Terry Pratchett, |
This is a work of fiction by Terry Pratchett that is basically two, converging, coming-of-age stories set in an alternate history of Earth, back in the days of three-masted sailing ships and the British Empire in its colonial heyday.
One of the core characters is Ermintrude, who prefers to be called Daphne. Daphne is 139th in the line of succession to the throne of England. Her mother died in childbirth, and Daphne is haunted by the memories of that sad time. Her father -- who is, of course, 138th in the line of succession to the throne of England -- has become governor of a British colony in the South Pacific, leaving Daphne to be raised by a stern, overbearing grandmother with very rigid ideas of what is proper. However, Daphne's father sends for her, and she sets sail for the long sea voyage to join her father. Shortly after Daphne leaves England, a terrible plague of Russian influenza hits Europe, taking an awful toil on the population, including the British monarchy.
Daphne is a very bright, inquisitive girl who loves science, of which her father approves, but her grandmother saw this as extremely unladylike and not befitting a girl who is 139th in the line of succession to the throne of England.
Mau is the other main character in Nation. He is a boy on the verge of manhood who is lifelong resident of a South Pacific island. According to the customs of his culture, the older men take him to another island and leave him there alone, with the task of surviving and finding his way back, across miles of open ocean, within 30 days. If he succeeds, the entire tribe will celebrate Mau's newfound adult status and he can begin seeking a wife. If he fails, the elders will bring him back but Mau will never gain full adult status in the tribe and cannot marry. Mau is a strong, bright, resourceful boy and is well on his way home in an outrigger canoe he built, when....
Disaster strikes! A volcanic island in the South Pacific causes an enormous tsunami. The tidal wave has a major impact on this story, as Mau survives, but the entire population of his home island is wiped off the face of the Earth. Meanwhile, the ship carrying Daphne is wrecked -- on Mau's island -- and only Daphne survives. Here, our two coming-of-age stories converge and develop in a well-crafted and very unexpected manner. This is not the movie Blue Lagoon all over again, but something much more sophisticated and interesting.
Cultural issues are an important factor in this book, as Daphne's extremely proper, British upbringing collides with a reality that does not fit it, while Mau is left stripped of his people, his customs and his culture. He was just about to become a man, but did not know everything he needs to found a new tribe -- a new Nation. As stragglers from other islands wander into the story, they are all lost, and our two protagonists are the most resourceful and the strongest of the bunch, with "the cream rising to the top." British colonialism also takes a hit in this story, as it is not viewed kindly. And, if all the disasters and upheavals were not enough, Daphne and Mau make an archaeological discovery on Mau's island that will shake the scientific and cultural worlds across the globe.
Character development is key strength to this novel. By the end of the story, I felt that I knew, and liked, many of the characters. Daphne is a truly admirable young woman who is quite worthy of the unexpected status she inherits at the end of the book. Mau gives us the epitome of adolescent angst, mixed with the alienation of the culturally displaced and the existential rage of a young man who feels that his gods have not just abandoned him, but have betrayed him.
The book ends with a truly powerful epilogue, of the what-came-afterward type. I think that the reader would have to be pretty cold-hearted to not shed a tear or two while reading it.
Everything I have said thus far has been pretty positive, but this book is not without its flaws. The beginning is somewhat muddied and abrupt, leaving the reader floundering for a while. I could not figure out how the Daphne and Mau storylines could connect. Plus, there is the issue of the ages of the two protagonists. It took quite a while for it to be clear that Daphne was actually 14, not 9 years old. Mau's age is never clearly stated, but I am pretty sure he is also about 14 or 15.
There is a structural issue with this book, as the flow is uneven. It generally moves well, but it occasionally gets a bit lost, or off track. I recently read that Terry Pratchett, a veteran writer of many books, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and I wonder if that could play a part in this small flaw in the book. However, the minor meandering does not significantly hurt the book and, if I ever get Alzheimer's, I hope that I will be able to write this well.
Before Nation, the only Pratchett story that I had read was a short story called The Sea Fishes & the Little Fishes, which is a well-crafted blend of fantasy, humor, folklore and witchcraft set in his Discworld universe. I might read more of his books now.
25 October 2008
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