Friday, November 15, 2013

REVIEW - Raising Steam by Sir Terry Pratchett

Ah, 40 Discworld novels. 35 for adults, 5 for younger readers, and over a dozen tie-in and supplementary books. It's hard not to see Discworld as being one of the core pillars of contemporary British fantasy, and indeed it's been published for 30 years now - longer than I've been around. It's definitely a big thing, and rightly so, yet with a series so long, it's only natural that some books would be weaker than others.

Raising Steam is the third Most von Lipwig novel, and takes its place as more a sequel to the City Watch novels (particularly Thud! and Snuff) as opposed to following on from Going Postal and Making Money. Moist's life is, again, becoming too safe. His marriage to Adora Belle Dearheart is pleasant, and both the Post Office and the Bank (and the Mint, by extension) are doing well, leaving Moist devoid of danger and instead a stack of paperwork. That is until a plucky young man finishes his father's work and brings the steam locomotive to Ankh-Morpork, instantly changing the future and the prospects of the world. And that brings me on to my thoughts, and I'm totally not going to start this off with an animated image that's meant to represent what I thought of it...

Oh, yes, actually I am.

Oh, boy, where to start with this novel. I'll confess I've never been particularly keen on Moist, but I found myself okay with him in this novel, yet I wonder if that's more because he didn't really seem the same. Indeed, that's a statement that can be applied to many characters in this book. It's happened before in previous books where characters seem a little different, but never before have I read a Discworld book where the main characters seem so changed. Adora Belle was almost unrecognisable, with her manner of speaking changing out of nowhere. Other well-established characters make appearances, and again, they don't feel quite like they did in earlier books. Whilst Moist was arguably improved, with other characters I just felt like I was reading about... well, other characters.

In terms of the plot, it wasn't particularly deep nor interesting. It felt like a rehash of plots we'd seen before, with additional time-jumps and an extended and extremely anti-climactic finale. The book seems to take place over the course of roughly a year (which is much too short for the events in it, of course), yet this time scale is barely communicated at all. There's also a few plot diversions that seem to be vaguely explained at the time but as the book goes on, you wonder if there was actually a point to them. At times it seemed like it was going to expand on certain things, but then forgot to. Characters seem to jump about the place, appearing where you thought they couldn't and out of the blue, and I was left wondering what was happening on more than one occasion.

I tend to find that the Discworld books are relatively inoffensive, yet Raising Steam came close to Raising Vexation in me a few times. The language used was occasionally problematic, but the way some characters were described made me a little uncomfortable. To start with, there's a word that creeps in twice, a pejorative term with links to travelling ethnic groups, and both times its use is completely avoidable, and for emphasis I've underlined it.
"And Harry was a good employer, but also not today, because today his stomach was giving him gyp by means of the halibut to which the phrase long time no see could not happily be applied" (p.27)

" 'I surely do, Mister Lipwig! I believe in the sliding rule, the cosine and the tangent and even when the quaderatics give me gyp, yes, I still believe' "(p.339)
Some would argue the pejorative meaning of 'gyp', if you replace it with 'trouble' then you have the same effect without using a potentially loaded term. I found it unusual to find in a Discworld novel, let alone twice. The issue with language doesn't end there, with such words as 'sissy' finding their way in.
"...but it must also not be so gentle as to imply that either the giver or the receiver is a sissy." (p.359)
This particular word seems entirely out of place and indeed against the flow of various aspects of the novel, although it must perhaps be noted that sexuality is never really something that seems to be touched upon in Discworld (unless it's the male gaze).

Oh, yeah. Strangely for a Discworld novel, we're almost entirely free of references to bosoms (there's one possible joke and a breastplate reference), yet we're told something from Moist's viewpoint and it is, as far as I could tell, the only single comment of its kind, and it caused me to set my teeth a little.
"... and Captain Angua, try as she might, looked stunning in her uniform, especially when she was angry" (p.179)
Of course, you might accuse me of being over-sensitive, but add into this moments where a member of the City Watch refers to dwarfs as "lawn ornaments" (p.284) and it feels as if the book is just riddled with unnecessary comments and even potentially xenophobic and racist implications. That's not to say the book is in itself racist or any of these things, but there are a lot of parallels that could be made, and when one considers the progression of Discworld (increasing equality for the races, the recent inclusion of goblins, female dwarfs, etc.), it seems like such comments and outbursts go against a lot of what Discworld is actually good at doing. 

Is it all bad? No, not at all. But it certainly doesn't stand out as one of the strongest Discworld books, with its sudden change in tone for numerous characters and its weak plot, not to mention its somewhat dull closing scene which leaves the impression we're in for yet another novel of this style. Whilst I laughed a few times, I had to push myself for too much of this book, and I can't say I particularly enjoyed most of it. Some of the details were brilliant, but for the most part, I didn't find this that entertaining. The few moments of Pratchett's trademark wit and wisdom were buried in a relatively mediocre story, and conflicted with his own use of certain words.

I'm sure some people will love Raising Steam. I'm sure some people will call me a heretic or something less pleasant for this review. Fine. I'll admit I'm not exactly one to love every Discworld novel, and I can dwell on the negatives more often than the positives. Hardcore Discworld fans might not appreciate the reiteration of facts, new or less-experienced Discworld readers will perhaps be left confused as this book relies somewhat heavily on the stories of Thud! and Snuff, and everyone in between will probably be okay with it. But this is not the strongest outing in Discworld - maybe not the worst, either - and I struggle to find anything overwhelmingly positive about it. Do I recommend it? If you're a Discworld fan, yes. If not? No, I can't. There's so many better Discworld books, in terms of quality and reader friendliness. Raising Steam is, if nothing else, a disappointing read, although I shall certainly not abandon the Discworld franchise.


  1. Hi Kathryn. Interesting review. However, you might like to know that the word you seem to have taken ofence at -- gyp -- has absolutely nothing to do with travelling people, and is in no way perjorative. It's simply a British informal / dialect word for pain or discomfort. See for instance: (or any English -- that is, English English -- dictionary).

    Cheers, Simon