Raising Steam

This review is one of (presumably) the final parts of my complete Discworld re-read project.

And so, it has come to this.

When I first started this re-read project, people warned me: Raising Steam (one of a handful of Discworld books I had not yet read) is not very good. Throughout the project, I’ve been wondering: what does that mean? How bad is not good? Can it really be so much worse than, say, Unseen Academicals?

Yes. It can be, and it is.

I have always said: there’s no such thing as a bad Discworld novel. There are brilliant ones, good ones, and merely adequate ones. But none are ever outright bad.

I was wrong.

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I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

Almost at the end of my Complete Discworld Re-Read Project

There’s an inevitable though morbid game that Pratchett fans are playing somewhere in the back of their heads, willingly or unwillingly, when they read his later novels: we can’t but wonder, “how much of the decline is due to the Alzheimer’s?”

Well, within just a page or two of I Shall Wear Midnight, the answer seemed clear to me: whatever perhaps went wrong in Making Money, and certainly went wrong in Unseen Academicals, and was arguably about to go wrong in Snuff, it wasn’t a problem with Pterry’s brain.

The tiredness of those novels, the bluntness of the wit, the familiarity – that’s not here. Here, Pterry is sharp, energised, eager to take on more complex themes. Funny. Reading this, it’s immediately clear that Pratchett, at least in 2010, could still do it when he felt inspired. Indeed, I’d tentatively suggest that, on a technical level, this is better-written than the previous three Tiffany novels, which were themselves well-written. In his ingenuity, his acuity, his observational humour, Pratchett here is as good as ever. Pratchett could still write.

My problems, unfortunately, are with what he could write…

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The Last Hero, by Terry Pratchett

My ongoing Complete Discworld Reread project continues…

The Last Hero isn’t particularly substantial – it’s little more than a short story, bulked out with lots of illustrations. It’s also not particularly new, as it revisits a lot of themes and characters from earlier Discworld novels.

It is, however, very good.

For such a short tale, it’s surprisingly clear-cut in its division between comedy and tragedy. The early part of the book is mostly an excuse for jokes… and they’re very good jokes. They suffer a bit from the artificiality of the set-up and a certain disjointedness of scenes, but they don’t feel like Pratchett is just throwing gags at the page, as he sometimes does, or like lazy attempts at broad humour to fill the word count and bring the punters in. No, it really feels as though these jokes – and the plot they set up – have been carefully crafted. This may be the successor to Eric, in the sense of being an illustrated novel, but where that earlier experiment seemed casual, off-the-cuff, this one seems very much planned and intended. Sculpted. Continue reading

Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett

Part of my on-going complete Discworld re-read project

…I don’t know what to say about this one.

It’s a frustrating novel, this. For two thirds of the book, it is in many ways among Pratchett’s best. It’s funny, it’s very pacey, it’s weird, it’s interesting, it’s intellectual. Surprisingly intellectual – I couldn’t help noticing that some passages come very close in content to another book I’m reading at the moment, John Wisdom’s once-seminal (now largely forgotten) classic of Oxonian analytical philosophy, Other Minds (though this says as much about Wisdom as it does about Pratchett, I think). Continue reading

The Fifth Elephant, by Terry Pratchett

The latest part of my complete Discworld reread

Is it just because Pterry is dead? I don’t think so: I think it’s true of the book itself – this book feels like the end of Discworld. This is where it all ends.

I know, that’s hyperbole. The Discworld cycle didn’t just collapse after this installment – it went on for more than a dozen more novels. Some of those novels are good. Some of them may even be great.

But this feels like the end. This is where the world shuts down, gets a little smaller – from here on in, Discworld will seem smaller, and in a way less real. The Fifth Elephant brings the stories of Carrot, Angua and Vimes (and even Colon) to a fitting, even inevitable conclusion, and caps off the story of the Watch as a whole – leaving Night Watch as one last ‘Scouring of the Shire’ epilogue.

The fact that Pratchett didn’t realise this and wrote two more Watch novels after Night Watch, not to mention a whole bunch of cameo appearances (even the very next book after The Fifth Elephant, The Truth, was written as a Watch novel and contains heavy Watch presence) may be important for the cycle as a whole, but doesn’t in my mind change the finality of this novel, taken as a novel in itself.

But it’s more than that: The Fifth Elephant seems to me to represent the final obsolescence, in both practical and thematic terms, of the adventures of Rincewind and of Granny Weatherwax – the taming, in a sense, of the worlds that they inhabited. This is more striking as TFE immediately follows Granny’s Carpe Jugulum, and is largely set in the same part of the world… but not only is the book itself much more succesful than its predecessor, but its protagonist, Vimes, has a much easier time of it than Granny does in the end, despite a few tricky moments along the way. The juxtaposition of the two books underlines the thematic shift: the world that Vimes is conquering is the world that Granny lived in (there’s even a derogatory little jibe at Lancre along the way).

Because this is a novel about conquest. It’s that rare thing in modern popular literature: a pro-colonialist novel. Continue reading

Carpe Jugulum, by Terry Pratchett

Just one part of my mammoth Complete Discworld Reread project…

By the twenty-third book in the Discworld cycle, Terry Pratchett is some sort of crop rotation system, regarding his subjects. Granny, Vimes, Susan, Rincewind, Granny, Vimes, Susan, (Vimes), Rincewind… OK, so Jingo dropped in an extraneous Vimes, but the pattern’s pretty clear and inevitably the next book had to be Granny. [And after that, it’ll be Vimes. The Truth will plop in out of sequence, but then it’s Susan and Rincewind again, before the new Maurice book takes the place of Granny…]

So we get another Witches novel for Discworld #23, almost as a matter of course. The problem is, as with The Last Continent, it’s not clear that Pratchett really had any great plan for this installment. Or rather, that’s the superficial problem. The deeper problem is that it’s just not clear that there is anywhere at all for these characters to go from here.

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