Book Review: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

I’m closing in on my 30th Discworld read!  I just finished my 29th, Raising Steam, also the most recent in the series.  After 29 books, I can say with confidence that Discworld books are amazing, hilarious and brilliant–except unfortunately, this particular one wasn’t.  Still a decent read, but not quite on the level I look for from Discworld.

I’ve really fought not to admit that Discworld may be going downhill…and it’s because I know Terry Pratchett has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and that makes me so sad, and I’m so impressed that he’s still bringing out new books.  I Shall Wear Midnight and Snuff both featured…some choices I probably wouldn’t have made, but they were choices, it’s a preference thing, and they were still very good books.  Raising Steam, however, has some real problems.  It’s not a bad book–but the past 28 set the bar very high, and this book didn’t manage to scramble over it.

As you might guess from the title, in this installment steam power comes to Discworld.  Specifically, an engineer from the hinterlands of Stolat has invented a steam-powered locomotive, and brought her (always “her”) to the big city of Ankh-Morpork.  He lines up an investor, and both the world and city tyrant Lord Vetinari begin to take notice.  Vetinari summons up Moist von Lipwig, one-time conman and current Chairman of the Royal Bank, and sends him as a government representative to grease wheels as-needed. Continue reading “Book Review: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett”

A Visit to Discworld to Finish the Story of Tiffany Aching

I found myself with a slight crisis recently, short on books and still waiting on holds, wandering the shelves of my tiny local library looking for something to carry me through the week…and was delighted to stumble upon I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett.  Discworld is the one series I somehow feel no pressure to finish–it’s too big and too rambling and I just dip in at random whenever I feel so inclined.  But the Tiffany Aching subseries as always felt much more self-contained and continuous, so I have been meaning to finish that off.

The final book in the sub-quartet presents Tiffany Aching at sixteen, still new to her role as Witch of the Chalk, but settling into the position.  But Tiffany’s dance with the Wintersmith in the previous book has awoken an ancient evil–one who hates witches.  With hostility towards witches rising throughout the land, Tiffany must find a way to fight through the fear and prejudice to confront its root.  And that while dealing with the upcoming wedding of Roland, her some-time beau, and the sometimes harmful help of her devoted allies, the Nac Mac Feegles.

I love the way Pratchett has presented Tiffany’s growth throughout the quartet.  She has always been someone who does what needs doing, from rescuing her little brother from a Fairy Queen in the first book, to the unglamorous witch work of caring for the ill, elderly and forgotten in this final book.  Tiffany has gained wisdom and confidence all along the way, but like life, it’s often been a few steps forward, a stumble or two back, a redirection and a new leap ahead.  Tiffany’s not only learned how to fulfill her role, she’s very consciously had to figure out what that role is, and how she wants to fulfill it.  Pratchett has done a masterful job of keeping Tiffany always the same person, while growing her throughout the series.

And then there are the Nac Mac Feegles, the Wee Free Men, the drinking, fighting, carousing, honor-bound (but always their own interpretation of honor!) clan who swore loyalty to Tiffany as the Hag o’ the Hills and will stick with her through thick and thin, no matter how many times she tells them to go away.  I love how well Tiffany understands them by now, and her back and forth with them is hilariously brilliant.  For instance, she’s somewhat less than surprised–and remarkably calm–when Daft Wullie sets fire to her broomstick in midair, and staunchly denies responsibility while holding a lit match…

I also appreciated that Rob Anybody, the Nac Mac Feegle chief, did get one moment of more depth.  The Nac Mac Feegles, basically, are never serious…until the humans try to dig up the Nac Mac Feegle hill, and for just a moment we glimpse a very real fear and anger from Rob Anybody about his wife and children.  I’m not sure I really want more than one serious moment from the Nac Mac Feegles, but one was perfect.

Having read other Discworld books, I enjoyed a cameo for Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg.  It’s always fun to see familiar characters from a different perspective, and I liked seeing them through Tiffany’s eyes–still the same characters as when they tell the story themselves, but with maybe a little more awe mixed in.

Pratchett’s books are all the more remarkable for being hilariously funny, while sharply insightful in their satire.  Here he personifies a familiar and particularly ugly side of human nature, the hatred of the Other simply because they’re Other.  Or as was said in another fantasy story, “we don’t like what we don’t understand; in fact, it scares us” (Beauty and the Beast, “The Mob Song”).  There it was against the Beast; here it’s against the witches, and there’s an added subtlety in the sense that part of the hatred comes because people know that the witches do what needs doing–what people guiltily realize they ought to be doing themselves and aren’t.

