You can’t go wrong with Pratchett: he never fails to offer up decent stories with a sparkle of wit, a smattering of engaging characters and a bucketload of humanity – in all its various forms and species!
And Raising Steam continues the pattern: here, Ankh-Morpork’s journey towards modernity is quite literally driven by the arrival of Dick Simnel and his new steam locomotive, Iron Girder. The timeline of the story is pretty lengthy: long enough to establish the railway from scratch, allow the scoundrel Moist Von Lipwig to negotiate numerous land rights (Coalition Government HS2, take notes please) and the railway to be built. The pace of the writing never lets up though as we follow Moist on various missions to further the railway with his goblin – sidekick seems too lowly – confederate? co-conspirator? – friend? – Of The Twilight The Darkness.
There is a secondary plot behind the drive to build the railway: Dwarvish fundamentalist grags rise up to attack the clacks towers (a Discworld equivalent of the Internet), the train and eventually overthrow their own King whilst he is abroad. The two plots then coincide as the train endeavours to return the King to his homeland as swiftly as possible over half finished tracks and impossibly weak bridges. Again, Moist Von Lipwig’s ingenuity and charm – unsurprisingly – succeed to return the King.
Moist is not my personal favourite character in the Discworld series: a little too arrogant, a little too smug; and a tad lacking in scoundrelliness personally. I find him to be a spin doctor rather than a cad or even a rogue. I like more rogue! Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great comic invention, just not my favourite as a protagonist.
However, there was a lovely counterpoint between Moist’s spin doctorishness and Dick Simnel: blunt, honest, disarming. Listening to this as an audiobook, the was a slightly northern slightly Yorkshire accent attributed to him which made him a little Wallace and Gromit which may not have been so apparent reading it. The moments with the press where Moist sees Dick pinned down by sly questioning and he rushes to intervene only to find that Dick was more than capable of both reading the subtext of the question, recognising the danger and turning it back on the questioner were lovely!
The main character here, however, is probably Iron Girder herself. The adoration that the people of Ankh-Morpork give her, the tinkering and polishing that Dick Simnel and his apprentices and goblins do to her and her constant upgradings give her a character of her own. Powered by what is referred to throughout as living steam, Iron Girder does become alive in Moist’s eyes to the point where he wonders what she thinks about Dick acquiring a girlfriend. An important question, really, as Iron Girder had previously defended herself from a saboteur dwarf by vaporising him with her steam!
As always with Pratchett, this book does question the whole idea of what life is and, fundamentally, celebrates life in all its forms.
A great, wry, hugely enjoyable read.