A goblin with a stone axe and two humans driving a steam train

Raising Steam

A goblin with a stone axe and two humans driving a steam train

I used to think of Perdido Street Station as Steampunk version of Terry Pratchet’s universe, but along the Diskworld® novels, the world has undergone its own industrial revolution. After a light based telegraph system (the clacks) Raising Steam tells the story of the appearance of trains.

It is easy to make parallels with the Going Postal which got its own movie: same main character (Moist von Lipwig) and same background theme (a new technology emerging), the problem is, Going Postal had original ideas: the clacks are not just a simple telegraph, the community associated with them was inspired by programmers, not Victorian telegraph operators, and most of the involved characters were new.

Raising Steam

ISBN : 978-0-857-52227-6

There is no such originality in Raising Steam, the central character is again Most von Lipwig, but nearly every Discworld® characters pops up in the story. The engineer behind the steam engine, Simnel, is a very straight engineer, except when he could be trapped, then he reveals himself to be smart about the world. The steam engine is just that, a regular steam engine, no variation, same thing about the people in the railway: they come out straight of the Victorian book of clichés.

The book could be divided into two parts, the first one is just a description of the building up of the railway, it is well written and pleasing to read, but there is no real suspense because there is basically no antagonist. The second part is basically some simple conspiracy plot which seems to have been bolted on the previous dissertation to make it look like there is an actual story. This part could also be called the Parade of Mary Sues, all of Pratchet’s main characters are on a train a beating the shit of the weak opposition, even the crook reveals himself to be a tough fighter. Of course, there is not much tension as the opposition seems to be, at best, an afterthought.

The second part also contains a set of sudden reveals, but they concern secondary characters and feel very artificial, so does the final deus machina moment. In general I felt that by pushing all the interesting characters from previous books into this story, it watered them down or changed them in contradictory fashion.

One annoying pattern in science fiction and fantasy books is that as the authors get older, they often try to make all the bits and pieces of their work fit together, this seems to be motivated more by a will to make their life’s work a coherent piece, not to write a good story. Raising Steam clearly falls into that category of books.

Terry Pratchet often had trouble with his book’s endings, but this is the first time I really though come-on while reading the last part. So while the writing style is still as enjoyable, and I really liked the first part, I can’t really recommend this book, which is basically a pale shadow of Going Postal.

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Cover of the Terry Pratchett Book 'Snuff' – Commander Vimes at the wheel of a paddle-boat in a storm with a bunch of chicken fleeing.

Yesterday, I took the day off an spent the day at the Badi in Wollishofen. Badis are bathhouses on the lake of Zürich, with showers, lockers, a cafeteria, a nice taal tree and a box full of books. Although the box contains some Terry Pratchett books (Diggers, if I recall correctly), I had brought my own: a copy of “Snuff” that was lent to me by a friend. So I bathed and finished reading the book in the sun, and managed to get some sunburn, which is very astonishing because the weather was quite cloudy.

Snuff is a new adventure of Commander Vimes, of Ankh-Morpork fame, this time he goes on holiday in his wife’s country-side house, of course, there is a crime, and then something bigger, so the holidays are far from dull. While most of the action happens in the country-side, part of the action happens in Ankh-Morpork, so all the characters of the guard make at least a token appearance.


Double Day
ISBN : 978-0-385-61926-4

The book basically follows the classical recipe of recent Disk-world books, it is well written, and gripping and I enjoyed reading it. I found the shift of Vimes becoming old and respectable interesting, but the story basically fell appart once I put down the book.

First one can feel that Terry Pratchett is getting really old, I felt more dramatic tension in one posh dinners than in the fights, this reminded me of “A Civil Campaign” by , where the most dramatic moment was a family dinner going quite wrong.

Second, the character of Vimes is starting to collapse on his own weight, he now has a bazillion titles, he is the protégé of the Patrician, and since the book Thud! he has magical powers. All this power undermines the dramatic tension, as no-one really believes that anything really bad can happen to him or his family. A small part of the book is devoted to Vime’s internal struggles, but it is minor and felt like an afterthought. I think Sir Commander Vimes is starting to be way to much of a Mary Sue for Sir Terry Pratchett. I also found that the way Vime’s child is described feels a bit to much like an introduction, that we are soon going to get the adventures of Vime’s son.

Third, the parts of the story besides of the country-side where Vimes resides feel hollow and artificial. The whole Sergeant Colon sub-plot should either have been the center of the story or been removed, it just feels like some filler to justify having the other characters coming around. This also seems to be a trend with older authors, everything needs to become some kind of family reunion. Even Nobby Nobbs finds a girlfriend in the last chapter.

