I need to declare an interest. Having heard Equal Rites on Women’s Hour as a serialised book in 1986 and howled aloud with laughter at this different, madcap story, I was hooked on Pratchett’s Discworld and have been ever since. Catch my review of Unseen Academicals here.
Moist von Lipwig is not a man who enjoys hard work. As master of the Post Office, the Mint and the Royal Bank his input is, of course, vital… but largely dependent on words, which are fortunately not very heavy and don’t always need greasing. However, he does enjoy being alive, which makes a new job offer from Vetinari hard to refuse.
Steam is rising over Discworld, driven by Mr Simnel, the man wi’t’flat cap and sliding rule who has an interesting arrangement with the sine and cosine. Moist will have to grapple with gallons of grease, goblins, a fat controller with a history of throwing employees down the stairs and some very angry dwarfs if he’s going to stop it all going off the rails…
We have met Moist before – a conman and chancer, who has been forced to become respectable and productive for Ankh-Morpork by the Patrician, Vetinari, and the love of Adora Belle Dearheart, clackswoman extraordinaire. In Raising Steam, Moist is once more pitchforked into the middle of yet another leap forward in Discworld’s headlong plunge into industrialisation, by being the main fixer of Sir Harry King’s new railway company.
For Discworld fans, there is much in this book that is as cosily familiar as your favourite pair of slippers – the footnoted info-jokes; the frequent viewpoint changes, interspersed by long passages in omniscient viewpoint; the cast of characters – apart from Dick Simnel, grease-covered, engineering genius – the cast list is also familiar, as we have come across them all before. Including the major villain of the piece…
The pace of this story is initially leisurely – if you are looking for a tension-filled story that packs a wallop and doesn’t let up from the moment you open the first page, this isn’t it. What you do get during the first third of the book, is a thorough immersion into Discworld politics, philosophy and a good slice of the backstory leading up to how and why trains are so widely and delightedly embraced by Discworld inhabitants. As a result, this, the fortieth in the series, would also be a reasonably good starting point for someone not yet conversant with Pratchett’s universe.
However, when the story does pick up momentum and we find that a number of dwarfs are seriously unhappy with the advent of steam trains – and prepared to do more than just complain about it – there are the usual thrills and spills. Is there any sudden and fresh new angle/treatment/theme running through Raising Steam that Discworld fans haven’t already seen in the other novels? Nope. Just more of the same. And that’s fine with me – I’ll take that. No one else has constructed a world quite like this, where the self-deprecating, Woodhouse-type humour belies a breadth and richness of observation and commentary on our current world and its obsessions. Is this Pratchett at his best? No – but that still makes it an enjoyable, entertaining novel. And sometime soon, I will be rereading the whole forty books. Not because I ought to – but because I know that revisiting the Discworld again will provide me with a lot of laughs, food for thought and some genuinely moving moments. And I get to read Small Gods again, this time in the correct sequence… which is my personal favourite. Raising Steam is a worthy addition to this groundbreaking, outstanding series – and one of the very, very few that I know I will one day pick up and read again.