Hello! It’s been a bit of a busy month for me – it was my first Christmas away from my family, my grandmother, who I was very close to, passed away, and I moved to Australia for a few months to do an internship. It’s been super hectic and I ended up wanting something that was both comforting and distracting. Enter Sir Terry Pratchett’s work, Raising Steam.
Fair warning, this review is going to assume you are familiar with Pratchett and his work.
I’d read about half of it before, but hadn’t finished it. If you’re not familiar with Pratchett, he wrote this incredible comedic fantasy series, Discworld. He started writing them in the 1980s and in 2007, announced he had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Raising Steam was published in 2013, the last book to be published before Pratchett passed away.
After his diagnosis, Pratchett’s writing underwent a fairly noticeable (to me, at least) change, and so the last five books he wrote are distinctly different than the rest of the series. (A major part of that, I think, was that he found himself unable to physically write and begin dictating instead.) The first time I tried to read Raising Steam and Unseen Academicals, I didn’t enjoy them, to be quite honest.* But I saw Raising Steam at the library and figured, since it was a Pratchett book – and you can still tell it’s a Pratchett book – and I hadn’t read it yet, escaping to the Discworld might be exactly what I wanted.
I ended up really enjoying Raising Steam, once I stopped expecting it to be a Discworld novel. With the progression of the Alzheimer’s and the dictation, Pratchett’s work became much less pithy and more exploratory of themes and messages. Dialogue took up a much greater percentage of the story than previously – characters now orated for nearly entire pages, whereas in previous books, speeches were limited to a short paragraph, perhaps two. There’s a distinct shift from presenting situations and observations to using the characters inner and outer monologues to explore morality, depth, and meaning. I don’t think his later books are necessarily deeper or more meaningful, nor are they less; they just approach things in a very different way.
Once I had that figured out, I approached Raising Steam as if it were a proper novel, instead of a wild romp that would somehow work itself out in the end (the usual method to approaching a Pratchett story) and it suddenly became much more enjoyable. The quality of the writing hadn’t diminished; it had just changed in unexpected ways.
The book follows Moist von Lipwig, one of my favorite Discworld characters, as he works with Dick Simnel, a young engineer who has invented a steam engine. In his normal madcap manner, Moist finds himself leading the charge to bring Ank-Morpork, and perhaps the world, into a new era. We see nearly the entire cast of Discworld, though some only for a page.
The character development is also unusual for a Discworld novel. Usually, Discworld characters develop through finding or fighting their destiny or purpose, becoming who they were meant to be for the former and who they chose to become, for the latter. Development is action focused and actions have immediate consequences. In RS, however, there’s a lot more focus on the morality and meaning of decisions than I’ve seen previously, especially for Moist. (Dick’s development is much more in line with classic Discworld characters.) One quibble: the characters weren’t as distinguishable as they normally are; the long speeches and and exploratory tone meant that many of the characters’ dialogues were extremely similar.
The plot was funny, and fast, but much less rompy and with far fewer threads to track and fit together. I felt like I had a clear idea of how everything fit together the entire time I was reading, which is not my expectation from Pratchett, at least not on the first read. It was also, as I said, less pithy. The humor wasn’t quick and snappy, but rather depended upon ridiculous (but completely believable) scenarios and the normal satire found there.
And now we get to the difficult part. I’m not sure how to recommend this book – it’s an excellent comedic fantasy, of course, and I recommend it to anyone who loves satire, humor, and/or fantasy. If you like Pratchett’s writing, you may like this – like I said, the writing is still good, just different. But it is missing what I consider to be that essential Pratchett-ness, that pithy humor and that sense of the reader simply being along for the ride. In conclusion, all I can say is that the first few pages of this book are representative of the rest of it, so read a few pages if you’re not sure. And it is amazing that Pratchett was able to put out a book that is still one of the best of the genre while in the grips of a terrible and debilitating disease.
*I felt like such an ass for even thinking this.