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Nation - Terry Pratchett
Member Name: SWSt
Nation - Terry Pratchett
Advantages: Compelling, funny, inventive, witty clever
Disadvantages: It's not a Discworld book
The evidence? Exhibit A: Nation by Terry Pratchett. Normally when a new Terry Pratchett book comes out, I'm online and pre-ordering it well before its release date With Nation, I didn't. Why? Firstly because it wasn't a Discworld novel and secondly because it was billed as a "children's book".
When I finally decided to buy a copy, I found how wrong all my prejudices and preconceptions had been. Nation is, quite simply, one of Pratchett's best and freshest books for a good long while, easily outshining the more recent Discworld books.
It's precisely this move into a new arena which makes it such a success. With recent Discworld novels, you get the impression that Pratchett has felt the need to pander to his fan base and is becoming increasingly constrained by expectations. Nation is something new. It offers Pratchett a chance to start again from scratch, to move away from preconceptions and go back to writing something he really wants to write. It also means that the book is more of a challenge for both author and reader: Pratchett has to create new characters and new worlds from scratch and make up care about them as much as we care about the Discworld's inhabitants.
So, if it's not a Discworld novel, what is it? It takes in the story of Mau, a young boy on the verge of manhood who returns to his island (the Nation of the title) to find everything and everyone has been swept away by a massive Tsunami. His only companion becomes a young girl from the great British Empire who is shipwrecked on Mau's island. Although they initially cannot understand a word of what the other says, they slowly start to come to terms with what has happened set about re-building the wrecked nation.
This plot summary cannot hope to do justice to a plot which is layered, complex, intelligent and deeply, deeply engrossing from start to finish. Discworld plots have never really been much to write home about. When boiled down to their essentials, they are actually quite small and silly - something to hang the jokes off and characters off. Sure, they contain some very deep ideas and amusing/cynical observations, but the actual plots are all rather inconsequential. Nation, on the other hand, combines those big ideas with a genuinely compelling storyline and the usual Pratchett humour. I was hooked by about the tenth page.
The world in which Nation is set is both recognisably ours, and yet not ours. It is, effectively, an alternate reality containing people, places and situations which are familiar, but given a slight twist. This familiarity means that Pratchett can take his characters pretty much anywhere, confident that his readers will be right there with him. It also allows him to cast his acerbic eye on familiar customs and ideas, making the reader think about how absurd some of the things we do or the ideas we hold dear really are.
Nation offers plenty of food for thought and, if you choose to do so, there are plenty of questions asked about gods, belief systems, the veneration of ancestors, human nature and much, much more. Yet, Nation never forgets that its primary purpose is to entertain; to tell a story that makes the reader care for the characters and their fate. That mix of intelligence and entertainment is always a difficult to get right. Nation succeeds where so many other books have failed.
Don't be misled by the fact that this paperback is published by Corgi Children's. Although ostensibly aimed at children, then is no evidence of Pratchett dumbing down his writing (indeed, I'm not sure he would know how to; or that he would if he did). Nation is every bit as intelligent, entertaining and thought-provoking as any of his so-called "adult books". Aside from moving the plot and characters out of the Discworld, nothing else has changed.
Pratchett maintains his traditional style, mixing "reality" with the absurd with gay abandon. There is a great deal of heart and emotion to Nation - far more so than most of Pratchett's other books. It's populated by characters that feel very real and make you care deeply about them. There is much humour to be mined from constant mis-understandings and, of course, there are footnotes and skewed observations aplenty. Pratchett even moves away from his normal narrative style and uses chapters which enhance the readability of the book to a surprising degree, building in much more natural and regular stopping points.
Page for page, Nation might not be the funniest of Pratchett's books, but there is plenty that will make you smile and, just occasionally laugh out loud. Although there are a few jokes which have been recycled, most are new or at least feel fresher and funnier in a new setting.
When writing this review, I've been wracking my brain, desperately trying to think of something negative to say by way of balance and I am seriously struggling. I can only come up with two. One: the ending is a little vague and open-ended. But then, this is deliberate, so that's a slightly unfair criticism, like criticising the sea for being a bit wet. About the only other thing I can think of is that it's not a Discworld novel. If you're so wedded to that world that you don't want to read any other Pratchett books set outside it, then you might end up feeling let-down. But, as noted above, that was my initial mistake and on reflection, is what makes me an idiot.
Available new for less than a fiver, this is definitely a book that's worth buying. If you're a Pratchett fan, you'll find the usual heady mix of laughs, insightful observations and intelligent writing. If you've never got into Pratchett because you don't like the fantasy/sci-fi nature of his Discworld books, then this could be the perfect Pratchett for you.
Corgi Children's, 2009
© Copyright SWSt 2011
Summary: If you're an idiot, like me, carry on ignoring it. If you've got a brain, read it.