I already own all the City Guard Discworld books, and I think I need to start collecting the Tiffany Aching books.  They’re both my favorite kind of comedy–we have one stable, complex main character to ground us and guide us through the constant hilarity of everyone else around them.  This book was a wonderful end to the quartet, hilarious, insightful and deeply satisfying.

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Buy it here: I Shall Wear Midnight

Dancing with the Wintersmith

Terry Pratchett is one of those authors I read on a fairly regular basis, and always have a good time with!  Most recently, I read Wintersmith, the third book in the Tiffany Aching subseries of Discworld.

Tiffany is a 13-year-old apprentice witch of considerable promise (and modesty).  She attends a Dark Morris dance, welcoming winter, and can’t resist jumping in–which brings her to the attention of the Wintersmith, the spirit of winter, who finds himself suddenly enamored of this human girl.  Dealing with the chaos and destruction caused by the Wintersmith’s attempts at wooing requires all of Tiffany’s strength and ability, as well as help from senior witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, from the fighting, drinking and swearing Wee Free Men, and from bookish and good-hearted Roland, who is not Tiffany’s young man.

I think I enjoy the Tiffany subseries so much because, like the City Guard subseries, they give me a sane main character (Tiffany and Vimes), surrounded by wildly eccentric characters.  Tiffany is a wonderful heroine who has been growing into her abilities (and perhaps more importantly, her identity) throughout the series.  I mentioned above she has promise and modesty, but it’s really more complicated than that.  Tiffany always does what’s needed, and doesn’t see anything remarkable in that–even if it’s rescuing her brother from the Queen of the Fairies, or confronting the Spirit of Winter.  I love a character who is flawed enough to not always do the right thing, but to always try to do what’s needed.

The other witches are wonderfully eccentric and unique, from Miss Treason who deliberately made herself a legend, to Annagramma, a somewhat New Age witch who thinks it’s all about rituals and beads.  Then of course there’s Granny Weatherwax–witches don’t have a leader, and Granny is the leader they don’t have–and Nanny Ogg, warm and cheerful and practical about all things, like using a Cornucopia of Plenty to stock the larder.

The Wee Free Men, also called the Feegles, are at their usual wild state of hilarity, endlessly cheerful and enthused, shouting and rushing about and eager to do whatever is needed to help “the big wee hag.” I love it when they attempt to sing “Row Your Boat” while crossing the River Styx, “at every possible speed and tempo and with no regard at all for the tune,” annoying Death not a little.

The funniest feature of this book may be Horace, a very lively Lancre Blue Cheese.  He’s adopted by the Feegles, given his own bit of tartan, and does his best to hum along with the singing.

Roland also gets some nice scenes in this book.  He’s not Tiffany’s young man (in rather the way Granny is not the leader of the witches) and he has to step up to be the Hero in the story, even though he’s only ever used an imaginary sword, and learned swordplay from a book.  He has some truly awful aunts and I am hoping for more of his story in the next book…

If I have one criticism of this book, it’s the first chapter.  Chronologically, it covers events which should slot in between Chapter Twelve (of Thirteen), and I frankly don’t know why Pratchett decided to start there.  It made me thoroughly confused, and wondering if I’d missed a book in the series.  So–if you begin this and don’t know what’s happening, keep reading.

Anything else…have I said much on the plot?  The plot is good, perfectly engaging and exciting in spots–but it’s more important as a vehicle for the wonderful characters and high hilarity Pratchett is so good at!

My recommendation: don’t start the series here…but do start the series. 🙂

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Buy it here: Wintersmith

Heroic Journeys on (and Under) Discworld

Last Hero (1)I was feeling like some Terry Pratchett recently, and elected to read The Last Hero.  This one is described as “A Discworld Fable,” and is shorter than most of the other books–and it’s beautifully illustrated!

The story centers around Cohen the Barbarian and his friends, the greatest heroes Discworld ever knew…some sixty years ago.  They’ve grown old, and are decidedly unhappy about it.  They set out on the ultimate final quest, to the mountain-top home of the Discworld gods, with enough explosives to blow the mountain up–creating a chain reaction that will destroy all of Discworld.  Meanwhile in Ankh-Morpork, the wizards of Unseen University and Lord Vetinari assemble a team to stop Cohen, relying on the technical genius of Leonard of Quirm, who devises the first ever ship designed for flying outside the Disc.

The plot is a bit convoluted, with a lot of players, but suffice to say we get lots of satire of traditional hero stories, with some space travel satire thrown in.  And the real brilliance is that we get it all with Pratchett’s wonderfully hilarious characters and wit.

