Review: Nation, by Terry Pratchett

Nation is set in an Earth-like 17th or 18th century, where the Pacific is called the Great Pelagic Ocean and Australia is split in two big islands. The majority of the book takes place on the island of Nation in the Pelagic Ocean, the largest of the tiny Mothering Sunday islands.

Nation is home to a happy, established islander culture, where boys must earn new souls to become men, grandfather birds drink beer as a proxy for the semi-deified Grandfather ancestors, and there is a mysterious word that can drive away a shark. But while the boy Mau is returning to Nation to claim his man’s soul, a tsunami hits the islands hard. Mau finds himself the only survivor in a nation of death. That is, the only survivor except for the trouserman girl Daphne (she much prefers that to the horrible name Ermintrude she answers to back in England), who was shipwrecked on the island by the wave.

Daphne and Mau come from very different worlds, but they have one thing in common: their old worlds are not there anymore. Mau has no village, and no man’s soul and tattoos, and Daphne has no chaperone and never learned how to bake proper scones. How do you go about inviting a naked boy who doesn’t read to tea? As they struggle to survive and to see a future for themselves and their growing Nation, they must deal with gods, death, life and so many questions the world doesn’t seem big enough to hold all the answers.

Nation asks the big questions of life in such a way that the questions sneak up on you and the answers ring true. What happens when all your world and all the things you knew are taken away? People question and people believe and people learn and people rebuild. A tiny Nation must rely on its wit and questions and beliefs to make it through demanding Grandfathers, cannibalistic Raiders, jingoistic trousermen, and the future. Times are hard, but Mau tells death “Does not happen!” and so a new world does happen.

And this is me, looking at all that horizon, Daphne thought, looking at the wash of blue that stretched all the way to the end of the world. My goodness, Father was right. If my horizon was any broader it would have to be folded in half.

It’s a funny saying, ‘broaden your horizons’, I mean, there’s just the horizon, which moves away from you, so you never actually catch up with it. You only get to where it’s been. She’d watched the sea all around the world, and it had always looked pretty much the same.

Or maybe it was the other way round; maybe you moved, you changed.

From the start, I was enthralled by this book. It’s an easy and engaging read, philosophy and all. You are quickly sympathetic to Mau and Daphne and their struggle to come to terms with what has happened to their world. Pratchett’s writing is clever and funny as always, though this book is not a comic one as the Discworld books are. Everything is vivid, and everything is meaningful. As I kept reading, it just pulled me deeper and deeper. It also inspired me. I want to think, I want to discuss, I want philosophy and science! The ending was happy and sad and sweet and promising and exciting, all at once. Despite the setting, I would call this book true science fiction, in the best of ways.

I’d highly recommend this book to everyone. In fact, recommending it to just about everyone I’ve talked to is what I’ve been doing since I started reading it. Nation is far and away the best $2.50 I’ve ever spent at Lifeline Bookfest!

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