384 pp. HarperCollins. $16.99
Reviewed by Paul Stotts
“When much is taken, something is returned.” – “Nation”
Unfortunately after taking my eager anticipation, Terry Pratchett’s new “young adult” novel “Nation” only returned utter disappointment. Considering Pratchett’s acclaimed career, it’s astonishing how mediocre and dull “Nation” is. Sadly, the writing lacks the sharp wit and ebullient charm one would expect from a Terry Pratchett novel. Very little happens throughout the course of the story, and the events that do occur aren’t very engaging. Not until the end does the narrative actually move, finally giving the reader some sort of dramatic confrontation. However by then, the conclusion feels contrived after the aimlessness of the majority of the novel, as if the ending had been tacked on just to bring the proceedings to a close.
“Nation” begins with the protagonist Mau alone on Boy’s
Ermintrude, who dubs herself Daphne, had been sailing to Port Mercia to reunite with her father when the tidal wave shipwrecked her vessel on Mau’s island, seemingly leaving her as the only survivor of the Sweet Judy. Since her father is the British-appointed governor of Port Mercia, she believes that her rescue will be imminent. Soon, she encounters Mau on the island, and even though they cannot communicate with each other at first, they both find great solace in the presence of the other. Before long, survivors from the other outlying islands find their way to the island in hopes of rebuilding their shattered lives.
Mau and Daphne struggle to rebuild the island, while at the same time looking for answers to the greater mystery that has brought them all together. In a journey of intense self-discovery, Mau and Daphne both examine not only what they know but also what they believe in.
Marketed towards a teen audience, “Nation” suffers from too many passages filled with philosophical vagaries and vast stretches of inaction to hold much interest to that age group, making this book a seemingly poor choice for the “young adult” section. Realistically, the only “young adult” aspect of “Nation” is the teenage protagonists, Mau and Daphne. Unfortunately, “Nation” appears to be an attempt by the publisher to capitalize on the hot “young adult” market, even though the novel is rather inappropriate for that audience.
Not that “Nation” is any better for an adult audience. The novel meanders much like a drunken philosopher on a weekend bender, spouting off on major philosophical issues like the problem of evil and the dichotomy between science and religion. Pratchett seems obsessed (to the detriment of the story) in exploring the age old question of “why-do-bad-things-happen-to-good-people”. Or to take the question even further: “why-do-the-gods-let-evil-things-happen-to-good-people”. One of the answers in the novel, of course, is to blindly believe in the plan of the gods, since it’s ultimately unknowable to us. Who are we to question the gods about what is or is not evil? This is the stance taken by the old priest Ataba in the novel, who wishes to believe and honor the gods, not question them. He scorns Mau for his doubting of the gods, referring to the him as “demon boy” for his heresy. So it’s quite clear from the book that belief is embracing that which cannot be known. Belief is not knowledge, since we are blindly accepting, but ultimately ignorant of “why-bad-things-happen-to-good-people”. This answer is somehow less tangible and real (in the sense that knowledge can be explained, while belief cannot be.)
So what is real? It’s clear from “Nation” that science provides real knowledge. (When Ataba is confronted with scientific knowledge in one crucial scene, he turns away from it, offering instead a completely unrealistic alternative explanation that has no basis in reality, but is more in step with his faith.) Where the gods might not help you to survive, science does. There is a scene in the novel in which Mau explores the cave of his ancestors, which throughout history has held great religious significance for his tribe. Inside the cave he finds a discovery of tremendous scientific importance which essentially obliterates the previous religious aura of the cave. In exploring the cave, Mau undoes the mystery, only leaving behind the cold hard facts. There is an overarching theme throughout the novel in which religion is washed away by science. In particular, the enormous wave that destroys Mau’s island early in the book washes away the “god anchors” of his tribe. These “god anchors” served to bind the gods to the island, as well as provide a place for the tribe to place food and drink to honor to the gods. So in having a tidal wave wash away the “god anchors”, it stands to reason that the gods tethered to them have been swept away also. This leaves only the cave with a scientific discovery so profound, other scientists will likely travel to the island just to examine it. Belief in the book is washed away by realism. And evil is real; a fact, Pratchett emphasizes in the confrontation between Foxlip and Ataba. What is belief in the face of evil? What is belief in the face of reality?
This portraying of science and religion as somehow mutually exclusive is, at best, simplistic, and at worst, offensive. The wave in the novel comes off as a force of progress, sweeping away the old-fashioned, unrealistic tribal beliefs and mysteries, and replacing that with a progressive scientific outlook. On the island, Daphne learns to make beer. Part of the tribe’s ritual in making beer is to spit into it and then sing to it, which they believe is responsible for changing it from poison to beer. Daphne though discovers the scientific explanation, which totally destroys the mystery. What this also shows is that the tribe is simple and needs science to define them. And in the end, science does define them. It’s really a questionable message and one that shouldn’t be marketed towards a teen audience.
The only highlight of “Nation” is the characters of Mau and Daphne. Pratchett makes them sympathetic and endearing, even though they may not be entirely engaging. They deserve a better story than this. The plot betrays them at every crucial point in which the story could take an interesting turn. It’s only near the end in which the story steps up to its main characters. It’s a shame and a clear missed opportunity.
“Nation” is unfortunately heavy on exploring theological and philosophical questions, but light on action; a combination which seems inappropriate to the teen market. At best, “Nation” is a simplistic treatment of the dichotomy between religion and science, which heavily favors the efficacy of science. At worst, it’s offensive to people with a strong core of belief. Immensely dull and meandering, the book leaves nothing to recommend it.
Final Grade: 52 out of 100