For the last 30 years Terry Pratchett has been busy writing the Discworld novels and Raising Steam is the 40th. If you haven’t come across Discworld before don’t let the fact that this is the 40th novel deter you from reading it. Don’t even let the fact that this is a story about railways put you off because Mr Pratchett is a superb storyteller who can make rocket science simple and everything else, including mathematics and physics, interesting.
The storyline itself, set as it is around the advent of the railway, allows for a huge cast and crew but each and every one of the characters arrive on the page so fully rounded and clear that the reader has no chance of muddling them. The fact that they all have delightfully inventive names, strong accents and personality traits all helps to make them, and the story, a memorable one full of excitement and fun.
The star of the show is young Dick Simnel who has come up with a new, innovative and far speedier method of transporting freight from the coast of Quirm across the Sto Plains to the big city of Ankh- Morpork. He has invented an engine, and not just any old engine, a special steam engine. His new partner Harry King is quick to spot that it isn’t just people with goods to transport who will part with hard earned money to get their produce into the shops faster and fresher. He notices that everyone around is as fascinated and captivated by this wondrous machine as he is and realises they are all keen to use it for the simple joy of travelling. It requires quite a team of people to help them to expand quickly enough to allow supply to meet demand though, and this in turn allows some of the favourite characters of old to reappear.
Not everyone is happy about the modernising times but this won’t stop Dick and Harry having a good go at moving the nation onwards, forwards and even upwards. Moist Von Lipwig is called in to help with oiling the wheels of industry as they plan to extend the railway to Uberwald. Moist considers himself a man with too much to do as he already tends to the needs of the Post Office, the Bank and the Royal Mint but as he cannot refuse the offer from Lord Vetinari, the Patrician, to make sure that any gremlins, or dwarves, are quickly and quietly stopped in their tracks.
Planning and setting up a new railway causes all sorts of logistical problems, or loggysticks, which Harry and Moist are there to solve while Dick gets on with building a whole fleet of engines and designs ways of making the journey safer as more engines use the newly built tracks. The overarching theme of the long railway journey allows for some fragmentary glimpses into the way it affects the lives of those it passes along the way, whether they sit patiently in the newly invented station cafes, waiting for the train home or a glimpse of the Iron Girder passing by, or whether they become, my own special favourite, the first travel writer.
As you would expect in any good plot, dark forces are at work to try and stop the railway from succeeding. This in turn allows for a great sub plot as unfriendly characters work underground to foil the new venture. Great story characters are never totally good or utterly evil, they are simply human and all the characters in this novel, good or bad, human or not, are thought provoking and full of vitality. Even the bad characters in Raising Steam arrive laden with enough humanity or rather dwarfiness to make you feel just a teensy bit sorry for them when they find themselves in trouble.
Personally I was rather pleased to be reading the book in the comfort of my own home and not in the middle of the rush hour commute. In fact it might be advisable not to try and read this book whilst sitting on a sardine- like journey into work. The story could make you ooze with jealously and nostalgia for a time when rail journeys were embarked upon with pleasure and excitement. Even worse you might find yourself attracting irritated looks from fellow passengers finding precious little to laugh about on the journey as you chuckle away at one of the cheesy jokes or many amusing foot notes. There is also the possibility that any delays in your journey might just prompt an overactive imagination into believing that there may be a few grags still at work underground.
Maybe that isn’t a bad thing though because more than anything else, the thing that impressed me about this story, and that will stay with me for a long time, is the idea that travelling by train was once something so much more than a drudging commute into the city. It was something exciting, new and joyous, even for adults.