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Review: Raising Steam
All aboard The Ankh-Morpork and Sto Plains Hygienic Railway for a journey into the Discworld’s future, via its past. Warning - this review contains footnotes...
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is one of the most fully realised fantasy worlds in literature.
As a work of consistent imagination, it remains a phenomenal achievement. Outside of the forty novels, and the hundreds of characters series enthusiasts have met in them, there exist books on the Disc’s science, and maps of the fictional locales which might (hopefully) thoroughly confuse future inhabitants of our Roundworld one day, once our civilisation is dead and gone. There are iPad apps, board games, films, chess sets, computer games1… - the point is, the Disc is a massive world which has been floating through space for the past thirty years upon the back of an equally massive metaworld of supporting literature and media. Raising Steam is a love letter to all of this - so grab a reasonably priced sausage-inna-bun (or a "le sausage-in-le-bun” if you’re travelling from Quirm) and enjoy a tour of the vast world and cast we’ve come to know and love, with a chuffing great plot thrown in for good measure.
The culture and economy of the Disc has been ticking over for so long that it might come as a surprise to even the most ardent fan that steam power wasn’t already present. But it wasn’t, until now. Young Dick Simnel harnesses its power to create his ever-evolving prototype engine Iron Girder and, like Carrot and countless other Discworld heroes before him, heads off to the big city of Ankh-Morpork to seek his fortune. There he approaches Harry King (of the Golden River) who knows a good thing when he smells it - particularly when that good thing smells of power and excitement rather than, well, urine. It’s not long before the Patrician sees fit to investigate how this new technology might be used for the greater good of the city, and also perhaps whether it might provide an alternative means of travel to the long, painfully bumpy and dangerous (for would-be highwaymen) carriage rides he is forced to undertake for diplomatic purposes.2
However there are darker things afoot. Pitch black things in fact, which are about three foot. Yes, certain elements within the deep-down dwarfish community aren’t happy with the march of progress and are stirring up acts of terrorism against first the clacks towers of the Grand Trunk and then the fledgling railway system. Enter our hero, Moist von Lipwig, who is tasked once again with making sense of chaos by means of his cunning and (first-hand) insight into the corrupt mind.
Raising Steam feels a much more expansive read than previous books in the series. Indeed, it can often feel like events are passing by at some speed as you hurtle along the narrative rails. There’s a sense that there’s no time for dawdling, with a greater degree of reported action than in stories such as Night Watch or Snuff, where the narrative feels almost to take place in realtime. Here, background detail - such as Moist’s to-ing and fro-ing as he attempts to negotiate the railway’s route with resistant landowners - quickly shifts out of view leaving room for slower explorations of political intrigues and cunning plans.
These shifts in speed allow Pratchett to pack in glimpses of far more characters than he might otherwise have been able - which will bring smiles of delight to fans. Lu-Tze, Rincewind, Ponder Stibbons, Nobby and Colon, Drumknott, William de Worde, Sam Vimes, The Low King and Diamond King of Trolls - they’re all there, if only for a moment. There's a real excitement in reading the book, wondering not only what will happen next but which old friend will pop up.
As with much of Pratchett’s more recent work, there are darker tones apparent for those who wish to look for them. There’s the dwarfs who are being torn apart by Ardent and his fundamentalist grags (who we previously met in Thud!) who violently resist the integrated society which many city dwarfs accept as the norm. Then, as in Snuff, there’s the continuing struggle of underclasses like the goblins and the clay-slaves, the golems, to be treated with respect and diginty. These topics are handled with a gentle, and genuine, compassion, but there’s still plenty of biting cynicism delivered not only in the obligatory footnotes3, but also through the words and actions of Lord Vetenari and our joyously conflicted anti-hero, Moist.
Trains might not evoke in everyone the excitement which they obviously do in Mr Pratchett. We have now come to a place in history where they are merely functional - part of our everyday lives, and an expensive and often frustrating part at that. Raising Steam makes the idea of this invention - the revolutionary nature of it, which is filled with ideas, hope and possibilities - truly thrilling, and in doing so revitalises the entire series in the same way that Dick Simnel’s Iron Girder does the Disc.
Read this book.
1. This reviewer is still hoping for a novel of Discworld Noir...
2. “Diplomacy” in this case being something which happens outside of Ankh-Morpork itself, and “by” the Patrician “to” other people.
3.This is a footnote. It’s not an entertaining one - and certainly not on par with any of those in the Discworld series, which could easily be published as a very entertaining book in their own right.4
4. Dear Pratchett publisher - PLEASE publish a book of Discworld footnotes. Thanks.
Dan Lewis, for Waterstones.com/blog
You can Reserve & Collect Raising Steam from your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/17dRaW1), buy it online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/1hiUS5i) or download it in ePub format (http://bit.ly/17dReVL)
Our booksellers recently reviewed all thirty-nine Discworld books - read about them here