Nation: A young adult alternative history

fantasy book review Terry Pratchett Discworld NationNation by Terry Pratchett

Mau returns home from a rite of passage concerning his transition from boyhood to manhood to discover that every member of his island village, the “Nation,” has been killed in a tidal wave. Who will teach him to be a man now that he has only himself to rely on?

Daphne, a distant heir to the British throne, is shipwrecked on a small island in the ocean. She has received the best education that a woman of her station can receive in Victorian England, so she is well versed in English customs, traditions, and manners. Will this education be enough to get her through this “Robinson Crusoe” survival adventure, or will she have to use her wits to survive?

Nation is a rare departure for Terry Pratchett: a young adult alternative history. So no, it’s not set in his lauded Discworld setting. Though he has always been known for his satiric wit, Pratchett is actually a more versatile writer than his reputation might suggest. In particular, his handling of Mau’s response to the devastation of the Nation is simple but compelling. However, the plot must move on even if the survivors would rather not, and once again Pratchett’s manipulation of mood and tone seems effortless. Before long, Mau is rebuilding the Nation, and Pratchett’s good-natured humor is on full display, especially as Mau and Daphne discover each other and begin trying to communicate (which they only manage to do after she gives up trying to shoot him).

Just as Mau and Daphne begin to trust each other, other survivors pop in. The priest Ataba is shocked to learn that Mau’s faith in the gods has been shaken by the death of everyone he ever loved. In Ataba’s eyes, Mau is a “Demon Boy,” but by the time raiders attack the Nation, it seems that Mau’s lack of faith in the traditions of his people is what allows him to solve these new problems. His unorthodox ideas lead the new Nation through its early trials and allow Mau’s people to enter the modern world.

There are some impressive sequences in Nation, but I struggled to engage with the plot, perhaps because its solutions feel contrived. Mau’s struggles to navigate the traditional worldview of Ataba and the modernity that Daphne introduces are easily resolved. Pratchett’s solutions to the challenges of a post-colonial society feel especially simple; that is, unless every colonized country in the world gave birth to science and went on to be led by the future Queen of England’s best friend. For a novel that departs from fantasy, it is striking that so many of Nation’s resolutions rely on fantastic coincidence.

So I was surprised to read the Author’s Note, “Thinking: This book contains some. Whether you try it at home is up to you.” At the risk of being accused of not thinking, I will admit that I found Nation uneven in comparison to Pratchett’s best work.

~Ryan Skardal

fantasy book review Terry Pratchett Discworld NationWhen much is taken, something is returned. That is the theme of Nation, a stunningly beautiful, thought-provoking and at times heart-breaking new novel by Terry Pratchett. This is not a Discworld novel. It is the tale of Mau, a boy just about to undergo his coming of age ritual on a small island in the Great Pelagic Ocean when a tidal wave destroys everything and everyone around him. But when so much is taken, something is given in return and, in this case, the tidal wave also strands the Sweet Judy, a ship of the British Empire, and its one surviving occupant, a young woman who answers to the name of Daphne.

As Mau and Daphne struggle to rebuild some semblance of a life and a community and understanding between two very different cultures, Pratchett has the opportunity to explore the meaning of family, cultural belonging, responsibility, what it means to be civilized, and the role of religion in explaining and coping with tragedy. It is with the interplay between the civilized scientific Daphne, and the heathen superstitious Mau that Pratchett manages to create the most tension. He does this without ever coming across as pedantic or dogmatic, but instead allows the questions that are left when your entire framework for understanding is shattered to drive the plot forward. Since this is a Pratchett novel, it’s done with humor and a light touch. Minor characters include a foul-mouthed evangelical parrot, a tree-climbing octopus, cannibals with a very strict code of conduct, a ship’s cook who built his own coffin in the galley, and the toothless Mrs. Gurgle, of whom it is wise to always be upwind.

Nation is an alternative history set in a Victorian time period (on a different set of South Pacific islands than would be found on our maps). Pratchett is toying with the idea of quantum universes — the idea that every choice creates two different universes, one where the first option is chosen, and another in which a different course may have occurred.

Nation is appropriate for YA readers, but would appeal to all readers who like thoughtful fantasy. It must be said that this is not traditional fantasy. There are no elves, magic, or vampires. Rather, it’s a fantastical novel, where the gods are real and communicate with humans. (Or maybe they don’t, and we just think they do.)

Terry Pratchett writes with a deft grace that somehow manages to create real, breathing characters who you feel for as they struggle to deal with the tragedy that has completely destroyed their world. In a few lines of prose he manages to make people spring full-fledged from the page like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. He perfectly balances characterization and world building, creating a rich, fully imagined world that resonates with color and sound. The ending was bittersweet perfection, not shying away from the issues that Pratchett had been dealing with, but instead realistically balancing the demands of the heart with the demands of personal responsibility. I cannot recommend Nation highly enough.

~Ruth Arnell

Nation — (2008) Young adult. Publisher: The sea has taken everything. Mau is the only one left after a giant wave sweeps his island village away. But when much is taken, something is returned, and somewhere in the jungle Daphne — a girl from the other side of the globe — is the sole survivor of a ship destroyed by the same wave. Together the two confront the aftermath of catastrophe. Drawn by the smoke of Mau and Daphne’s sheltering fire, other refugees slowly arrive: children without parents, mothers without babies, husbands without wives — all of them hungry and all of them frightened. As Mau and Daphne struggle to keep the small band safe and fed, they defy ancestral spirits, challenge death himself, and uncover a long-hidden secret that literally turns the world upside down… Internationally revered storyteller Terry Pratchett presents a breathtaking adventure of survival and discovery, and of the courage required to forge new beliefs.

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RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

View all posts by Ryan Skardal


  1. You know, I generally like Pratchett, but I hate being lectured by an author about how to read a book or how much thought it requires.

  2. There are thoughtful moments, but I’ll admit that I find a claim like “this book contains [thinking]” suspicious. It seems to dismiss every detractor as a thoughtless reader.

  3. I agree. I hated the last book that told me I was going to have to think. It was Piers Anthony’s On a Pale Horse. I thought it was trite and juvenile and would actually have been more logical if he’d asked me NOT to think. I found the author’s exhortation to think to be pompous and insulting.

  4. Yeah, it always feels like a pre-emptive hedge against negative opinions or negative reviews. “Well, if they don’t like it, they’re just not THINKING!” When, in reality, one can give lots of thoughtful consideration to a book and still dislike it or feel lukewarm about it.

    It’s like the Goodkind “These people hate what is good because it is good” or LKH’s “There are books that don’t make you think that hard”.

  5. Good point, Kelly. And maybe those comments make people afraid to criticize because they don’t want to be accused of being ignorant, unintelligent, or unenlightened.

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