparently enjoy showing wannabe clacks-wreckers the error of their ways.

As I’m pretty sure I’ve said already – and at length, but I don’t intend to apologise – I love it. Everything just works. The pace, the jokes, the dialogue, the characters – everything. Raising Steam is a masterful, wonderful creation, and an absolute asset to any bookshelf.

Characters:

Naturally, as soon as I saw that Moist von Lipwig would be making his glorious return in Raising Steam, I was hooked. I would have purchased the book anyway – a Pratchett book is not to be ignored, and woe betide you who make the attempt – but that name ensured that I was extremely interested in discovering when I might get my greedy little hands on it. Moist von Lipwig remains one of my favourite characters in the renowned Discworld series – though, notably, I dislike none of them, which is something of a first for me, as I tend to react badly to at least one or two characters in every book I read, it’s practically habit by now – and he brings a special note to this special book. He’s funny, clever, and as wonderful as ever – yes, I am extremely proud of that – and, undoubtedly an asset to an already excellent story. Furthermore, his frequent interactions with Vetinari, a constant across many of Pratchett’s books provide a regular source of entertainment.

In other words: yes. I’d buy the t-shirt. Probably also the bookmark. Definitely the mug.

Aside from Moist – apparently, I am now mature enough to acknowledge that there are other characters – I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of the goblins. Ankh-Morpork is a diverse, equal-opportunities city that allows anyone and everyone to make their fortune – it’s difficult to forget Dibbler and his notorious sausages – yet the goblins run into difficulties, simply because they’re goblins, and as such not like everyone else. It seems obvious to me that such moments naturally bring to mind ‘real life’ problems of diversity and the treatment of relative minorities, even within societies widely considered to be ‘progressive,’ and is not, in Raising Steam, simply evidence of an author attempting to reach a wider audience by acknowledging wider issues, but is, rather, relevant to the plot in entirety, given the aforementioned themes of change and progress.

(In the absence of essays to write, I do of course turn to my blog, and, of course, you, my lovely captive audience).

Final thoughts:

This review is too long already – I’m becoming self-aware, I hope you’re proud – so I’ll keep it brief. Raising Steam is, ultimately, a good book in a series of good books. It may not be part of the canon, and it’s probably not going to turn up on the syllabus, but, all things being equal (yes, I took English and Philosophy), it should. It has a strong, interesting plot, multiple connected side-plots, wonderfully varied, entertaining characters, and a vampire or two that have chosen coffee over blood.

Nonetheless.

I could stand (sit) here all day listing reasons as to why you should read (and love) it, and maybe (probably), it won’t make even the slightest difference. The decision is, in the end, yours. But if you want that decision to be a good one – of course you do – then I suggest that you read Raising Steam at the earliest opportunity.

You might just surprise yourself.

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