Wednesday, October 1, 2008

REVIEW: Nation, by Terry Pratchett and GUEST BLOGGER

Nation, by Terry Pratchett. Published 2008 by HarperCollins.

Click here to buy Nation from your local IndieBound-affiliated independent bookseller.

Today at Boston Bibliophile I'm featuring a review by a science fiction and fantasy enthusiast who also happens to be my husband. Jeff is a local attorney and has been a fan of Terry Pratchett's for several years, having read all available Discworld books as well as Pratchett's non-Discworld fiction, essays and short stories. He also proselytizes Pratchett heavily, although in my case his efforts at literary conversion have yet to succeed! In any case he's the ideal reviewer for any of Pratchett's efforts, and what follows is his review.

Nation, by Terry Pratchett

Fans of Terry Pratchett's work need not fear that Nation, Pratchett's first novel since 1996 that is not part of his long-running Discworld fantasy series, lacks the humor, intelligence, and very readable prose to which they ahve become accustomed.

Nation is set on a remote tropical island at the height of the British Empire's expansion. (All right, as I am sure Mr. Pratchett would be the first to point out, the island would not seem remote to those people who had lived and died on it for thousands of years before it became a dot on a European's map, but you get the idea.) But while Pratchett's book might be "historical" (more on that below), he has not fallen prey to the common traps of historical novels, such as flat characters set in a text filled with facts and dates intended solely to impress the reader that the author has done his homework. The setting serves the story; it does not overwhelm it.

Those who have read Pratchett's earlier work (particularly such books as Small Gods and Pyramids) will see much that is familiar in Mau and Daphne, the protagonists of Nation. Mau is a no-longer-a-boy/not-quite-a-man member of an island nation; Daphne is a young woman who was formerly one-hundred-fortieth (and is now, unbeknownst to her, second) in the line of succession to the British throne. The story follows their adventures after a tidal wave destroys Mau's people and wrecks Daphne's ship. While the plot proceeds in predictable fashion (Mau and Daphne encounter one another on the deserted island, learn to communicate, struggle to survive and then build until the outside world intrudes once more), it is the development of Pratchett's characters that sets Nation apart from hundreds of Robinson Crusoe knock-offs. Mau struggles to understand why the tidal wave occurred, and what it means to the beliefs and customs that are central to his people, now that he is the only one left. Daphne seeks her own center and must face her own traumas, after being freed from all of those social forces that dictate how she should think and act. And both of them must come to terms with their roles as leaders of a new nation, as others arrive following the great wave: the lost, the dispossessed, the desperate, and, eventually, the hostile.

If not for the paucity of footnotes (there are only five), one could be forgiven for mistaking Nation for a Discworld novel. Nation revisits themes that have been explored extensively in the Discworld books, such as the relationship between humanity and the divine, the origins of custom and the perils of orthodoxy, and the independence and strength of the human spirit.

This raises one minor criticism of the novel. Pratchett seems at times to be struggling with the fact that this novel is not set on the Discworld. While the story is set at the height of the British Empire, it is not the British Empire we know. The plot of the novel involves major world events that would not be familiar to most readers, such as the sudden deaths of one hundred thirty-eight members of the British line of succession, and features plants and animals not yet discovered in our own world, such as the tree-climbing octopus and the Lonesome Palm. In the fantasy setting of the Discworld, which Pratchett has often used to hold a wry, flat mirror up to our own spherical world, the inclusion of such highly improbable, arguably fantastic, elements would raise no eyebrows; however, their inclusion in a "historical" novel occasionally strains credulity.

(Pratchett himself seems to recognize the tension. At one point, he weaves another of his favorite tropes, the many-worlds hypothesis, into the novel, as if to suggest that our unfamiliarity with the events and creatures of the novel does not mean that they are not historically accurate in some parallel universe. There is no "does not happen," warns Pratchett; there is merely "happened somewhere else.")

The fact that Pratchett feels free to include ideas lifted from quantum physics in the book should indicate that while Nation is being marketed as a young adult novel, it does not condescend to younger readers. Rather, Pratchett trusts his readers with complex concepts of personal and societal identity. The themes of secular humanism that often appear in Pratchett's work appear here as well, but Nation avoids spoon-feeding its messages. Thus, while Nation would be very accessible to a teen audience, it has enough in it to keep adults thinking as well. And, as his long-time readers have come to expect, it's a funny, enjoyable read.