Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett’s Nation is a little different from his Discworld series, in that, in terms of geography and history, it resembles our world just a bit more than the Discworld does (although in Nation there are still multiple universes, and a bending of reality just a little). Set in an alternate history of the mid-1800s, it begins with a ship setting off into the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean in search of the heir (way down the list of heirs to the throne, almost 138 down) to the throne in England. A plague has swept through England, and the only thing that has saved the next king is that he is far enough away to avoid the sickness.

Meanwhile, on an island called the Nation, a boy named Mau is hit by a tsunami during a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. He is the only remaining person on the island: everyone he has ever known has been killed or swept out to sea. But the tsunami has also brought a visitor to the island. A young girl named Ermintrude (who goes by Daphne on the island) washes up in a schooner called Sweet Judy. Soon, more people come to the island, as their own homes and families have been washed away on neighboring islands.

Mau’s own sense of identity is unclear, as his rite of passage was interrupted by the tsunami. He has become the reluctant chief of the Nation, even though he is not sure if he is a boy, or a man, or a demon. Just like Pratchett uses Death as a character in the Discworld series, he has a similar character in Nation, taking from another mythology. At one point, Daphne has to journey to a place in between life and death in order to save Mau. Pratchett’s wit and humor are so evident in passages like this, where Daphne realizes that she has to die in order to reach the place that Mau is:

‘She says there is no time to teach you, but she knows another way, and when you come back from the shadows you will be able to chew much meat for her with your wonderful white teeth.’
The little old woman gave her a smile so wide that her ears nearly fell into it.
‘I certainly will!’
‘So now she will poison you to death,’ Cahle went on.
Daphne looked at Mrs Gurgle, who nodded encouragingly.
‘She will? Er…really? Er, thank you,’ said Daphne. ‘Thank you very much.’

Pratchett’s novel is also about nation and nationhood, and examines England’s expansion and colonization. Daphne doesn’t want the Nation to be claimed by England, and the idea of flags and guns claiming nations is a theme that follows throughout the story. Both Daphne and Mau are interesting and dynamic characters, and both have extremely complicated character arcs as they develop from the beginning to the end.

The book is also about religion, science, and belief, and in terms of wit and humor, Pratchett’s writing really shines when it comes to those topics. The following exchange between Mau, Daphne, and a bishop was of one my favorites:

‘And someone, please, to teach us doctrine,’ Mau added.
The bishop, who had been feeling a bit left out by now, brightened up at this point and stepped forward smartly. ‘If I can help in any way –’ he began, his voice full of hope.
‘Doctrine to make us better,’ said Mau, giving Daphne an imploring look.
‘Yes, indeed,’ said the bishop. ‘I feel that – ’
Daphne sighed. ‘I’m sorry, Your Grace, but he means doctoring,’ she said.
‘Ah, yes,’ said the bishop sadly. ‘Silly me.’

Nation came out a few years ago, and is one of the only books by Pratchett that I hadn’t read yet. I love his Discworld books so much, that I almost forget to pick up his books that are set outside of that universe. Daphne reminded me so much of the Discworld’s Tiffany Aching, who is one of my favorite characters in literature ever. Nation was a great read, like all of Pratchett’s books (and was a Michael L. Prinz Honor Book when it came out!). 

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