Nation by Terry Pratchett

3 September, 2010

Ah, Sir Terry, how I missed you. I don’t know why I kept my signed copy of Nation languishing on my TBR pile. Sometimes when you are looking forward to reading something too much, you just can’t bring yourself to pick up the book (re: my issue with not having read David Mitchell’s last two books even though I ♥  him. What’s that all about?)

Anyway, the wonderful Claire who blogs at Paperback Reader invited me to join her in celebrating the publication of Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld novel, I Shall Wear Midnight, yesterday at Waterstone’s Piccadilly at er … midnight! Pratchett spoke to his friend Tony Robinson (of Blackadder and The Worst Jobs in History fame. Let’s not talk about Time Team because it is just so effing boring. History should come alive, not make you want to eat dirt.) Anyway, back to the talk. It was SO exciting! Plus a copy of I Shall Wear Midnight was included in our ticket price, came with a bag, a pen and a badge. Full marks!

So that has spurred me on to pick up Pratchett’s book to read before the event. I’ve read everything else except for his children’s books (The Johnny Maxwell Trilogy, The Bromeliad and The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents). I’ll wait until my nephews are a little older so that we can read them together (if they’ll still let me, that is.)

When Nation was first published, I was a tad disappointed that it wasn’t a Discworld novel. I faithfully bought it anyway (see, I’m a fan, and I can’t not buy it) and set it aside. Pratchett is one of a few select novelists whom I will buy in hardback, no questions asked. I love his work that much. But then I began to hear mutterings and read reviews of Nation, many from readers who aren’t seasoned fans, that said it was possibly Pratchett’s best work yet. And then the fans. Then Unseen Academicals was published and I dived into that. But you know, I wish I had had a little more faith in Sir Terry and dived into Nation earlier, because it is brilliant. Although it’s aimed at young adult readers, like all of Pratchett’s novels, it can be enjoyed and appreciated by readers of all ages.

Nation is at once a fable, a comedy and a serious tale. Pratchett is a genius when discussing matters that delves straight into the human psyche, its history, it’s morals and its aspirations, and I love him for that. He encapsulates it in funny, sometimes absurd, jokes, but if you listen and read between the lines, you realise he is telling a tale that resonates with history and humanity. I’m not just saying that because I’m a diehard fan. You’ll notice it creeping in as you read through his Discworld series. Maybe it’s an age thing, but Pratchett’s work increasingly holds a serious and often dark undertone, a familiarity with the way the world really works.

In Nation, Pratchett tackles natural disasters, abandonment, loneliness, community and belief. And he does it in such a nice, unassuming, non-pontificating manner that you will warm to him immediately. I read this book straight after I finished The Poisonwood Bible, and the switch initally made me wonder why he was wasting words in describing frivolous situations. When there is so much tragedy in the real world, why am I reading a comic novel? But I soon had to slap myself in contrition because Pratchett gently envelopes you in his world through his wise words and tells you a tale that mirrors the real world.

We meet Maw, the sole survivor of the Nation swept away by a tsunami. As he struggles with his grief and the erosion in his belief of his native gods, he is joined by a bedraggled group of survivors including the Ghost Girl, a minor English royalty. As they build up their community and learn to live with one another, bringing babies into the world, finding food and brewing the perfect beer, they must also contend with the threat of the Raiders, cannibals who have waged wars on the Nation throughout its history. This is a wonderful story of a boy who grows into a man through learning about responsibility, community and what keeps people’s hopes alive. And the ending was perfect. Personally, I’m partial to a bit of romance in my novels, but Pratchett, although a fantasist, is actually a realist. I admit I shed a tear or two as Pratchett shows what humanity is really about.

One thing I really liked about Nation was Pratchett’s allusion to the Royal Society and the importance in the pursuit of knowledge and science. And of course, the character of the Ghost Girl, born with the name Ermintrude and calling herself Daphne (because it’s so much nicer). She’s smart, strong and unafraid. And she loves science. What ultimately keeps the Nation going is their trade in knowledge with Britain. What I wouldn’t give to live in a world like that.

Pratchett mentioned this was his favourite book, the one he was most proud of, and I can see why with it’s mixture of fantasy and science rooted in reality. Pratchett’s love of science really shines through and actually made me want to go back to my books. Well, just a little.

You may not know but Pratchett has co-authored with Jack S. Cohen and Ian Stewart three fiction/non-fiction books, The Science of the Discworld I, II and III about the history of arts and sciences of the Discworld in comparison to our world which are educational as well as entertaining. I heartily recommend them.

Here’s an article in the Guardian about the annual Discworld convention and why people are addicted to it. And an interview with Pratchett.

I read this as part of the Terry Pratchett 2010 Challenge and TBR 2010 Challenge.