Raising Steam hurts a little bit. It stings. It’s the last of the Discworld books published during Terry Pratchett’s lifetime (though not the last published overall). It is, to me, the first one where it is very clear that he was suffering from mental degradation due to his PCA (posterior cortical atrophy, a form of Alzheimer’s). And that’s why it hurts, because it’s so easy to see what his intentions were, and how this book could’ve been another beautiful addition to the line-up, and instead it fell short.
Raising Steam is about the advent of the train and the railways on the Disc. At the forefront of this is Moist von Lipwig, last seen revolutionizing the bank system in Making Money. There’s callbacks all the way back to Reaper Man – the inventor of the unsuccessful steam engine in that book is the father of the inventor of the successful one here. We see the progress of the goblins, following up from Snuff. And even though Moist is the main character, it feels strange to classify this as a Moist von Lipwig book. It’s a very different atmosphere than Going Postal and Making Money, and I don’t know how much of that was intentional and how much of that was… not.
This book covers a lot of people and a lot of places that have not been seen in a very long time in the series. In universe, some of this is made possible by the invention of the rail. Out of continuity, it feels at times like Pratchett knew this would be the last book he would be able to complete (The Shepherd’s Crown was not finished by Pratchett himself). It feels like a goodbye. Not as much as The Shepherd’s Crown, admittedly. But this feels like one last whirlwind trip around the Disc, trying to see as much as we can before it’s too late. There have often been rumors that his daughter, Rhianna Pratchett, would continue the series after his death – she has said this is untrue. She will protect his legacy, and be involved with any adaptations, but she will write no further Discworld books.
Because of this, the pace of this book is wildly different than the rest of the books in the series. It’s not like the rest of the Discworld books were exactly what I would call “slow”; they aren’t. But this one just clips ahead of everything, much like the trains described within. It feels… choppy, somehow. Scenes cut from one to the next with very little transition, something that is new to the Disc. I’ve heard some people theorize that this was intentional and symbolic – a show of the sheer force and difference of the trains and the railways. I would love to give the benefit of the doubt here, I really would. But knowing what was happening to him while he wrote this, and having read The Shepherd’s Crown, I don’t know if I can.
This book was hard to read, which is a shame, because I love the story. I love the trains and the travel and the whirlwind nature of it. But it feels off in an almost indescribable way if you haven’t read the rest of the Discworld books. And to be clear, this is not a bad book, not by a long shot. By any other author, it would be a very good one. But having the comparison points of the rest of the series, it is just so disappointing to see where this one falls short.
“In Ankh-Morpork you can be whoever you want to be and sometimes people laugh and sometimes they clap, and mostly and beautifully, they don’t really care.”
“Anger was a weapon to be honed and treasured and used only at the moment yielding most premium.”
“There was always something that you had to do before you could do the thing you wanted to do and even then you might get it wrong.”
“That’s the trouble, you see. When you’ve had hatred on your tongue for such a long time, you don’t know how to spit it out.”