When much is taken, something is returned.

January 12, 2009

Before I proceed, I must first admit that I am a gibbering fangirl and so my opinions on the topic at hand should probably be taken with at least five grains of salt. Possibly seven. One strives for objectivity in all things, but sometimes objectivity “accidentally” gets locked in the basement for a few hours while subjectivity turns up the television to cover the shouting and banging noises.

I recently finished reading Nation by Terry Pratchett, which is his first non-Discworld book in many years. While it could be called fantasy, it fits more snugly into the alternate history subgenre, but thankfully does not focus on showing off the full extent of what makes its world different from our own. The plot is relatively simple: a young boy who lives on a small island loses his entire village to a tsunami and has to cope with the aftermath. At the same time, a young girl is shipwrecked on the aforementioned island and must adjust to the vast differences between her present situation and her previous sheltered British lifestyle.

The story is set in a late 19th century Pacific Ocean stand-in called the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean, which is populated by numerous tiny islands. The main character, Mau, lives on one of these islands, called the Nation by its inhabitants and those of the surrounding islands. It is considered to be favored by the gods and is generally more prosperous and well-regarded than its neighbors, but ironically it is later revealed to be so small that the British do not even depict it on their naval maps.

This play between Mau’s perception of his home and that of the British girl, Daphne, is one of the many ways in which Pratchett explores the notion of personal and societal subjectivity, even of cultural relativism. This is probably his most philosophical book, but the ideas found within will likely be familiar to those who have read his body of work: the simultaneous absurdity and value of religion, the sanctity of life, the tragedy of death, the tenacity of the human spirit (I use the term “spirit” loosely), and underneath it all, a sense that while living is Serious Business, if one takes it too seriously then one is not really living fully. And if there is nothing else that he seems to advocate, it is the pursuit of a personally fulfilling life.

While I would love to discuss the interplay of science and spirituality in the book, I don’t want to give away too much about central plot elements, so suffice it to say that it is an interesting aspect. Likewise the exploration of gender roles, which can get a bit superficial but is nonetheless enjoyable; at times one remembers that this is supposed to be a book for young adults, and this is one of those times. His tone is alternately light without being flippant, and serious without being grave, showing a kind of fondness for his characters that one might hope for in a benevolent supreme creator.

The main problem with the book is probably that so much time is spent on coping with the aftermath of the tsunami that when other things finally start happening, they feel almost tacked on rather than naturally occurring. It’s difficult to feel the full force of a villain’s evil, for example, when he doesn’t appear until one of the final chapters, and so he is more caricature than character. But given the breadth of what Pratchett accomplishes thematically, perhaps he can be forgiven for a few technical difficulties.

It is easy to recommend this book to fellow Pratchett-prose lovers, and would also be a good introduction to his work for the uninitiated; it certainly lacks the literary baggage that comes with a foray into Discworld. As much as I want to read more about Vimes and the City Watch, the occasional cruise into other waters is a delightful vacation, and a reminder that Pratchett has a lot more to say than any one world can contain.

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