I love Terry Pratchett’s books. They’ve got me through the first raw days after breakups, through long train and plane journeys away from people I love, through the gloom of having a cold at the beginning of spring when the world is bursting with light and colour. I love the eerie technology of the clacks in Going Postal, the blood and fire of Carpe Jugulum, the pain and anger and sweetness of the Tiffany Aching sequence, the terrible beauty of Lords and Ladies, and the molten rage and darkness of The Fifth Elephant, the hilarious apocalyptic mayhem of Good Omens . It’s hard for me to review Pratchett, in other words–I hold some of his books in such elevated corners of my heart that it’s both hard for me to let any new ones in, and also hard for me to realise that they don’t deserve to be there. It’s also hard to be objective because of the tragedy of the Alzheimer’s Disease that Pratchett has lived with since 2007–it’s hard not to make reviews sound like elegies–and unfair to make them elegies as well. There are plenty of authors whose brilliance fades as their output continues, even without any debilitating medical conditions, and perhaps all authors are owed an honest opinion, whether they’re dead or new at it or falling stars. Or, indeed, perhaps all texts are owed honesty.
And Pratchett on a bad day is still on a par with a lot of people on a good day.
So, to begin with Dodger.
Dodger is a street urchin in early-Victorian London, who makes his living by finding things in the sewers as a tosher. One day he emerges from the smelly depths to encounter an altercation–two men are beating up a girl. Dodger manages to chase them off, and two passers-by, Henry and Charlie, take them to Henry’s home. The girl turns out to have a mysterious past and identity, and Dodger soon finds that the world above the sewers–both literally and in the homes of the rich and powerful–can be as dark and treacherous as the stinking trenches below the city. Driven by the desire to help the girl, Dodger rapidly rises beyond the community of petty thieves and toshers he’s known his whole life, helped by his mentor Solomon Cohen and the quizzical newspaperman Charlie Dickens.
Dodger is a rollicking read; it’s fun spotting the cameo appearances by Victorian figures, there’s a sense of the uncanny in the sewer-world, the intrigue is interesting, with echoes of Wilkie Collins as well as Dickens, and the city and its denizens are lovingly evoked. It’s very enjoyable–but. It lacks edge and genuine peril. It is aimed at non-adult readers, which is fair enough, but the Tiffany Aching books are scary enough, even when their heroine is nine years old. Although Dodger’s relationship with his grownups is amusing enough, they almost protect him too well, and Dodger himself is a more than capable adversary. There just could be more of everything–more verve, more danger, more cameos, more smells. What there is, though, provides a very pleasant and amusing read.
The same issues dog Raising Steam. Moist von Lipwig in Going Postal is an effervescent liar, cheat and conman, who thinks on his feet (usually as he’s running away), and doesn’t lose his fizz when he decides to use his sneaky powers for good. In Raising Steam, he’s an established businessman, and financial resources and social status seem to have replaced his powers of cunning and persuasion. At the heart of the novel is the invention of the steam locomotive by an earnest Dick Simnel, a Northern lad with a flat cap, which shortly becomes all the rage in Ankh-Morpork–and causes rage in Dwarfish fundamentalists who resist progress. The machine seems to have uncanny powers of its own, but the focus of Raising Steam is getting planning permission to build railways between Ankh-Morpork and Sto-Lat–Moist’s job, which he accomplishes through blunt force and trading agreements rather than wheeling and dealing. Although Simnel himself is a trusting, innocent lad, with overtones of Corporal Carrot at times, the fact that he has Moist, Vetinari, Blackboard Monitor Vimes and the power of his own engine behind him again means that there’s little sense of genuine peril.
So Raising Steam is neither eerie nor exhilarating. It is, again, a pleasant read, it espouses Pratchett’s laudable philosophies of tolerance and general humaneness, even towards goblins, dwarves and trolls, and there are some chuckles to be had from wordplay and the occasional absurd situation. The boom of the railroad and the culture of travel that emerges around holds a jolly mirror to Victorian England, and it’s always nice to be back in the Discworld.