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Raising Steam (Discworld) by Terry Pratchett
Review by Drew Bittner
Doubleday Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780385538268
Date: 25 March 2014 List Price $26.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

When a wannabe engineer and master of steam named Dick Simnel creates the first working steam engine--and the first locomotive--that the Discworld has ever seen, the world sits up and takes notice.

Almost before Simnel can properly show off his pride and joy, the race is on to bring rails to every corner of the continent... and maybe stave off a catastrophic civil war at the same time.

Raising Steam is Terry Pratchett's 40th Discworld novel, an epic achievement by any standard, and it proudly measures up to the many that came before. In dealing with modernization, Pratchett examines the blinding speed with which change comes, the burdens it places on the few tasked with guiding this social and technological transformation, and the costs that go with the benefits.

As before, his man on the spot is Moist von Lipwig, who made the Bank, the Mint, and the Post Office more than just terribly bad jokes. Moist's peculiar blend of vision and avarice make him the perfect man for these kinds of jobs, as his scoundrel's eye can ferret out opportunities before other men have had their breakfast. When he finds Simnel, the young man has already teamed up with Sir Harry King, a self-made man whose empire is based on sewage. King, like Moist, has an eye for a good investment and, together with the patronage of Lord Vetinari (who seems comfortable with the title tyrant these days), they set out to revolutionize the world with steam.

Meanwhile, the dwarf clans of Uberwald are undergoing their own social revolutions. Reactionary dwarf traditionalists, known as grags, have taken their hatred and distrust of humans, trolls, and goblins to new heights; they are sabotaging the clacks towers that pass messages all over the Disc, they are intimidating (and sometimes even killing) dissidents among their ranks, and they are pressing toward insurrection against the Low King, Rhys Rhysson. A coup is brewing and along with it, a possible return of hostilities between dwarf and troll with calamity for all.

Back to the railroad. Moist's immediate problem is establishing a railroad line from Ankh-Morpork to Uberwald. Why? Vetinari won't say, but Moist has to get it done. No problem--except for little problems like impassable canyons, mountains, bandits, stubborn landowners, inadequate supplies, ambushes and competition from inept would-be train makers. On the other hand, Moist does have the alliance of the goblins (and especially Of the Twilight the Darkness, a most canny old goblin indeed) and a knack for doing the impossible.

He's really going to have to live up to his reputation on this one.

Pratchett has a knack of his own, one that disables the constructs of society with razor sharp wit, plus an unflinching eye for how things are really held together. Societies evolve over time, and so it is with the Discworld; it is now time for steam power and so it has appeared. There are many who are against it--the journalists of that world ask questions as inane and leading as our journalists do--but Simnel is presented as that kind of plain-spoken bloke who knows how to handle sharp guys...and trusts implicitly in his first creation, the locomotive Iron Girder, which seems to evolve slowly but steadily. Simnel respects the power of his technology and believes in its promise but is never so caught up that he misses either the big or little picture.

If Simnel understands the technology, Moist and Harry King understand people. They independently invent rail travel, replete with sleeper cars and food for sale and even toilet facilities, and branch out from there to invent depots, waiting areas, and even cultivating the nascent culture of trainspotters (one of whom is Vetinari's own secretary Drumknott).

Set an impossible task by his employer, Moist must resist his natural inclination to tinker and focus on one task: getting a rail line to Uberwald, for reasons unknown. Readers will know that Moist will find a way--it's in his very nature--but the hows and whys will likely surprise. He also evolves, in that he wants to spend time with his wife Adora Belle (aka Spike) rather than dicker over buying up land for the rail lines. Moist has grown more domesticated over time, a natural progression that feels entirely correct.

Rhys Rhysson is also a major character here, frustrated over the terrorism practiced by hotheads like the young Ardent and his faction, as well as over the fractious nature of dwarf society itself. "Two dwarfs equals three arguments," to paraphrase, and the Low King realizes how little control he exerts over his kinfolk. However, he has a very big announcement to make, at the right time, and in its own way, it will overturn the dwarf world as much as the railroad.

Replete with his usual cast of dozens, Pratchett once again delivers a rousing, enjoyable, laugh-out-loud and yet thoughtful story in the Discworld canon. There may come a time when he turns off his word processor and closes the door on these adventures, but let's hope it's not for a long while to come.


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