I was fortunate enough to discover Terry Pratchett's books about young witch-in-training Tiffany Aching a few years back. Since then, I've been recommending these titles --- and the rest of his stellar Discworld novels --- to friends and family, young and old alike. Pratchett is sometimes dismissed as only a humorist, an author of light fantasy that, while offering plenty of comedic social satire, doesn't have much backbone. I would beg to differ with that characterization of the Discworld series, which has as much heart as it does humor.
But, with the publication of NATION, a stand-alone novel that is not part of the Discworld oeuvre, Pratchett should silence those criticisms once and for all. NATION is at once adventurous and contemplative, playful and philosophical, and it should appeal to long-time devotees of the author and new fans alike.
NATION is not set in Discworld but rather in a world that bears a great deal of resemblance to our own in the mid-19th century. There are a few differences in history and geography, but cultural issues such as scientific investigation, the rights of women, and the role and responsibility of the monarchy and religion will certainly be familiar to any student of the Victorian period, even if Pratchett takes some delightful liberties with the historical record.
Ermintrude is the teenage daughter of the Governor of Port Mercia, who had been 139th in line for the throne of England. That is, until a bout of influenza wipes out everyone between him and the throne. The only problem? The presumptive king is thousands of miles away, governing one of the dozens of tiny tropical islands that dot the Southern Pelagic Ocean and contribute to the nation's extensive empire. His daughter is also at sea, on a ship called the Sweet Judy with an unscrupulous crew, eager to join her father. Neither one of them has any idea of the myriad ways in which their fortunes are about to change.
Ermintrude's fortune changes dramatically indeed, when a killer tsunami runs the Sweet Judy aground on a tiny island. Ermintrude is the only survivor of the shipwreck and, as she soon discovers, is one of only two people left alive on the devastated island. The other is Mau, a teenage boy who was in the process of successfully passing his manhood ceremony when the tsunami destroyed his entire Nation. Now Mau is confused about his place in the world. If he has left his boy's soul behind but not yet been given a man's soul, does that make him a human? A demon? Or something else entirely?
Mau and Ermintrude (who quickly takes this opportunity to rename herself Daphne instead of her given name, which she has always hated) don't have too much time to consider these philosophical details. There are hundreds of dead to be buried at sea, shelters to be made, fires to be built, new languages and customs to be learned, and, soon, as dozens of desperate refugees from other islands arrive at the Nation seeking support, other people's problems to which to attend.
Daphne, who has lived her whole life under the thumb of her martinet grandmother, soon discovers she has a passion for doctoring, a talent for making beer, and an appreciation for walking around in the tropical climate in just her petticoat and pantaloons. Mau, who continues to question his soul's worth and his own place in a warlike culture, grows into a capable, confident and kind chief of this new Nation. Together, Daphne and Mau develop a new civilization --- and learn truths about Mau's people's history that may change views of science, culture and religion forever.
NATION may be more philosophically dense and less broadly comic than most of Pratchett's Discworld novels. There's plenty of adventure to be had, though --- with shipwrecks, cannibals, murders and even a hidden sacred burial ground. While certainly appealing to his legions of existing devotees, NATION should help broaden his fan base significantly. It raises some of the most fundamental moral and ethical questions that humans have always struggled with, and then turns them on their head in ways surprising, thought provoking and, finally, eminently satisfying.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 18, 2011