I'd been thinking recently about how Terry Pratchett was probably the author who first got me really interested in literature, and also about how good a 'first author' Pratchett is: as well as just being in tune with the fantasy genre that's often favoured by younger readers, the knowing sense of humour and tendency towards satire and social commentary take it a bit further, Pratchett's use of parody and pastiche opens up a wealth of further reading (for example, the City Watch novels could lead one to the works of Raymond Chandler; allusions to the Dungeon Dimensions can lead to H. P. Lovecraft, etc.), and -- overall -- through adding more and more depth to the settings and characters of his Discworld novels over the years, he's created a universe that encompasses the influence of so much literature, while itself being no less unique and overflowing with originality.
It had been a while since I'd read something from Pratchett, and - having not read any of the most recent Discworld novels - I went into Raising Steam curious about how the fictional world had changed and developed (especially seeing as how many of the recent novels seem to be about the Disc's increasing technological developments and slide towards industrialisation).
I feel like, having read the novel now, there's definitely been some change to the world -- Ankh-Morpork isn't as comically drowning in its own squalor, and this novel dwells less on the fantastical elements of a fantasy world and more on those of a more recognisably 'real' and constantly developing one. Raising Steam is, generally speaking, about progress: when a young, enthusiastic, Northern (or Discworld-Northern, anyway) autodidact engineer invents the first functional steam engine, the reader witnesses how - around the Disc - various groups react to both the perceived wonders and the perceived dangers posed by the innovation. In dealing with this theme, Pratchett clearly still possesses the ability to balance real-world issues and satire within a fantasy setting (a reminder here that I should really re-read Small Gods at some point); something visible in how one of the key themes of the novel centres around an extremist reaction by a faction of dwarves against technological advancement and explores effectively how those with power will exploit the fears and anxieties of ordinary people in order to further their own pursuits for further power and control.
If there's any fault with Raising Steam, I'd say it lies to some extent with the structuring of the novel. The early parts of the novel -- in which Pratchett is introducing and gradually bringing together the various characters -- sometimes feel somewhat disjointed: I'm wondering whether this is to do with the fact that Pratchett is, sadly, only able to write now via the use of voice-recognition software. I can definitely see how such a situation would effect how one is able to compose something as structurally complex as a novel (especially one like this that is set in a multitude of locations scattered across what is a seemingly constantly growing fictional world); and something that I feel is redeemed by the fact that Pratchett's style of writing and characteristic sense of humour is highly conversational in tone anyway, as well as by the fact that - as the characters come together and the plot finds its focus - the novel becomes ever more enjoyable and readable.
Raising Steam may not hit the heights of Pratchett's best work; but it's nonetheless a very readable novel displaying not only Pratchett's ability to effortlessly balance rich imagination and humour with contrastingly serious themes, but also that he - like his character, Dick Simnell - has immeasurable passion, pride, and care for what he has put so much time and effort into creating over the years.