The Short Version: Moist von Lipwig, head of the Royal Bank and the Post Office and the Mint, has been tasked by the Patrician with yet another job: to shepherd into being the railway. A young man has tinkered just right and created a beautiful steam engine – but progress comes in fits and starts on the Disc and there are those who would see this particular endeavor halted for good…
The Review: After a fitful start to this novel – the fortieth Discworld novel, if you can believe it – I tweeted something that I may come to regret. Even now, I regret it just a tad. I said that I thought it was maybe time for Sir Terry to pass along the pen and turn over the Discworld (to his daughter, who is apparently the heir to the storytelling throne). And while this novel (good gods, let’s address just once more that it is the fortieth in the series) redeems itself to some extent after a bumpy start… the quality control isn’t quite what it used to be.
Let’s talk about the bumpy start first, seeing as it is in fact the start.
Things just feel disjoint. We don’t spend much time with anyone, the plot bouncing around pretty quickly and as a result it is nearly impossible to get a bead on what’s happening or who we’re to care about. Yes, we meet Moist again rather quickly (and I am grateful that Pratchett writes his books in such a way as that you don’t have to have read the previous 39 books but honestly you wouldn’t be reading this if you hadn’t at least read several, so we don’t need a whole thing about Moist and Adora Belle and all that history) but we spend a whole lot of disjoint time with Dick Simmel and with other random moments spread across places and people and it all just feels a bit… unfocused. Even as the story moves into the middle third, there still seems to be a real lack of cohesion – despite the fact that bringing the railway to the Disc is a major development that will, inevitably, change everything. The clacks were one thing; this is something else entirely. But I found that I didn’t quite care, because Pratchett was leavening this plot with yet another rumbling and rambling from the dwarves.
All of Pratchett’s work has mixed humor and levity with a socio-political bent, even the frothiest early tales. As he’s gotten older, that latter bit has become more pronounced – and Snuff was an amazing, astonishing late-career triumph of an example – but I kept getting the feeling that we’d seen all of this particular tale before. Not the railroad part, not specifically – but the astonishment at a rapidly modernizing culture was part of The Truth and certainly the previous Moist von Lipwig books and even stretching back as far as Soul Music. I’m talking more about the dwarf plot, which follows from Thud! like an inevitable scuffle between Palestine and Israel that ensues after a period of relative enforced peace. The Koom Valley Accord was another one of these monumental shifts in the metaphysical landscape of the series – but this threat to it, a bunch of rogue dwarves, feels like a stale idea from the start. And while it lends a delightful sense of adventure to the final major train trip – a sequence that, from top to tail, is written like the Terry of old with a mix of humor, magic, seriousness, and plain ol’ joy – it doesn’t really make for a lasting plot development in the way that so many of the last dozen-or-so Discworld novels did.
I’m not saying that all of these books ought to be momentous. Heavens, no – how boring. But I struggled to stay interested in a Discworld book for the first time in a very long time and that came as something of a shock to me. It is an immensely lamentable loss to letters that Sir Terry is facing early onset Alzheimer’s and I suppose I should be grateful for whatever he manages to eke out before his time does come – and it’s a testament to his abilities that he’s written several standalone novels and a whole new series (co-written, that last one) in the last few years while also keeping the Disc going. But something about this one felt perfunctory in a way that made me sad. For every three jokes that made me laugh out loud, there was a moment that made me sort of quirk my mouth into not quite a frown but just a resigned sigh of sorts – I don’t want Discworld to ever stop, but I also don’t want it to become a shell of its former self. Not when there are so many great things ahead. After all, we have a steam engine now!
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Oh how I want to rate this higher and oh how I wish that I could. And towards the end, there, I wondered if I might. The steam engine is, of course, the next big thing to come to the Disc and it is treated with the right sort of reverent irreverence – but the novel itself doesn’t quite hold up to previous standards of “dealing with these things”. A wildly disjoint, almost confusing opening section leaves the reader scrambling and it’s not really until the final act that we get used to the rhythm of the rails. In a rarity for this series, I didn’t enjoy myself the whole time – and so it is that I wonder about whether or not it’s time for Terry to pass along the pen…