When it comes to Terry Pratchett, I haven’t wandered far out of Discworld. I can’t claim to have wandered very far IN Discworld either, but with at least seven of it’s thirty-nine tall tales filed away somewhere in my brain I felt that I knew what to expect from Pratchett.
Nation, his newest book, surprised me. In fact I found myself stopping midway to flip to the back and look for an Author’s Note, to see if he explained himself anywhere. The story seemed much too straightforward, wasn’t particularly funny, and lacked the general feeling I usually get from Pratchett’s work – that he enjoys his own cleverness a little too much.
For once, it seemed as if Pratchett just wanted to tell a story – with as few smoke and mirrors as was necessary. It could have perhaps been a slightly more original story, but I didn’t really mind.
Set in the Great Pelagic Ocean, a place pretty similar to the Pacific but of course in a parallel universe, the tale picks up with Mau on the Boy’s Island, getting ready to sail home to the big island where the Nation – friends and family – are waiting to make him a man. Unfortunately, a storm blows up and very large wave washes the world away. Mau finds himself alone, awkwardly stuck between being a boy and man and so probably soulless, and pretty furious with the gods. Things look bad, but then Daphne – a girl from the other side of the globe and the sole survivor of a ship destroyed in the same wave – comes out of the jungle. Mau finds in her a reason to not just walk into the ocean and follow the deep currents into the darkness. Together they cope with the aftermath of the catastrophe, finding the strength to care for the refugees who soon begin to arrive, and battle off Raiders and other unsavory folk. They defy ancestors, challenge death, and make world-altering discoveries.
Mau and Daphne drew me in immediately, and they carried the book along on their vibrant shoulders. I could identify with their personal journeys, as they both had a bit of me in them. I also enjoyed the mental stir of a book that prods some if the “Big” subjects.
Aside from being an adventure survival story, the book gets busy asking questions about the nature of belief. It wonders over and over “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Mau curses his gods, and science explains them away. It doesn’t make him feel any better to know that the answer is just “Because”. For others belief in something is better than no belief at all. Belief makes it feel safer to keep on living in a world without reason, a world given over to Lochaha – death. Well, Mau walks with Lochaha – literally – and doesn’t really get any answers from him either. Pratchett doesn’t offer a solution. He leaves Mau with an open mind – a mind willing to believe if something, someone, somewhere can answer “Why?” Mau finds a sort of peace in being a seeker.
Daphne has her own, less angry, search for answers. Coming from a society that thinks it already has so many of them, she of course has a whole lot to learn from Mau and the island. She has a lively curiosity and a quick mind, and the world is endlessly fascinating. Her part of the story frightened me a little though, in that I knew eventually other “trousermen” would come searching for her. With them would come to the island all the damage and blind goodwill that spread across my version of the world. I found myself so lost in the story at one point that I was pleading with someone – not sure who – on behalf of island. “Let the half-baked men be open minded, willing to question, and not so set in their beliefs that they bring the type of wave that will really wash the world away…!”
Phew – heavy stuff! It was nice to take Pratchett more seriously for once, and while he’s said it all before, in this book he said it with clarity – without the smoke and mirrors. In fact, he does explain himself a bit in the Author’s Note:
“Thinking. This book contains some. Whether you try it at home is up to you.”