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.