Tuesday, February 10, 2009

NATION by Terry Pratchett

Nation is a 2008 young adult novel by Terry Pratchett, his first non-Discworld novel in over ten years. In a 19th century parallel universe, a tsunami devastates a chain of tropical islands in the equivalent of the Pacific Ocean. Mau, a boy who has just completed his coming-of-age ritual, returns home and finds he may be the only survivor of his tribe. Meanwhile, England has been ravaged by plague, and an expedition is sent to recover the new king. But his daughter Daphne, the heir to the throne, has been shipwrecked on Mau’s island. Together, they must care for the refugees and fend off invaders.

Pratchett has dialed the silliness back quite a bit in his writing for Nation, although it comes out every now and again, and in those cases the reader feels that he simply couldn’t help himself. His humor is present almost constantly, though, and it gives the novel a lightness that helps keep it from being dragged down by Mau’s dark moods and the story’s serious subject matter.

Nation is billed and marketed as a young adult novel, primarily because Pratchett’s main characters are young adults. It also has, from time to time, some overly simple storytelling (the ending is satisfying but pretty unrealistic in a too-good-to-be-true sort of way). Even so, Nation hardly ever feels like a kids’ book.

Nation deals quite seriously with themes of life and death and faith and tradition. Also noteworthy is the double-barreled shotgun blast Pratchett gives to white imperialism and the white-centered mindset. This feels like the axe Pratchett originally set out to grind. While that message was well handled, other opportunities were missed. The first half or so of the book explores this age-old question: If God exists, why does he allow bad things to happen? Mau is given afflictions of Job-like severity, and because of them, suffers an un-Job-like crisis of faith and is ready to embrace atheism. This is a storyline pregnant with possibility. Unfortunately, Pratchett allows it to go by the wayside in the latter parts of the novel, and the novel’s conclusions on the matter are very unsatisfactory.

By and large, Pratchett’s writing is solid and entertaining. Nation does occasionally suffer from flow problems, though, and typically Pratchett’s solution for this is to have new characters arrive on the scene each time the old characters run out of things to do. Pratchett also has particular difficulty juggling the languages. Daphne speaks English. Mau speaks his native language, rendered here in English. This creates problems when Pratchett describes them teaching their languages to one another. It also creates moments where it feels like everyone conveniently speaks both.

While not Pratchett’s best work, Nation is a solid and thought-provoking novel for adults and young adults.