Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Raising Steam - A Discworld Novel

People will sometimes ask me who my favorite author is, what my favorite book is, or what my favorite type of book is.  Each time, I have to hold back the urge to immediately spit out "Terry Pratchett and his Discworld novels" because, well, partly I'm worried I'm going to come off as the true nerd that I try to hide behind a suave, debonair attitude belonging to someone who functions well in the real world and doesn't get excited by things like Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion making a series about actors who were in a short-lived science fiction series that gained a cult following and OH MY GOD I CAN'T WAIT.

Obviously, I do this poorly.

Also, while I do love Terry Pratchett's novels, they're remarkably difficult to explain to people without going "okay, take Lord of the Rings, take out the elves (mostly), add in things like vampires and werewolves and ancient barbarians and more wizards and witches and Death himself, and then mix in a lot of Monty Python-esque humor."

But that still doesn't really explain it.

So let's see if I can review his newest book Raising Steam, the fortieth (soon to be forty-one!) book in his series.

The problem with my description of the Discworld novels above is the fact that it leaves out the fact that Terry Pratchett is a pretty remarkable satirist.  Many topics you can think of wind up lampooned (many of them almost lovingly) under his pen.  Are you a fan of J.R.R. Tolkein?  We've already referenced his works, though you may not recognize the elves by the time they show up.  Conan the Barbarian?  You'll likely enjoy the adventures of Cohen the Barbarian.  Police procedural-style stories?  The entire novel Guards! Guards! should entertain you (in fact, many of the stories featuring the City Watch are police procedural stories with real mysteries threaded through them).  

The nation of Australia is held up to new light in The Last Continent.  China and Japan are inspected in Interesting Times.  The invention of the printing press and what a newspaper does to a city is explored in The Truth.  Movies are done up in Moving Pictures while youthful rebellion and rock and roll are portrayed in Soul Music.  Each book has its own story but also explores topics of every size, from the size of world religions (Small Gods) to women in the military (Monstrous Regiment).

Raising Steam takes a look at the fascination of steampunk-style stories and how trade, politics, and ideas about the world itself change when you introduce the idea of a railroad to a world that only things of wheels as "those wooden things on carts."  It does a fond send-up of the types of accents you usually find in a steampunk novel (that is, wonderfully British), but it never openly mocks its subjects without making those with small minds seem petty and foolish.  It even addresses some of the absolutely bananas fears that people had back when steam-powered locomotives started to pop up in the real world, such as the idea that cows would have all of their milk curdle, horses would keel over head in fright, and crops would be blighted, not to mention people would either be driven insane or just flat-out die from being exposed to speeds in excess of 20 miles per hour.

The book features Moist Von Lipwig (great name) as he helps the city of Ankh-Morpork contain and control the newest development to strike it (after having already helped revitalize the failing banks and post office of the city).  He's a natural schemer and salesman, but when he's tasked with making the railroads a real thing by a certain deadline, is he able to pull one more miracle out of (actual) thin air to make the trains run on time?

I don't feel this is as strong as many of Terry Pratchett's other books.  I do realize that, y'know, it's 40 books (almost 41!), so it's hard to have them all reach the pinnacle of James Joyce's Ulysses, but there were still moments while reading that I felt sorely tempted to flip forward a few pages and let my brain catch up with the new material.  I do feel that the fact I didn't do this out of fear I'd miss a clever joke or a surprise twist speaks well of his writing.

There are long stretches of the book that simply involve travelling on the train, sections that could be shortened to a couple of paragraphs instead of taking up pages of text.  Certain characters drift in and out of relevance, and a few other mysteries regarding some character motivations are never fully explained (though they can be assumed towards, if you're willing to believe you're as clever as Mr. Pratchett).

There are enough pockets of great writing to make me not regret reading it (to be fair, there are only a couple of his books that I've so far found myself willing to simply pass on a second, third, or fourth read through the series), but I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to his work overall.

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