Review: Raising Steam is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld at its satirical best

When the The Shepherd’s Crown hit shelves last week, it was a bittersweet moment for fans of Sir Terry Prachett’s Discworld series. On the one hand, they were receiving another story set in Pratchett’s unique universe, yet on the other, it was to be the last time they would be given the chance to venture there, following Prachett’s death earlier this year.

Sadly, after over 30 years and more than 40 entries in the Discworld canon, it’s time to say goodbye to Pratchett’s whimsical world and its wryly funny, disarmingly human stories. By all accounts, The Shepherd’s Crown is at least a fitting finale to the series, but I wouldn’t know – as a (relatively) new site, I wasn’t lucky enough to receive an advanced copy to review!

So instead, I thought I’d celebrate the end of the Discworld series by taking a look back at its penultimate instalment, Raising Steam, a witty satire of progress, fundamentalism, and gender politics.

Raising Steam introduces us to young engineer Dick Simnel and his invention, Iron Girder, Discworld’s very first steam-powered locomotive. Dick brings Iron Girder to the city of Ankh-Morpork, where he soon gains the patronage of wealthy sanitation mogul Sir Harry King, who sees bankrolling a railway as a fast track to high society.

As public interest in Iron Girder and the railway reaches fever pitch, Ankh-Morpork’s benign despot Lord Vetinari appoints conman turned civil servant Moist von Lipwig to manage the government’s interest in the railway. Dick, Harry and – most of all – Moist soon find themselves contending with mounting concerns over Iron Girder’s safety, as well as a dangerous sect of dwarfs hellbent on destroying the railway as a means of furthering their own political agenda.

Now, if this all sounds a bit daunting to Discworld newbies, it isn’t; as with all of Pratchett’s novels, Raising Steam is surprisingly accessible. I’m only a casual (if enthusiastic) fan of the series myself, but Pratchett does such a good job of providing all the necessary information newcomers need that by the first few chapters I was up to speed and fully immersed in his world.

And what a world it is. 30 years of worldbuilding has allowed Pratchett to write about the Discworld universe as if it were a real place, and – taken on its own delightfully off-beat terms – it feels just as concrete as anything created by Tolkien or other “serious” fantasy scribes.

Better still, Pratchett had a real knack for populating his world with memorable characters we want to spend time with, and Raising Steam is fine example of this. Loveable rake Moist von Lipwig, earnest Dick Simnel, rough diamond Sir Harry King and suave yet deadly Lord Vetinari are an entertaining bunch. So is the rest of the supporting cast, including Moist’s feisty wife Adora Belle and her goblin servant Of The Twilight The Darkness.

Just as impressive as Pratchett’s talent for dreaming up characters was his skill at balancing a rollicking narrative with social commentary and spot-on satire of modern issues.

Pratchett was one of the grand masters of that old style of English humour, capable of traversing highbrow and lowbrow comedic landscape alike, and he is surely the author of some of the greatest footnotes in literary history. Raising Steam offers more than laughs, however. There are also plenty of thrills throughout the narrative, including a heart-thumping train top battle royale, all of which illustrate just how accomplished Pratchett is at crafting action sequences.

But what really elevates the story from amusing yarn into something more (not that there’s anything wrong with a simple amusing yarn) is the social commentary I mentioned earlier. Most of the Discworld novels deal with “real issues”, and if Raising Steam can be said to have a unifying theme, it would be progress.

This idea of progress (and people’s reaction to it) takes many shapes throughout the novel but is most obviously represented by Iron Girder herself. In a world without quick and economical transportation, the advancement of steam technology to the point where this is possible allows Pratchett to explore the excitement, fear, and bitterness that any game-changing technology can bring. Then there’s the progress of changing social norms. Raising Steam links attempts to address inequality in society and the workplace with the type of freedom and forward movement provided by the locomotive.

You can see it in the issues facing the newly empowered goblins, and in Moist’s endearing attempts to improve conditions of the oblivious golems. But most importantly, it’s apparent in the role and opportunity of women in a society, which is exemplified through the portrayal of women in dwarfish culture. Depicted as a people struggling between the old ways and the new, Pratchett’s dwarfs are so repressive to women that gender itself is something kept hidden in their community.

Ultimately, Pratchett’s message in Raising Steam is simple: progress has its ups and downs, but stagnation benefits no one.

If you’re eager to dive into Discworld and you’re not sure where to start, you could do a lot worse than Raising Steam. Like Pratchett’s best work, it’ll make you laugh and think in equal measure, and stands as a testament to the uncommon (and sorely missed) storytelling talents of its author.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favourite Discworld novel? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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