In summary Snuff is a pleasant read, showing that Terry Pratchet can do his usual tricks quite well, but it probably won’t leave any lasting impression once you finished reading the book. This is certainly not him at his best, the writing is good: but the story below it feel increasingly hollow.

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Going Postal – Telefilm

Yesterday, I watched the two part telefilm of , based on the book by Terry Pratchett. There have been other cinematographic adaptations of Diskworld novels, but the quality has been quite variable. This one is, in my opinion, the best one to date: less of a children’s tale and more a steam-punk story poking fun at the internet age.

In the city of Ankh-Morpork, the patrician forces a crooked sentenced to death to take over the crumbling office to compete with a company that operates a new technology, the clacks, a system of light semaphores that have been invented recently.

Going Postal – Cast

The main actors, Claire Foy as Adora Belle Dearheart and Richard Coyle as Moist von Lipwig felt convincing and the contrast between the two characters plays out well. I was less convinced by the bad guy, Reacher Gilt, played by David Suchet, which somehow felt flat. The sets where are gorgeous and made me realise the extent to which the Discworld morphed from a fantasy city into some victorian metropolis in the course of the novels.

Having the story split between two part for a total of 185 minutes means that a the story and the characters could be developed. I think that the story works by itself, even for people who have not read any discworld books. In the end, I suspect the most obscure jokes are the ones about the hackers and the clacks. So in summary a very good movie I recommend to anybody who wants to see something light-hearted in a colourful world.

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Unseen Academicals

Unseen Academicals - Terry Pratchett

For his next book, Terry Pratchett has chosen the subject of football. For people from the United States, we are talking about the sport that is played with feet and involves a round ball. For various reasons, the Unseen University has to take over a street game of Ankh Morpork, the story is centered around four characters working at the University, but the recurring characters of the city are also present: the mages, the Patrician, and Vimes.

The book was a good read, I had a real pleasure to read it, it felt like a hot cup of chocolate in Winter. The style is funny (I loved Ankh Morpork‘s anthem) and typical of Pratchett, maybe to much. At times, I had the feeling that the book was not written by Pratchett (this is technically true, according to the preface, most of the book was typed by Rob Wilkins), but by someone trying very hard to write the ultimate Pratchett book: it is too polished and there is actually nearly nothing new in it. The book follows the standard pattern: it starts with some random semi-magic event, this starts a crisis where the normal characters are engulfed, and things get larger and larger until we reach the point where the city could be destroyed, and ends with a big deus ex machina (literally in this case).

When dragons belch and hippos flee
My thoughts, Ankh-Morpork, are of thee
Let others boast of martial dash
For we have boldly fought with cash
We own all your helmets, we own all your shoes
We own all your generals – touch us and you’ll lose.
Morporkia! Morporkia!
Morporkia owns the day!
We can rule you wholesale
Touch us and you’ll pay.

We bankrupt all invaders, we sell them souvenirs
We ner ner ner ner ner, hner ner hner by the ears
Er hner we ner ner ner ner ner
Ner ner her ner ner ner hner the ner
Er ner ner hner ner, nher hner ner ner (etc.)
Ner hner ner, your gleaming swords
We mortgaged to the hilt
Morporkia! Morporkia!
Hner ner ner ner ner ner
We can rule you wholesale
Credit where it’s due.

While the book is nice and warm while reading, it owes a lot to the fact that there is not much new. There is a least one scene I remember reading in a previous book: some character leaves the city in a carriage and changes his mind during the ride. The two sisters are recurring of the two girls from Maskerade, the pretty one and the smart competent one in the background. The pretty one is called Juliet and falls in love with a guy from another supporter gang, but strangely, the Romeo & Juliet allusion is not really used in the second half of the book. I suspect the books shows that Pratchet is really getting old, his style is really smooth, but he has the symptoms of old age: he tells the same stories with basically the same characters, nothing really bad happens, and character traits are associated to lineage. I found the last item the most annoying, Glenda cannot just be a good cook by herself, she comes from a dynasty of good cooks. Same goes for the protagonist, but not Juliet. I would not mind it so much if there was something deeper about the subject, but there isn’t.

In conclusion I nice book to read in your bed on a winter night, but nothing ground breaking.

