Book Review: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

I am, as I’ve said a few times, a shameless Terry Pratchett fangirl. If it wasn’t so damn difficult to procure the goats and such a hassle to clean up the blood afterwards, I’d have an altar to him in the living room. I make do with his books instead.

That said, I find myself hoping that Raising Steam is one of Sir Pterry’s intermittent duds – because the alternative is that his embuggerance is eating his storytelling ability. Not that this stops Raising Steam from being head and shoulders about almost everything else out there. It’s just that Sir Pterry is usually head, shoulders and torso above everything else.

It’s a Moist von Lipwig book, which means lots of Vetinari (good), cameos by various members of the Watch (also good), Commander Vimes being badass in the nicest possible way. It helps a lot if you’ve read Thud! Also The Fifth Elephant. Those two books are probably the ones Raising Steam is the spiritual sequel of, although there’s a fair amount of the book that draws on key events in the previous Ankh-Morpork novels. It probably stands alone – I can’t be sure for the simple reason that I’ve read all the others – but it’s a lot richer when you have read the others, particularly the later ten or so. Roughly.

The problem I had is that while all the usual elements of a Pterry book are there, for the first half of the book everything seems just a little out of focus, as though he didn’t quite have the characters and voice in place. Somewhere about halfway through, everything clicks into place and Raising Steam becomes impossible to put down and the story is suddenly compelling.

As always with Pterry what the book is about isn’t what the book is about. In Raising Steam it’s on the surface about steam engines – particularly trains – Discworld style. Underneath is all about questions of who has power and who should have power. Dwarf schisms factor in heavily as does the Low King of Uberwald and matters of Dwarf sex, particularly the question of whether or not the other dwarf is male or female. Inevitably Lord Vetinari’s perspective wins because Lord Vetinari is the ultimate scary-competent benevolent (mostly) dictator – but the question of whether he’s correct still lingers.

In a lot of ways Pterry’s political points are rather more overt than usual, often – particularly with the deep dwarfs – edging into clumsiness. He never stoops to the “this is the Message and you will respect it” bullshit, but there’s still a bit too much hammering the point home for my liking – although I doubt the politically correct sorts will see what’s being said (they wouldn’t like it. At all).

All told, I’d rank this one somewhere at the bottom of the Pterry scale – which is a solid 4-5 star rating with lots of food for thought after you’ve finished the book. And I really hope Sir Pterry just had a dud this time around.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

  1. Don’t tell me, let me guess. Everyone is working on their taxes, right? You have my sympathy. Mine are done. Of course, for the first time ever, I filed electronically. But that heartbreak or heartbeat or whatever the heck virus . . . it won’t affect the IRS, right? Right?

    1. *channeling IRS spokescritter* No worries. Your data are perfectly safe with the IRS. Really. Trust us. We’re professionals.

      1. It’s not like they’ll broadcast your campaign contributions to the world, or anything like that, after all.

        On Fri, Apr 11, 2014 at 7:59 AM, madgeniusclub wrote:

        > TXRed commented: “*channeling IRS spokescritter* No worries. Your data > are perfectly safe with the IRS. Really. Trust us. We’re professionals.” >

        1. No, they just “accidentally” leak it to the media, who take care of that nasty job for them.

    2. This is why The Husband and I file as soon as we’ve got the data we need. Gets the heartache out of the way well in advance.

    3. I gather it is called heartbleed.

      I’m not certain, but I think it isn’t a virus. The xkcd matches with what I’ve seen elsewhere. What I see is that the security on certain secure webservers was bugged. You could send them a request that would cause them to dump part of the server’s memory. If an attacker was lucky or patient, they could collect all sorts of things for further intrusion by doing this.

      Now, malware would be pretty useful for the collection phase of this. Run the queries through a botnet. But it wouldn’t necessarily be a virus itself.

      Assuming I’m not just putting this together wrong because I haven’t done my research, and I’ve been reading a little on memory forensics lately.

  2. I’ve read Raising Steam, and I’d agree with your review — not Pratchett’s best work, but still worth picking up, especially if you’re a Pratchett fan.

    Without giving anything away, I’d suggest the first half of Raising Steam suffers from two problems: first, Pratchett’s more focused on things than people, and second, Pratchett’s trying to describe something that happens over a longer period of time (months) rather than days.

    Pratchett is best when he’s focusing on his characters — what motivates them and how they deal with situations. When you think about Pratchett’s best work, you think about his characters — Granny, Vetinari, Vimes, etc. That’s what’s missing in the first half, and that’s why the second half of the book starts to come together.

    I also think Pratchett’s having problems with the timeline. In previous books, he does an excellent job of blurring how much time passes through a variety of techniques. This results in a book where the action seems to happen in a few days — because we’ve only read about a few days of key events — even though there may be days or weeks that occur between those key events. To mix metaphors, Pratchett uses a ‘play’ button and a ‘skip ahead’ button, but he rarely uses the ‘fast forward’ button. The first half of ‘Raising Steam’ uses the ‘fast forward’ button much more often, and this ends up lowering the tension and pacing of the book.

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