My favorite part may be all the excellent plays on hero story tropes, especially as we see them through Evil Harry.  He’s a Dark Lord Cohen and company know from way back, who joins forces with them here–warning them that of course he’ll have to double-cross them eventually, because that’s how things are done.  He’s also very proud that he found the stupidest henchmen possible (because Dark Lords always have stupid henchmen…) and takes comfort from the rule that the Dark Lord always escapes mysteriously at the end.

The best part, perhaps, is that Cohen and his friends all agree that Evil Harry knows the rules, and none of them can fathom the young people these days who don’t understand how things should be handled.

This is a fun one for Discworld fans, because we get a lot of regular characters putting in appearances.  Rincewind and Carrot go with Leonard on the journey, lots of wizards feature, and even Death gets a cameo.  He’s in the middle of trying to understand Schrodinger’s Cat, and never quite grasps the metaphor–but doesn’t approve of the whole business, as he doesn’t hold with cruelty to cats.

Last Hero (2)

This is also excellent just for the gorgeous illustrations.  They’re beautifully-drawn and frequent, throughout the whole book.  I do love a beautifully-illustrated book for grown-ups every now and then!

If you’re new to Discworld, the rule is always, “jump into the series wherever you feel inclined.”  Considering this one is short, covers a lot of major characters, and has gorgeous illustrations, it wouldn’t be a bad choice…

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Buy it here: The Last Hero: A Discworld Fable

Death Comes for an Apprentice

MortIn my usual way of reading Discworld books, I had read most of the Death subseries without reading the first one.  But recently, I finally picked up Mort by Terry Pratchett to get the beginning of the story, confident of finding a book that would be about life and death and eternity–and it was–and be enormously funny–and it was!

Mort has never been much of a success at anything, so his father decides the answer is to apprentice him out to a trade.  As it happens, Death is looking for an apprentice.  The job is a little daunting but Mort begins to get into the swing of things (pun intended!)…but then matters become complicated when he saves the life of a princess who the universe is now convinced is dead, and when Death begins to explore happiness and contemplate escaping his duties.  Also there’s Death’s daughter (adopted) thrown into the mix, and more than one wizard of questionable power.  And…well, it’s Discworld.  There’s havoc and there’s hilarity.

There’s a whole collection of fun characters here, as I would expect from Terry Pratchett.  Mort undergoes an interesting transformation from ordinary screw-up to resembling Death just a little too much–including this problem he keeps having passing through objects.  Princess Keli is great fun, especially as she becomes immensely frustrated when the universe thinks she’s dead and everyone keeps forgetting about her.  She’s an odd blend of very strong and also quite inept in dealing with the world–as happens when you’ve been a princess all your life, and never needed to deal with the world.  Ysabell, Death’s daughter, is an odd blend of crazy and ultimately endearing.  And it was fun to learn the backstory on Albert, Death’s servant–he’s in later books, but his background isn’t revisited that I can recall.

My favorite character here was Death himself.  I tend to like him best in a supporting role–sometimes when he’s too much the focus it gets old (while often his two-paragraph cameos are the funniest bits of other books).  Here, there’s enough focus on Mort and the others that Death gets just the right balance–plenty of him, but not too much.  He tries to explore human happiness, which treats us to scenes of Death fly-fishing, line-dancing, and sitting in a bar (at a quarter to three, of course), and never quite understanding any of the things he’s doing.  My favorite may be when Death visits an employment agency and puts down “Anthropomorphic Personification” as his previous position.

The setting is also particularly fun here, something I don’t often say about books!  But Death created his own world, and though he tried very hard, he has some trouble–everything tends to be black and fake.  We also spend time in Keli’s mountain kingdom, and get to visit Ankh-Morpork.

There isn’t a huge lot of satire and depth here, but there are some discussions on justice and eternity and the meaning of life.  Death seems to struggle with these questions throughout his books.

The weak point of the book is the ending–only the very, very end.  At the risk of a slight spoiler, there’s a sudden switch in the romance, and even though I knew it had to be coming (based on the later books about Mort’s daughter), Pratchett still didn’t sell it to me.  It’s like he decided on the last chapter that there was more future potential in ending one way than with the other, and went for it without bothering about whether it made sense.  I won’t complain too much…since it did lead to the amazing Susan, heroine of later books.

This is the fourth book in the Discworld series, and it’s one I’d recommend as a place to start.  The books still get better, but this is the earliest one that’s already showing just how hilarious Terry Pratchett can be.  Highly recommended!

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