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This review is from: Nation (Hardcover)
One of the funny things about Terry Pratchett is how easy it is to take him for granted. It's probably a truism to say that he hasn't really written a truly bad book. It could be levelled at him, however, that during middle-period Discworld books like Jingo, he was running on autopilot to some degree. All that changed around the period of The Truth and Thief of Time, where suddenly he seemed to find another gear entirely, which has given us wonderful Discworld novels such as Night Watch and the sublime Going Postal, not to mention the series of related Discworld stories starring Tiffany Aching and the Nac Mac Feegle.
Nation is a product of this later, and ongoing, period, but it is something of a departure. It isn't even a Discworld novel. Instead, it appears to take place in our own world, or some parallel version of it, with a distinctly mid-Victorian feel.
The root of the story is The Wave and how it is seen from the viewpoint of both Mau and Ermin...sorry, Daphne (don't worry, it gets explained later in the book). Mau is the sole survivor of The Nation, returning from the ritual exile that begins each boy's initiation into manhood to find his whole society has been wiped out by The Wave. At the same time, the ship in which Daphne is travelling, the Sweet Judy, is wrecked upon the same island during the same [literally] cataclysmic storm.
Apart from just trying to stay alive in the first place, Mau also seems to have to contend with the voices of The Grandfathers calling out to him; actually, ordering him around might be nearer the mark. Survival in these conditions isn't easy, from finding something to start a fire to worrying about the predations of the Raiders. And then there's the Ghost Girl, who wears trousers and carries the portable roof. How do you keep The Nation alive from there? Against the odds, Mau, the Ghost Girl and the others who gradually begin to arrive seem to start making a good fist of it. But there are still enormous obstacles in the way...
Nation is a book overflowing with ideas and, in the end, is one of a more humanist inclination. That is not to say that it is not a spiritual book: quite the opposite. Spirituality is talked about an awful lot, as is the need to be curious and to ask questions about the world around you. Indeed, along the way, the reader gets a more than adequate (and cunningly insinuated) grounding in the workings of scientific method. There is also no cliched happy ending, just a real one, with a rather nice epilogue as it happens; it's nice not to have a cop-out.
For me the standout part of the book is its beginning, and the aftermath of The Wave. Rarely has Pratchett written so powerfully, or indeed so bleakly. There is real emotional force and sadness in his description of Mau's return to his destroyed village home. This is the starting point for another of the book's wider themes: the change from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to knowledge: adolescence. Here, Nation reminded me a great deal of Philip Pullman's his Dark Materials (particularly The Amber Spyglass ). Indeed, like HDM, I would say that Nation isn't a "children's" book at all, just a book that both children and young adults would enjoy reading.
As one would expect from TP, none of this is done in a pompous or po-faced way. He rather has the habit of sidling big ideas like these into his books under cover of gags. After all this time, it's fairly safe to say he hasn't lost his touch. I'd even go as far as to say that, especially because of its beginning, this may be the finest thing he has written (and this, remember, is the author who was responsible, with Neil Gaiman, for the wondrous Good Omens). Given his track record that is saying something, but I think it may be true.
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Initial post: 12 Mar 2009 11:55:55 GMT
Great review. As usual beautiful and very human characters. Darker than his books usually are - but worth the read.
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