Unseen Academicals Terry Pratchett, Doubleday ISBN 978-0-385-60934-0

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Blanche Neige et les lance-missiles

Couverture Blanche Neige et les lance-missiles - ⓒ Didier Graffet

J’ai fini de lire Blanche Neige et les lance-missile de Catherine Dufour. Cela faisait longtemps que je n’avais lu de Fantasy française et ce livre a été une surprise intéressante. Le texte de présentation du livre donne d’entrée le ton :

Catherine Dufour est née en 1966. Elle a commencé à écrire des poèmes à l’âge de sept ans. Cinq ans plus tard, elle apprend que les poètes finissent tous trafiquants d’armes : elle jette ses poèmes et commence à écrire des nouvelles. Vingt ans et quelque prix plus tard, elle découvre Terry Pratchett, et décide de tout recommencer à zéro. Ainsi naîtra son cycle Quand les dieux buvaient (prix Merlin), qui l’a imposée, avec son roman de science fiction Le goût de l’immortalité (Prix Bob-Morane, Rosny aîné, prix du Lundi et Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire), comme une figure centrale de l’imaginaire actuel français.

Blanche Neige et les lance-missiles

Le Livre de Poche
ISBN : 9782253125402

Ce texte pose d’entrée l’intérêt et les problèmes de ce livre : ça n’est pas du Terry Pratchett. Le récit se place clairement dans la même catégorie du médiéval fantastique déjanté, et regorge d’idées fabuleuses. Expliquer l’antenne de Pleumeur-Bodou par une conspiration de fantômes télégraphistes bretons est à mon avis un coup de génie, la description du pays hors du temps à la fin du second texte est magnifique, sans parler du plan génial pour détruire le paradis à coup de coton hydrophile. En idées brutes, c’est réellement un chef d’œuvre. Plus d’une fois, je me suis dit, ça serait sympa dans un scénario Rêve de Dragon, ce qui m’arrive rarement ces jours.

Ça se gâte au niveau réalisation : Je n’ai pas été impressionné par le style d’écriture, que j’ai trouvé lourd et inélégant. On passe de descriptions élaborées à un style télégraphique en passant par le français ancien, mais les transitions semblent arbitraires et au bout de la cinquième fois, ça devient lassant. J’ai eu l’impression que toute ces manœuvres de style ne sont pas présentes pour soutenir la narration, elles existent par et pour elles-mêmes.

Ce qui nous amène au problème central du texte : les personnages. Il y en a beaucoup, trop et ils sont trop caricaturaux et abstrait pour qu’on s’investisse du point de vue émotionnel. J’ai tendance à facilement confondre les personnages, et dans ce livre j’ai été servi. Ce n’est pas que les personnages ne sont pas différentiés, mais ils sont nombreux et restent trop abstraits et dénués de motivations. C’est à mon avis la grande différence avec les récits de Terry Pratchet : l’investissement dans les personnages. On s’attache aux personnages du Disque-Monde, je n’ai rien ressenti de tel dans le monde de Catherine Dufour. La narration est trop détachée, trop distante. Le problème est accentué par le fait que la majorité des personnages sont passifs et la narration découpée en nombreux fils parallèles.

Le livre regroupe de fait deux textes assez différents, et j’ai trouvé que le second était de meilleure qualité : le style est plus régulier et les personnages mieux différentiés. Reste que le personnage central reste une femme écrivain qui passe toute l’histoire à ne rien comprendre et à se faire expliquer ce qui se passe par d’autres personnages. Les explications à l’intérieur du texte sont une alternative aux exposés du narrateur, mais il y a des limites. Mis à part ça, sur trois cent pages, elle frappe un démon avec une épée (sans effet) et vole un disque dur. Il faut qu’on m’explique pourquoi la fée dans ce livre s’appelle Cid et l’humaine normale s’appelle Mismas. À part embrouiller le lecteur, c’est quoi le but ?

En bref, Blanche Neige et les lance-missiles est un livre qui regorge d’idées brillantes mais qui souffre à mon avis d’un style écriture lourd et fouillis, ce que je trouve un peu décevant pour une figure centrale de l’imaginaire actuel français.

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Making Money

Making Money - Cover by Josh Kirby

One of the stories I heard about Terry Pratchet’s vision of Ankh Morpork, the city where many of the Diskworld’s stories take place, is that he originally did not like the idea of having a map of the city, then some enterprising fan drew it, Pratchet used that map in the following stories, which became suddenly much more concrete. Since then, the city has grown in complexity, with stories describing various aspects of the city beyond the few places that appeared in the first stories (mostly the Magical University and the pub opposite). “Making Money” is basically about Ankh Morpork’s economy…

What about the story? I read most of the book in one evening, and it was a good and enjoyable way of changing my mood, but I can’t say that the book has any profound quality. Pratchet knows how to write, and to build tension, he still can’t do ends which are not gigantic deus dei ex machinæ.

