REVIEW: Nation by Terry Pratchett
REVIEW SUMMARY: One of Pratchett’s strongest and most passionate works.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Disparate and unlikely survivors of a devastating tsunami wave band together on an island called Nation.
PROS: Accessible to Pratchett newcomers; emotionally powerful, and still funny as ever.
CONS: A couple of problematic Pratchett-isms creep in.
BOTTOM LINE: This is Pratchett at his sharpest, most passionate, and best storytelling. A fine place to discover this author. And I do really think it’s a must read.
Nation begins with a young boy named Mau, who is just preparing to come back from the Island of Boys and return to his people on the home island of “Nation.” One goes out to the Island of Boys to become a man. You leave your boy-soul there, and receive your man-soul when you get home. But on a canoe ride back home, a massive tsunami wave sweeps through the world and nearly kills Mau. It does kill his people, just wipes them off the face of Nation. And thus, Mau comes home a battered and grieving survivor who has, by the logic of his people…no soul.
We also quickly meet a young British aristocratic girl, whose ship was beached on Nation by the same wave, all the crew killed. Her name is Ermintrude, although she goes by Daphne (And if my name were Ermintrude, I would too). She has nothing but a broken boat, an obnoxious parrot…and this strange dark-skinned boy, who is stumbling around the island burying people.
That’s how the novel starts, and I admit, it starts on a sharp and painful note. Terry Pratchett is, at this point, a master of his craft. He is very capable of bringing sharp emotion to the pages of his stories through understatement and effect. There is no purple prose. There are just, now and then, quiet sentences which hurt. Although he’s called a humorist, any reader of his Discworld books know that the humor has long since left behind the slapstick and moved into a sharper, darker bent. There is humor in Nation, and some of it is laugh-out-loud funny. But it is not, particularly, a funny book. It’s a love story, and a story about dealing with the death of loved ones – both the recent deaths, and deaths much further back in the past – and it’s the story of a young boy growing into not only a man, but the Chief of Nation, as other survivors arrive on the island, shocked and scarred and terrified.
The first thing one cannot help but note when talking about Nation is that it is Terry Pratchett’s first adult novel which is not set in his wonderful flat-on-a-turtle-back world of Discworld. Nation has no connection at all, at least officially, although as I read through, I found that it does connect up in a number of ways.
The second thing I wanted to point out is that it is a compelling novel. Some novels have natural breaking points – between scenes, or chapters, or after action pieces – when the reader can put the book down and go off and do other things, such as eat. This novel didn’t have that for me. I found myself reading it while I ate and drank, and I felt a bit like I’d just come back from a long trip when I had to stop reading for a bit and use the restroom. It’s an engaging book. When you stop trying to read it, you feel a bit like someone’s just vanished from the room and stopped talking to you. At least, it was true for me.
(The third thing to mention: I was surprised to find this book in my university library yesterday morning. I checked it out at 8:58 A.M. I finished reading it yesterday afternoon at 3:00 P.M. I stopped for an hour class, some lunch, and little else. And when I finished the book, I discovered that my depth perception was gone, which was a bit of a challenge since I was at the top of a flight of stairs. Like I said: it was a compelling read.)
Nation connects up to Discworld in an interesting way, I thought, and it isn’t overt at all. But Nation is chock-full of a lot of the themes which Pratchett has touched on in his Discworld books over the years…and in Nation, they are more overt and he talks about them with a greater level of passion than otherwise.
Who are the Gods? Do they exist, and does that affect how important they are to us? Should we believe in them, or ourselves, and are those perhaps the same thing, in the end? How do we hurt and grieve, and how do we grow from that into fully-formed human beings, with scars to go alongside our muscles? What makes a nation? And we touch again upon women, and the places they are relegated (or relegate themselves) in high and low society, and their strengths and weaknesses, and how they affect each other, and the men around them, and the world. Reading through Nation, these themes were beautifully, and angrily, and passionately touched on. And I could pinpoint the novels they came from, in some ways. So much of the material about women, for example, were the themes and discussions in Monstrous Regiment, but here they were more overt, sharper. The discussion of religion echoed Small Gods, and Thud! and so many other places, although here it was again more overt and passionate than ever before.
It seems to me that this is Terry Pratchett’s most heartfelt and passionate novel. I keep using that word, “passionate,” but that’s what comes to mind. It feels like this is him, sitting down and saying intensely, “I need to tell you these things.”
There are a couple of weak points in the book, at least for me, and I actually find that they are recurring Terry Pratchett problems. Or at least, they are recurring problems I have with Pratchett. It could just be me. I want to touch on them both briefly, with a minimum of spoilers, if I can.
First, there is occasionally a sense of wandering in Pratchett’s books, especially toward the beginning, when you get a lot of scenes all over the place which eventually narrow down to the main plot and the main characters. They are always related, but feel like warm-up scenes. Here, we really only get two of those and it focuses pretty quickly. But I did feel that the very minor side plot, set on British navy ships, was so occasional and unnecessary, it just got in the way. They felt like they broke the spell of the rest of the story, which remains on the island of Nation. They almost felt like commercial breaks. I didn’t think they advanced the story, in that they could have been simply implied.
The other problem I have with Pratchett sometimes is the supernatural. Occasionally, it feels like there is a supernatural element – either in the form of a God, or a piece of magic, or a device – which is gently hinted at throughout the novel, and then turns up and solves problems quickly toward the end. It is a bit of a gentle deus ex machina. I don’t want to give a specific example, because it would spoil the ending…but it does occasionally feel as if Pratchett struggles at the ending, pulls something fantastic out to fix things, and then goes back and adds in references to it throughout the book.
I also felt that actually, when we got to the end of the book, it started to wander all over the place in what felt like a slapdash attempt to tie up every single loose end. It was too much all at once. However, the rest of the book is so amazingly powerful, this is almost irrelevant. And the ending is never bad. Just overly busy. (And the final scene, called “Today” is heart-breaking.)
My final thought is this: I would recommend this book to anyone looking to start Pratchett, but unsure of where to join the lengthy set of Discworld stories. This is a one-off place to see Pratchett at his best writing. It makes a fine entry point. It is also less specifically-British in its writing than the Discworld books are, which may help those who find that disconcerting. If someone asked, I’d hand them this book.
In short: this is Pratchett at his sharpest, most passionate, and best storytelling. And I do really think it’s a must read.
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