Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Review: Nation by Terry Pratchett

I have a confession to make:

Nation is the first Terry Pratchett book I've ever read.

I don't know why; I've just never felt like picking up any of Pratchett's other works.

And unfortunately, I can't say that Nation is a book that is going to change my mind.

There's nothing inherently bad about this book: it's excellently written, the world is developed wonderfully and it's funny and touching and thought provoking - really everything you could ask from a book, right?

Except for one thing: I found absolutely nothing compelling about the story. It was interesting enough, but I really didn't care whether or not I ever reached the end.

This is the story of Mau and Daphne. At the story's outset, Mau is a boy on a quest to become a man. He sails by himself away from the island of the Nation to spend a night on the Boy's Island. As is the tradition of the Nation, when a boy completes his time on the Boy's Island, he returns to the Nation as a man.

Except while Mau is on the Boy's Island, a terrible wave hits the Nation, destroying everything - and everyone - Mau has ever known.

But brought along with the destruction is a ship that had been sailing across the Great Pelagic ocean, carrying Ermintrude, 138th in line for the English throne (as her grandmother always reminds her, should 137 other people die, Ermintrude would be queen!).

Ermintrude doesn't much care for the idea of being in line for the throne - she doesn't have it in her to wish for 137 other people to die. She considers herself something of a scholar: she has attended lectures at the Royal Society with her father who has encouraged her curious mind as they debate who is a greater scientist, Darwin or Newton. Ermintrude's grandmother thinks this is scandalous, of course, but when Ermintrude's father is named governor of an island in the Great Pelagic ocean, he decrees that his daughter will join him, and that is the end of that!

But it is during this voyage that the great wave that destroyed the Nation also sweeps Ermintrude's ship onto the island, leaving her the only survivor of the wreck. When she meets Mau, she realizes she has a chance to start over, in a way. She tries to Maintain Standards, wearing her proper clothes and inviting Mau to the wreckage of the ship for tea, but she also takes the opportunity to remake herself, by introducing herself to Mau as Daphne (it's a much more suitable name for adventuring than Ermintrude).

Despite the initial language and cultural barriers, Mau and Daphne work together to rebuild the Nation as refugees from other nearby islands come to what remains of the Nation. Among them are women who take Daphne under their wing and teach her how to make beer (a demon drink in Daphne's former life, but she makes the best beer on the island which, the women assure her, will lead to her getting a fine husband!), and a priest who serves as Mau's foil, as the destruction of his home has shaken Mau's previous belief in the gods.

The whole story touches on more themes than can be contained in a single summary. Gender, faith, science, imperialism, identity and family are all integral to the story and are woven in seamlessly. I probably most enjoyed the anti-imperialist sentiment, and Daphne's discovery of the Grandmothers. The Grandfathers - Mau's ancestors - spend most of the book haranguing Mau for not maintaining the old ways in the face of disaster. They yell in Mau's head and generally make him feel miserable for a long time. But as Daphne begins to understand Mau and his culture, slowly and quietly the Grandmothers - for, after all, every grandfather first had a mother and a grandmother who comforted him, fed him and taught him - begin speaking to Daphne, sharing their feminine wisdom with her.

And yet, despite all of these great, interesting tidbits...overall the whole book fell flat for me, which is unfortunate. I wanted to like this book, because I've heard so many good things about Pratchett. Considering I've read reviews on Goodreads from Pratchett fans that say this is among Pratchett's finest books, I probably won't be running out to pick up his other books any time soon.
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