Raising Steam
February 25, 2024 1:41 PM - Subscribe

All Aboard! The steam engine has come to Discworld, and with it the prototype locomotive known as Iron Girder. It's new! It's flashy! It's noisy! It's smoky! It can get seafood from Quirm to Ankh-Morpork while it's still worth eating! It can easily kill you if things go wrong! It can let you work in Ankh-Morpork while living elsewhere! And it signals undeniable, major social changes for anywhere the tracks can get to. Moist von Lipwig has handled a lot of dangerous enterprises in his life, but he's never had to take on Dwarven terrorists before now... (Industrial Revolution #7, Discworld #40) By Terry Pratchett.

Hello hello hello and welcome to the FINAL installment of the Discworld Book Club! Or is it?! It seems that I actually never got around to covering the Terry Pratchett/Paul Kidby graphic novel The Last Hero. I'm not sure when I'll get around to it, to be honest, but sometime in the future there may be a little lagniappe of Discworld Book Club for us all.

The Color of Magic
The Light Fantastic
Equal Rites
Wyrd Sisters
Guards! Guards!
Moving Pictures
Reaper Man
Witches Abroad
Small Gods
Lords and Ladies
Men At Arms
Soul Music
Interesting Times
Feet of Clay
The Last Continent
Carpe Jugulum
The Fifth Elephant
The Truth
Thief of Time
The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents
Night Watch
The Wee Free Men
Monstrous Regiment
A Hat Full of Sky
Going Postal
Making Money
Unseen Academicals
I Shall Wear Midnight
The Shepherd's Crown


Years ago, on the plains up near the Ramtops (during the events of Reaper Man) a tinkerer named Ned Simnel invented a combination harvester that horrified Death himself. The Combine never saw widespread use, but in the time since then, Ned managed to blow himself up attempting to create an engine that would run on steam.

Not to be deterred, his son Dick Simnel became obsessed with seeing his late father's vision through, and his distraught mother gave him the family's piratically-earned legacy in order to make sure he was educated enough to survive trying. And now, whether the Disc is ready for it or not, the first Steam Engine Locomotive has arrived.

Her name - and she is definitely a she, everybody agrees - is Iron Girder. At first a popular curiosity, Dick continues to tinker with her, upgrading and perfecting her as he teams up with waste management magnate Harry King (who would really like to leave his descendants a nobler-sounding legacy of their own) to create the Hygienic Railway Company.

Lord Vetinari, the kind of tyrant who knows better than to try to hold back a glacier, assigns former con-man Moist von Lipwig, currently of the Ankh-Morpork Post Office, Mint, and Royal Bank, to represent the city's interests in the building of the rail system. First to Sto-Lat (where Simnel's workshop is), then to Quirm (Ankh-Morpork's closest significant neighbor, and crucially where their food comes from) and eventually (though not as eventually as would seem sensible) to Überwald, the far-flung homeland of Dwarves, Trolls, Werewolves and Vampires, described not long ago as not being a country so much as what you get before countries. And that's not even getting into how impassable the terrain is.

While Moist's talent for greasing all manner of wheels certainly comes in handy in this endeavor, what really makes the new railway possible at all is the degree to which Ankh-Morpork - and the rest of the Disc - has changed since we first met this world. Dwarves and Trolls are not only at peace for the first time since anyone can remember, but both are accepted in society as just, well, people now, and can bring their cultural knowledge and innate talents to the table. And while Goblins are still on the path to gaining societal acceptance, they are now persons in the eyes of the law in Ankh-Morpork, and have a lot to offer as well.

Trouble is, there are a lot of folks, particularly the "deep down" Dwarves, or "Delvers", in line with the profoundly conservative Crags who serve as something like religious leaders in the mines beneath Überwald, who resent the hell out of all this change. They didn't want peace with the Trolls, they don't like the Clacks towers, they hate the idea of the current generations growing up with human and troll friends, for Tak's sake, and they know that when the railway arrives, life will never be the same again.

So they've started taking action. Violent action. Burning down Clacks towers and murdering teams of railway workers, that sort of thing. Moist finds himself on an official hit list, with his only comfort being that he's behind Vetinari, Harry King, and Dick Simnel on said list.

As the Hygienic Railway Company works to expand their network and make service safer and more reliable, the Delvers work on a coup to overthrow Rhys Rhysson, the Low King of the Dwarves who signed the historic Koom Valley Accords. Who is currently in Quirm, meeting with Mr. Shine, the Diamond King of Trolls.

The tracks aren't finished yet. The mountains are full of bandits as well as violent extremists. And Iron Girder has definitely taken on some sort of life of her own. Nonetheless, Vetinari has given Moist von Lipwig an absolute imperative to get the Low King to Schmaltzberg on the double.

posted by Navelgazer (12 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
So, let's get it out of the way, definitely a mixed bag here, which is unfortunate. It's very long for a Discworld novel, and while part of that is due to it covering simply more time and just stuff than the other novels have, part of it is definitely due to repetition. And while the set-up here is a good one, it's not as exciting in practice as it seems like it should be, because we're spending basically all of our time on the train itself and not where the impossible work of actually getting the tracks ready is being done.

