Mau left his home (an island known as the Nation) to fulfil the rites required to become a man. Then a giant wave washed through and killed everyone on the Nation. He returned to the island unable to fulfil the rites and met a young British girl who was the only survivor of a crashed ship.
Together they start to rebuild the Nation, learn about one another (not in that way), and create a society out of the survivors of the Great Wave. Daphne’s past catches up with her, though, so Mau must outsmart the vile pirates who have followed her here.
What’s the Problem?
The problem is that if you like Terry Pratchett (and I do) then you’ve probably read most of the Discworld series. If that’s the case, there’s little new in Nation.
Pratchett’s central two characters both question tradition and authority in the same way that many of his Discworld characters do. They ask why things are the way they are, and refuse to follow tradition for the sake of tradition. They want to know the Why of everything.
Nation examines religion, society, class struggles, and so on, from both the British and the Nation perspective. Mau wonders of the strange ways of the Trousermen, while Daphne… uh…
Actually, now that I think about it, Daphne is kind of redundant. She has the same basic character as Mau – always questioning – but since Mau refuses to blindly follow anything, he does perfectly well questioning why the Nation is the way it is. You don’t need Daphne for that.
Also, the book opens strangely, showing us a group of people who come back into the story only in the final act, and then only in connection with a man who is connected with Daphne. They do poorly in establishing when the piece is set or what’s happening.
For one thing, they talk of a plague killing everyone, which made me think that (since the picture on the front was about a boy with a spear on an island, not Britain) Pratchett would kill off everyone on earth (or the Disc, or wherever this was set) and we’d follow the one surviving nation. But no. It was the Black Death. Many people were dying, but none of them have anything to do with our story.
Also, there were no other scenes set anywhere but on the Nation. So why should we care what’s happening in Britain, a place that Mau doesn’t even know exists?
Worse, the Britain-bit delays the introduction of our main character, instead showing us three or four named characters, only one of which we ever encounter again. Mau’s test toward becoming a man would be a far more engaging start: main character, front and centre, overcoming an obstacle and then nearly drowning in a huge wave. Much better than some posh snobs with no personalities discussing the minutiae of royalty succession.
This story should have been about Mau finding his new place in the world: only just stopped being a boy, and now he must lead the great Nation. Instead the third act is about foiling an evil cannibal nation using the same sort of out-thinking methods that Pratchett has used so many times: where a character’s decision to question and understand the world lets him triumph over a charicature of unthinking evil.
If you have never read Pratchett, absolutely. Pratchett likes to raise ideas and get you thinking.
If you’re a Discworld aficionado from way back… well, you’re going to read it anyway, probably, but you’ll feel like you’ve read this book before. There are some sentences that, word for word, I’m sure I’ve read in Discworld books. And Pratchett probably won’t get you thinking about anything that he hasn’t addressed in other books.