By Terry Pratchett
Read by Stephen Briggs
Raising Steam is the latest (40th) in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. The series started out as a parody on the entire fantasy genre, but as time passed and the number of book reached into the dozens, it sort of became a subgenre all by itself.
The Discworld really is a flat world on the back of four giant elephants that, in turn, stand on the back of a celestial-class, space-swimming turtle. In some of the books magic is an important part of the stories, but in many, such as this one, it is people who are the backbone of the tale. If some of those people are dwarves, trolls, vampires, golems, goblins, vampires, werewolves and other fantastic creatures, the point is frequently is that they are all still people.
Our old friend, Moist von Lipwig from Going Postal and Making Money is ostensibly the main character in this story, but a number of well-known recurring characters, such as Ankh-Morpork’s Tyrant, Lord Vetinari, play their substantial parts, previously minor characters, such as Sir Harry King the city’s most successful businessman, a tycoon of the night-soil removal and recycling busness, return for more prominent roles than in the past, and many familiar faces pop in for cameo appearances as well. The book is most definitely written for the long-time fans. Although I believe it stands reasonably on its own, one’s appreciation is magnified if you recognized the many references to earlier books in the series.
The Discworld started out as a typical pseudo-medieval fantasy world, but has since developed into sometime parallel to a considerably more recent milieu, I’d estimate it as being somewhere in the first half of the 19th Century, and the live action adaptations of some of the stories seem to agree with me. So while motion pictures came to the Discworld years ago, and then disappeared almost as rapidly, it is not surprising to see locomotives introduced this time.
The people of the Discworld and especially those of Ankh-Morpork, seem to take to novelty with the same gusto a man fresh from the desert is likely to down a jug of water and not only get enthusiastic about trains in general, but develop their enthusiasms full-fledged and immediately from the outset. How else could one have train spotters at a time when there is only one locomotive engine to spot and that one is traveling in circles around Harry King’s compound? There is also an instant business in train memorabilia, model trains for enthusiasts to play with and even ersatz motion-sickness medications (sold by Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, as street vender so persuasive he might get you to buy one of his “sausages inna bun” – made from genuine unspecified materials – even if you had ever eaten and survived one of them before) which is described as the first of a new industry of patent medicines.
The story starts out in the normal, for Pratchett, way with the inventory of the locomotive going to Harry King for financial backing for the new invention. King is interested and in a normal world that would probably be the beginning of a profitable venture. In our world, trains became very popular means of travel and rapidly became essential to life as everyone knew it so by the time of the US Civil War, they were a vital asset to the governments as well. The Discworld is not normal, however, and all that becomes fact as soon as Lord Vetinari is aware of the invention (or maybe a bit sooner, hard to say with Vetinari). So Moist von Lipwig, already in charge of the city’s postal service, the bank and the mint, is assigned to oversee the government’s part in the train service. One might wonder why, but it soon becomes apparent that Vetinari sees a need for the rails to reach over 1200 miles to distant Ubervald long before the events that will make that need apparent to everyone else, including the readers.
Like all Pratchett’s Discworld books, you can expect this to be a wild and amusing ride and as I mentioned above, acquaintanceship with the previous stories in the series will increase one’s appreciation of this one. The series has flagged a bit over the years so that several times I thought it had run out of steam (no pun intended), but this one proves me wrong. It made be following an established Discworld pattern, but it balances the early Pratchett whimsy beautifully with the heavier feeling of his later works.
If you are a Discworld fan, this is definitely a book for you. If you aren’t, then go back and start with The Colour of Magic and eventually you will be and therefore ready for this one.
I have praised the readings of Stephen Briggs before and in general he is one of the very fine set of readers of Pratchett’s books. He does a very good job with Raising Steam, but this time, I was a little annoyed by his choices of varied and thick accents for some of the characters. The accents were good accents, I suppose, but I felt several did not match the characters well at all. In fact I would say they were thick enough to be considered what I have, in the past, called “Funny voices,” and that’s a shame because Mister Briggs is better than that.
However, he still reads the story well in spite of the flaws in his performance and while I winced once or twice, I was not tempted to through my MP3 player out the window – trust me, that is a temptation with some readers.
So, in all this is a good book for those who have kept up with all or most of the series, but ti might seem more than just a little odd if it’s the first Discworld book you try. In fact it might seem hopeless to get into if you have not been reading others and watched this fantasy world grow and develop, but it’s a pretty good story and, in my opinion, better than some of the other recent volumes.
Mister Briggs’ reading is a bit lacking this outing, but even a bad day for him is better than the best of many others I have listened to, so I would say, “Sure, listen to it.” It’s not bad, it is very good, just not outstanding. Heck! There are times I wish that could be said about my worst work!