This might sound sarcastic, but it isn’t: the story of the railway is a fascinating one. Nowadays we take trains totally for granted but they radically transformed society (especially in Britain) after they were introduced, which took some incredible feats of engineering. (Dan Snow’s History of Railways is a pretty decent BBC documentary series on this.)
That story is transmuted to the Discworld in Raising Steam, the fortieth (!) instalment of Terry Pratchett’s series. Recent books have chronicled the impact of modern inventions – the internet, mass media – on his fantasy world, and the idea of adding steam power to that mix and seeing how it clashes with traditional fantasy elements has a tonne of potential.
Unfortunately, that potential is never realised in Raising Steam. That’s mostly down to the thinness of the plot: The unfortunately named Ankh-Morpork rascal Moist von Lipwig is tasked with organising the construction of the first Discworld railways; meanwhile, an extremist faction of dwarves unhappy with disruption to the old traditions wages a campaign of terror against the modern world. That’s mostly it, though the story is padded out with many asides and diversions that sometimes grow tedious.
There aren’t many surprises here, though perhaps that’s no surprising from a series that’s reached forty parts. Characters who were once vibrantly three-dimensional – such as Vimes, and the Patrician – now act exactly the way you expect them to, all the time. The end is a little heavy-handed and too easily tied up. It’s absolutely not a dud book, but it’s been a long time since the Discworld saga charged along the tracks at full steam.
Previously: Snuff, Terry Pratchett