Jul 19, 2011

[Books] Nation

NationLong-time readers of this blog would already have figured out that I'm quite the Terry Pratchett fan. I've been hooked on his Discworld series for years and have been doing my best to collect all the books, to which I've largely succeed, I believe. But then the man is more than just the author of Discworld - he has had the occasional venture outside this realm in terms of his literary projects.

A friend of mine had called my attention to this existence of this book along with a hearty recommendation. And you know how it goes - it takes a fellow fan to really make a good case for a particular book or movie. Or even just the act of recommending the book, since this is coming from a person you trust, triggers the decision to try it out for yourself in order to see what your friend was talking about. Thus I continue to believe in the power of social networks like Shelfari. While they may seem a bit specialized, they're still a great venue for sharing peer reviews and getting feedback from fellow readers. But I digress.

This book definitely felt very different from other Pratchett books I've read, and I'm not just talking about the fact that it was not set on Discworld. It's more than that. The tone he took on her, despite it being marketed as a young adult novel, is quite mature and at times rather introspective. At times I even found myself comparing it to some sort of stage play unfolding before me through the text or something like that.

But clearly, pretty much anyone has something to be gained from this book.

Terry Pratchett during the presentation of Ste...Image via WikipediaNation is a non-Discworld young adult novel written by Sir Terry Pratchett. It was an Honor Book in the 2009 Michael L. Pintz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature and the 2010 Brit Writer's Award Published Writer of the year.

In a slightly alternative version of 1860 (the period when Darwin's The Origin of the Species was released), we are introduced to a series of small island chains in the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean and the people who live there. One such individual is Mau, a young man who is on the cusp of manhood and must complete a rite of passage before he can be formally declared as an adult in their community. After having been left alone on an island with only his wits to aid him in his survival, he must now canoe back home and complete the rite.

Somewhere else on the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean, the Sweet Judy, a modern sailing ship, is bound for Port Mercia, home of the local government. On board is Ermintrude Fanshaw, who is being brought to Port Mercia to rejoin her father, who is Governor of these territories. And back in England, the entire royal family has been killed due to Russian influenza, leaving an organization known as The Gentlemen of Last Resort to set into motion a plan devised to ensure that the line of succession is maintained and England does not default into French hands.

But a great tsunami hits the area and kills everyone on Mau's home island, sets the Sweet Judy aground on the same island and leaves Mau clinging to his canoe. Once he finds his way home, he discovers that the only people alive in The Nation - as he calls the island - are Mau and the foreign girl Daphne nee Ermintrude.

Mau is a very mature character, which is probably to be expected given the fact that his people treat young boys of his age as potential adults. As long a they survive the trial on the island, they will return as worthy of becoming men and receiving a man's soul along with the tattoos that will mark him as an adult among his people. But more than this, the boy demonstrates the maturity that any individual attains after surviving a catastrophic event like a tsunami or the death of all your loved ones. His precociousness and his proclivity for rather philosophical thinking is what makes the book so compelling whether or not you want to believe it possible.

But it's no small order for Mau to pick up the pieces of his life While he tries to secure the Nation and reassert some semblance of order, he is plagued with thoughts about the nature of the gods and why they would do such a thing to them after years of loyal worship. At some points he even hears the voices of the gods in his head and he constantly struggles with their demands, insults and accusations while he takes on a more pragmatic view of their role in the Nation. And then of course there's the foreign girl who looks nothing like his people and with whom he can't even speak with given the differences in their language.

I loved the complex interplay of Mau's thoughts versus the events around him. One would think that a boy who claims to hear the gods would be mad, but that's not quite the case given his rather keen analytical mind that does well in solving the problems set before him. And in time he manages to find a way to communicate with Daphne, as she has chosen to call herself, and the two set about the tasks of keeping the Nation intact despite all that has happened.

There's also Daphne to consider - a girl raised by a strict grandmother who constantly chided her on what is proper and what isn't in terms of what a lady can do. And thus with her decision to take on a new name, she has also chosen to reinvent herself and take on a new personality in life. She has always been a forward-thinking girl whose intelligence has naturally gravitated towards the sciences including Darwin's thoughts on evolution. Thus she quickly emerges from her shell of what a proper young girl should do to an essential member of the Nation, along with the necessary skills for survival.

Nation is a difficult book to describe given its many layers of complexity woven into the narrative. It's more than a young adult book, as all the good ones are, and thus is quite the rewarding read should you ever take the time to read it. And in the end you'll find yourself wanting to read more of their adventures on the island together, but then it's well enough I suppose that things ended where they did. Nation gets a full 5 vomiting grandfather birds out of a possible 5.

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