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Terry Pratchet's Wintersmith

I was lucky, during my travel to England, to be able to grab a copy of Terry Pratchet’s last Discworld novel, Wintersmith. I have been reading Discworld books for a long time now, from the original stories of Rincewinds woes to the more structured stories of the Ank Morpork’s watch or the Witch stories. Wintersmith is the next installement of the adventures of young witch Tiffany Aching. I really enjoyed reading this book, but I can’t help feeling some kind of empty feeling afterwards. The book is well written and the characters are endearing, but in the end it is just a Discworld story like the others before, i.e. there is not much of a story, basically is something terrible is again triggered and there is a lot of running around and interacting, and then the problem is solved in a more or less satisfactory way. In my opinion, Terry Pratchet was never good with endings, and he seems to solve this problem by basically packing the full resolution of the story in one chapter.

In the Discworld, stories are a form of magic of its own right, and once started they have to go to the classical end. Discworld novels seem to also follow this pattern, they seem to be designed to be children’s stories for adults, the story is known, the book is just retelling it in a slightly different way and we get to see likable characters again. One theme of the book is how things in stories are not like they are in reality, from the Wintersmith trying to play a human role to Tiffany’s reaction to shepherdesses in romance books not looking after the sheep. Yet the Wintersmith book suffers from the same problem: the kids in it don’t behave like kids or teenagers. In the end an old man’s vision of a twelve year country girl is as close as the romance books vision. It still makes an very enjoyable reading, but with little more virtue than novels with saucy shepherdesses…

Edit: corrected many mistakes, thanks to Anne for pointing it out.

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Thud !

During my flight back from Switzerland to Japan, I have read Thud “Thud !” by Terry Pratchett.

スイスから日本まで帰る時は飛行機でTerry Pratchetの 「Thud !」を読みました。

En rentrant depuis la Suisse vers le Japon, j’ai lu « Thud », de Terry Pratchet dans l’avion.

I have been reading DiscWorld stories for some years, starting with Rincewind’s adventures. The style has evolved quite a lot, and Ank Morpork’s watch has taken more and more importance. The stories have become more rich, with some political elements and mystery solving. Each novel developing some aspect of the world: regions of the world, or the different races that haunt any fantasy world.

Thud is continues in trend and features a murder investigation with in background riots between troll and dwarves. The story is a nice read and kept me hooked during the flight. The humor is still there and I chuckled more than once. The only weak point of this book is the end. Terry Pratchet tends to build his stories by piling up more and more elements on the plot, but has often trouble to build a satisfactory end. Because of this story ends tend to involve a lot of strange super-natural entities, once this entity is defeated the plot collapses and everybody rejoices. Thud is no exception, although in my opinion, the whole story would work well without such a deus ex machina.

Despite the weak ending a really liked Thud which definitely makes a good read.

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Going postal

Je viens de terminer la lecture du dernier livre de Terry Pratchet, Going Postal (en anglais donc). Je l’ai bien aimé. Ce n’est malheureusement plus une évidence, il y a eu une série d’aventures du Disque Monde qui ont été décevantes, soit parce que trop déprimantes (“Nightwatch”) soit des histoires qui partent trop dans tous les sens et ou la fin est un vague deus ex machina pas très convaincant (le livre sur le thème du père Noël est selon moi le pire).

Cette fois-ci Pratchet s’attaque au monde des télécommunications, et du système de sémaphore décrit dans les livres récents. Je soupçonne qu’une des raisons pour lesquelles ce livre a été rafraîchissant et que les personnages principaux sont nouveaux. L’histoire se passant à Ankh Morpork, on retrouve naturellement le Patricien, la garde et les magiciens, mais ce sont surtout des éléments du décor – ok pas le Patricien, mais j’aime bien le Patricien. On retrouve donc naturellement des allusions à la nouvelle économie, aux geeks qui travaillent dans les communications, les start-ups et même le mouvement GNU. Les nouveaux personnages sont un escroc, un collectionneur d’épingles et une fille qui fume et porte des robes serrées et des talons aiguilles. Concernant cette dernière, je regrette un peu qu’elle ne soit pas plus développée, pour un personnage de Terry Pratchet, elle est presque banale.

Concernant ce dernier point, je déconseillerait ce livre à qui que ce soit qui prend le mouvement GNU très au sérieux. Le nom est resté, avec même une explication foireuse sur le nom, et il reste des personnages amusants mais rien de théorie de RMS, ce qui est probablement une bonne chose, ça n’aurait pas fait une bonne histoire. Je suppose que le fait que le terme entre dans la littérature grand public est déjà un succès en soi.

Dans tous les cas, c’est un des des Pratchets les plus rafraîchissants que j’ai lu depuis un bon moment et une lecture que je recommande, en espérant ne pas trop frustrer ceux qui doivent attendre la version française.

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