This novel represents the latest installment of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. It follows the adventures of Moist von Lipwig who, having conquered the postal and banking systems of Ankh Morpork, is now tasked by the Patrician Lord Vetinari with seeing to the implementation of a railroad. Following in his father’s footsteps, Daniel Simnel, the man “wi’ t’ flat cap and sliding rule” who “ has the learning of the sine and cosine”, has built the Iron Girder, the Discworld’s first functional steam locomotive. Daniel brings his invention to Harry King (a successful baron of the sanitation industry), who decides to become an investor/sponsor of the project which attracts a lot of interest among the citizens of Ankh-Morpork including Lord Vetinari’s secretary Drumknott. Among the obstacles, Moist must overcome are the acquisition of land on which to build the railroad, working with goblin laborers, and the threat of dwarf extremists who stand in that way of the completion of the railroad.
I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series; I liked this story. As is well known by his fans, Sir Terry has been suffering from an ’embuggerment’ for several years- Alzheimer’s. As such, he can no longer write as quickly or as well as he used to. The wit that makes his stories so much fun is still present but dulled, and this novel is not as accessible to readers unfamiliar with the series as previous novels have been. If you come to the book without knowing the previous novel Snuff and the even earlier Thud, there will be a lot of references to prior events that will not make sense.
What I did appreciate was the exploration and expansion of Harry King’s character, and the dynamic between Moist and the goblin Of the Twilight of the Darkness who accompanies him on much of his journey. Their relationship provides some amusement and comic relief as it is highly reminiscent of buddy road-trip or cop comedies. Although the goblin could potentially be a sidekick, the character is developed enough that he actually stands as Moist’s equal in terms of knowledge and importance to the plot of the railroad construction. Many of the classic Pratchett technical gags are also still present, such as footnotes and footnotes on footnotes, but these are fewer than previous installments.
This novel is more serious than many of the previous installments with its stronger and more blatant focus on political and social issues that have clear real-world analogues. The dwarf extremist plotline is reminiscent of religious extremism of ISIS and other similar current terrorist groups, and there is a lot more emphasis on race relations (dwarf-troll-human-goblin-golem). These things are all a part of the plot and are not especially forced. The problems for me are that 1) without prior knowledge of Snuff, there is no background context for the conflicts and 2) the final reveal from the dwarf Low King brings in a third social issue is a bit forced. There are a few not especially subtle hints scattered through the novel, but there is little substantive plot or theme framing for the gender question that seems to settle the question of dwarf politics and leadership.
I would recommend any of Sir Terry’s books to anyone, but with this one, the recommendation has to come with a caveat: read one or two other Discworld novels first, preferably at least one of the Moist vonLipwig ones (Going Postal and Making Money), because otherwise, you won’t enjoy the book nearly as much.