The big "climax" appears to be the fight on the top of the train, which kind of fizzles for a couple of reasons. First, because while that's a very Sam Vimes type of scene (and Sam Vimes thankfully plays a pretty major role in this book), it's not how Moist does things, so it feels a little thematically out-of-place. Secondly, because instead of this setpiece arising out of crazy last-minute necessity, they first stand around and discuss how this is going to happen, and that Moist is going to be a part of it, largely because it's the sort of thing that Moist would find fun. That doesn't exactly get the blood pumping.

Thankfully, right before this is what I like to think of as the "real" climax of the novel, which befits Moist (and Adorabelle!) very well, and actually lives up (for a moment) to the promise inherent in the premise, that being of course the Golem Bridge. Nevermind that Vetinari's prohibition on Moist and Adorabelle using the Golems for this purpose isn't particularly motivated or, well, reasonable. The mental image of the golems tunneling at lightning speed from under Ankh-Morpork to Überwald in order to hold the bridge tracks aloft in the cloudy sky, and those tracks then falling to pieces behind the train once it's safely across and the golems have to Ferris-Bueller it back whence they came, is awesome.

Sadly, that's one scene in a long book that, while pleasant enough, isn't mostly as memorable as you'd hope. We check in with a lot of characters from throughout the series, which is nice, and motivated enough by the premise that it doesn't feel too forced, and some of the train geekery that runs throughout the story is fascinating (like the head-on collision that resulted from middle management making duplicate tokens in a system that relied upon there only being one) but a lot of the train geekery is also just kind of... there. Like research that felt like it needed to justify itself.

Still, I like these characters, and this is still a Discworld book, which makes it a good hang. It's not a low point of the series, exactly (I feel like that award goes to either Snuff or Interesting Times, personally) but it's definitely one that requires a correct calibration of expectations going in, I'd say.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:58 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]

Fuck Alzheimer's.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:56 PM on February 25 [9 favorites]

The basic issue with this book is that it's two books. There's The Train Book, and then there's The Dwarf Book, and there just isn't enough linking the two together.

But it also just needed a major hardcore edit that it didn't get. All the cutesy little vignettes needed to be cut out, for example.
posted by humbug at 7:23 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]

It's no criticism of the author to say that this book feels rushed. We all know what was going on.

But I'm so glad that Terry got to write it.
posted by Lorc at 1:30 AM on February 26 [4 favorites]

Yes, I am too. There's plenty I enjoy about it despite its composition issues.

Curiously, it's Vetinari rather than Vimes who gets overlionized in this one. I cannot believe that a man older than Vimes with a long-ago but serious leg injury turns into Stoker Blake. I just can't, Assassin training or no.
posted by humbug at 5:07 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]

I think it should have been presented as an unfinished novel, or maybe not even a novel but a draft. There are fantastic ideas, but it doesn't hang together, and there's dialogue and prose that doesn't ... it just doesn't. I felt so sad as I read it, and not in the same way as with other later novels, where I saw how much potential would have to be foregone.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:13 AM on February 26 [4 favorites]

Right there with you on the dialogue. Many characters that had distinct voices in earlier novels all run together in this one. Dick Simnel stands out, the Marquis stands out, but Moist and Vimes and Harry King and the Low Queen and even Vetinari all sound the same (except maybe for a verbal tic or two like the Low Queen's "boyo") and that's just not right for them.
posted by humbug at 10:23 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]

Oh, he'd definitely gotten into a singular style for writing most of his characters by this point, which was, sadly, "overly verbose and circuitous." Also, and Pratchett himself kind of pointed this out in I Shall Wear Midnight, but his crush on the word "susurration" starts to get a bit uncomfortable here.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:31 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]

Big appreciation for Navelgazer--this series of posts has been great. Thank you!
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:15 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]

Hygienic Railway Company

Heh, I'd forgotten that bit.
posted by Greg_Ace at 5:51 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]

I wasn't sure if the overly-long monologues (seemingly) every character speaks in was a choice (chosen to mimic a "typical" Victorian novel) or an artifact of Pratchett's declining health. I don't think even one of our existing friends talks much like we expect them to, some to an exasperating degree.

Simnel I think is particularly awful from a dialogue POV. If you met someone who talked like him you'd back out of the room as quickly as you could, no matter how sympathetic you were to them or their ideas. (Maybe I've known a few too many "Simnels" in my time.) Of the friends we already knew, the patrician stood out to me for saying things he definitely would not say and in a way he definitely would not say them.

This is definitely a "tell", not "show", book, which I think is unusual in the discworld series, and not an improvement. I still think there was a choice made here, which TP in his prime could have pulled off, but he failed to in this volume.
posted by maxwelton at 7:58 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]

That said, I still prefer it to a typical early Rincewind book.
posted by maxwelton at 7:59 PM on February 28 [3 favorites]

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