Raising Steam, Terry Pratchett
The cover of this, the 40th novel in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, shows a train hurtling through the darkness:
It's such an apt cover, not just because the story deals with the coming of steam power and the railroad to the Disc, but also because the plot hurtles along at almost warp speed. I was a little concerned sometimes that the wheels were coming off the rails, but Mr. Pratchett kept a steady hand on the controls, bringing his story into a neat terminus.
I'm tempted to see how many more railroad metaphors I can work into this - but I'll stop now.
The last few books of this long series have brought some rapid changes to Mr. Pratchett's world, particularly the great city of Ankh-Morpork. Some have been social, such as the liberation of golems, or the integration of vampires (at least those who forswear blood) and now goblins into society. Others are technological, like the invention of the printing press and a telegraph system (the "clacks"). Of course there are always those who oppose change, who believe that the old ways are best. This is carried to extremes in the dwarf community, where ultra-traditionalists preach against the contamination of the modern world. This includes the female dwarfs who, while looking just like males, beards and all, are coming out as female and even daring to dress differently. Led by the grags, who wear burqa-like garments, the ultras are putting words into action with attacks on the clacks towers. More moderate and progressive dwarfs feel helpless in the face of their fanaticism and willingness to use violence. The parallels to our own world are obvious.
Unfortunately for the grags, even bigger changes are on the way. The catalyst for the next step in the Disc's Industrial Revolution is steam power, driving an engine running on rails. When it arrives in Ankh-Morpork, the city's ruler Lord Vetinari is determined to harness this new invention for the benefit of his city. He assigns that task to an official of the Royal Mint, Moist von Lipwig. Moist is one of my favorite characters in the entire series (despite his unfortunate name). He is a con man, the perfect Trickster, whom Vetinari appointed Postmaster General - as an alternative to hanging him - in Going Postal. The Discworld Companion describes him as "A natural born criminal, an habitual liar, a fraudster and a totally untrustworthy perverted genius." But he's also great fun to read about, as he turns that genius first to remaking the postal service and then the Royal Mint. Here he is the grease that keeps the wheels moving, as the rail lines spiral out from Ankh-Morpork. Vetinari orders him to drive the rails all the way to Überwald, the distant country where the Low King of the Dwarfs is facing off against the ultra-traditionalists. Meanwhile, the grags have found a new cause.
Obviously, there is a lot going on in this book. There are three major plot lines, and the cast of characters is huge, many of them like Moist returning from earlier books. There are quite a few new characters introduced as well, starting with the engineer Dick Simnel, whose engine the Iron Girder takes on a life of her own in the story. Mr. Pratchett has fun with some sly cameos as well, including Mrs Georgina Bradshaw, who begins writing guides to the areas she visits on the railway; and Edith Nesmith, a child who loves stories and might grow up to write one about children and railways someday.
I did wonder about the absence of one character, though: Captain Carrot, a dwarf by adoption (he is well over six feet tall), who has risen quickly in the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Dwarfs play such a major part in this story, with their deadly disagreements over what it means to be a proper dwarf, and the place of dwarfs in modern society. I can't quite see Carrot sitting all that out. For one thing, as the most prominent dwarf above ground, and not just because he's the tallest, he would be a target for the grags. But then this book isn't exactly lacking in characters, and I suppose Mr. Pratchett couldn't really include everyone from all the books (though it feels that way at times). Even DEATH only gets one scene, though with the body count in this book, he was presumably lurking in the wings much of the time.
That quibble aside, I did enjoy the book. However, I would not recommend it as an introduction to the Discworld series. There is a tremendous amount of backstory, building from the last few books but also on characters like Moist and Commander Vimes of the Watch, which would probably frustrate someone new to his world.
Lord Vetinari has the last word in this book: "And all that anyone can say now is: What next? What little thing will change the world because the little tinkers carried on tinkering?" As always, I'll be interested to see what changes the next book will bring to the Disc.