Saturday, March 21, 2009

Nation (book) by Terry Pratchett

Ermintrude (who renames herself "Daphne") is on the ship the Sweet Judy, on her way to joining her father. Mau has survived his time on the Boys' Island and in on his way back to his family, to celebrate becoming a man. Both of them are left alone, their lives horribly disrupted, when a giant wave destroys the Sweet Judy and many of the small islands in the area.

Everyone Mau has ever known and loved is dead, and he hears the voices of the Grandfathers in his head, telling him he must rebuild the Nation. It takes a while, but Mau comes to realize that he no longer believes in the Grandfathers' idea of the Nation. If the gods really exist, why did they let the Nation be destroyed? What are all the traditions for, and what is the Nation, really?

Daphne has spent her whole life being told by her grandmother that she could become a queen if 138 people were to die, which is why she spent her life being schooled in useless things rather than doing what she really wants to do, which is study science. After her mother and the child she carried both die during childbirth, her father leaves to do his studies on a faraway island, which is where Daphne was going when the wave hit. Unsure of whether her father survived the wave, and completely unaware of the fact that 138 of the right people have died back at home, Daphne begins to get to know Mau. At first, she is frightened of him, but gradually they learn to communicate, and Daphne starts to get past the years of "gentle lady" training her grandmother instilled in her. Soon, other survivors join them, and they create a new, somewhat damaged Nation.

Mau is forced to rethink the necessity of traditions and gods. As he and the other survivors live off of the wreckage of the Judy, Mau agonizes over his people's place in the world, when it seems as though Daphne's people have done so much better than his. He had thought his Nation was huge, but he discovers, after meeting Daphne and other survivors, that his island is only a small speck on the map of the world. However, by the end of the story, he and Daphne have made discoveries that prove that Mau's people are something like the fathers of the scientific world - and Daphne is not going to let her people trample all over that and diminish it.

I've loved Pratchett's books for years. Lots of his books have a serious side, with a healthy dollop of funny to make things go down easier. This book is serious, with the occasional flash of funny (in all kinds of flavors - quirky, dark, odd, etc.), but the funny stuff doesn't have nearly the same feel as the funny stuff in his Discworld books - there's a darker, more poignant feel to it all. It definitely still reads like something he's written, but, at the same time, it feels entirely different from anything else of his that I've read before. Then again, maybe it's just been too long since I last read one of his books.

Anyway, there were times this book had me near tears. It's heartbreaking, reading about Mau right after the wave, as he takes care of the bodies of all those who were killed. There are those who may be angry at Mau's frequent questioning of and anger with the gods (although admittedly I haven't stumbled across any complaints online), but I think his reaction was only natural. He was taught that the gods will protect his people if they do everything just so, and now all his people are dead - if everything he was told about the gods were true, how could this have happened? Daphne, too, has to figure things out, as she is still healing the emotional wounds inflicted by the death of her mother. Neither of them have easy questions to wrestle with, and I can't help but wonder if some of this stems from Pratchett's own experiences with dealing with early onset Alzheimer's.

I truly loved this book. The only thing I didn't really like was the ending, when Pratchett jumps forward many generations to show us that this story was being told by an old man to a couple children. All three of them live on Mau's island, which is now apparently the seat of world's scientific studies. It was a convenient way for Pratchett to tell readers what happened to Mau and Daphne after the story, but I felt it took me too much out of the story. I have to admit, though, that I agree with the little girl - I, too, would have liked it if Mau and Daphne had ended up together in the end. Ah well, at least Daphne didn't let the Nation get squished.

Hmm - as far as my read-alikes go, although Nation is apparently intended for young adults, the books I'm recommending aren't. However, I'm guessing most young adults who could handle Nation would probably do fine with most of the things in my list. Use your own judgement.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • A Dirty Job (book) by Christopher Moore - Charlie Asher is very much the beta male type, an average guy with an average life who doesn't really want more. Unfortunately, his wife doesn't survive the birth of their first child, and Charlie, who even under better circumstances is a bit neurotic, is left to raise their daughter. Although he gets help from friends and family, how's he supposed to deal with everything when he discovers his daughter's talent for causing things to die, hears menacing whispers in the streets, and finds out he has to locate people who are dead or about to die and collect their soul vessels? Those who'd like another book that mixes seriousness with humor and deals with grief and death might want to try this.
  • American Gods (book) by Neil Gaiman - Shadow gets out of prison early, but it's too late to continue his life as it was before he went to prison. His wife and his best friend are both dead, killed in a car crash. With not much else to do, Shadow ends up traveling with a mysterious man named Wednesday, who is actually an old god, better known as Odin. Wednesday is gathering up the other old gods in America to wage a war against the new gods of the Internet, television, etc. Those who'd like another book dealing with, among lots of other things, death, gods, and religion might want to try this. It's darker and grittier than Nation.
  • Lost (live action TV series) - When their plane crashes in the middle of nowhere, the survivors must figure out how to live together. The island they find themselves on holds many strange and potentially deadly secrets - and many of the survivors also have secrets of their own. Quite a few of the initial scenes and episodes of this show remind me a great deal of Nation - in both, characters have to figure out how to survive and how to coexist despite lifestyle and cultural differences.
  • Life of Pi (book) by Yann Martel - Teenage Pi Patel, his family, and their menagerie (Pi's father is a zookeeper) are on their way to Canada when they are shipwrecked. Pi survives and is trapped on a 26-foot lifeboat with a wounded zebra, a spotted hyena, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Things get gruesome and bloody, until finally it's just Pi and Richard Parker, trying to survive for months together. It's been a while since I've read this, but I remember finding the story surreal and fascinating, and the ending blew me away. Those who'd like another book that deals with survival, death, and faith might want to try this.

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