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Michael Dirda on 'Nation'

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, September 28, 2008

NATION

By Terry Pratchett

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HarperCollins. 367 pp. $16.99

At one point in this excellent new novel, a boy named Mau desperately needs to find milk for a starving infant. Unfortunately, he's on a virtually deserted island, and there just aren't any cows or nursing mothers around.

There is only one possible source of nourishment for the baby, and Mau risks his life to procure it. Even now the thought of what the boy does still makes me shudder. In a lifetime packed with both extensive reading and vivid nightmares, I can honestly say that I have never come across anything quite so . . . well, there is no adequate word to describe an act that is as heroic as it is disgusting. For this scene alone, no reader is ever likely to forget Terry Pratchett's Nation. Not that I would short-change the memorability of its ghosts, cannibals, bloodthirsty mutineers, forbidden burial grounds and secret treasure. Exciting in themselves, these also play their part in Pratchett's latest examination of some fundamental questions about religious belief, the nature of culture and what it means to be human.

But let's start at the beginning.

When Russian influenza strikes Britain in the mid-19th century, not even the royal family is spared. The king and his 138 immediate possible successors quickly succumb, and the throne descends, improbably, to His Excellency, the Governor of Port Mercia, a trading post far away in the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean. During the consequent state of emergency, that swift sailing ship, the Cutty Wren, immediately sets forth to alert the governor of his new position -- and on board are several mysterious passengers, including five shrouded figures referred to as the "Gentlemen of Last Resort" and two women, one the unlikely sovereign's elderly but formidable mother. She is aptly described as "a mixture of the warrior queen Boadicea without the chariot, Catherine de' Medici without the poisoned rings, and Attila the Hun without his wonderful sense of fun."

As should already be clear, Nation is -- as Terry Pratchett tells us in his author's note -- "set in a parallel universe, a phenomenon known only to advanced physicists and anyone who has ever watched any episode of any SF series, anywhere." It is also what's called a crossover novel, which means that while Nation may be aimed primarily at bright-eyed young adults-- as were Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and the Harry Potter books of J.K. Rowling -- many grizzled old adults are likely to enjoy it, too. You don't even need to know anything about Pratchett's earlier work: It's a stand-alone book, with no connection whatsoever to Discworld.

Even though Pratchett's name is virtually synonymous with this justly celebrated fantasy series (more than 35 Discworld titles at last count), he does write outside its frame from time to time. So don't look in Nation for the witch Granny Weatherwax or Captain Vimes of the City Watch or the elderly Cohen the Barbarian or even the Wee Free Men. Oh, a couple of characters sometimes slightly recall Discworld figures: For instance, the sinister Mr. Black's diction resembles that of the suave and dangerous Lord Vetinari, and Death -- a prominent and surprisingly talkative character of the series -- appears here too, though he now goes by the name Locaha. But that's it. Nation remains at heart a novel of ideas, a ferocious questioning of vested cultural attitudes and beliefs. In form it is a classic "Robinsonade," that is, a book in which characters are marooned on a desert island and there create a little civilization of their own.

For, as it happens, just about the time that the Cutty Wren leaves England for Port Mercia, the Southern Pelagic Ocean suffers widespread devastation from a monster tsunami. Even that sturdy ship, the Sweet Judy, finds herself caught up by the gigantic mountain of water and is sent crashing onto a small island. The sole survivor of the wreck turns out to be a young girl of 13 who is also, as it happens, the only child of the unlikely new king of England. Poor Ermintrude finds herself seemingly alone on an island inhabited largely by wild pigs and repulsive "grandfather birds." These "ugly-looking things didn't just eat everything, they ate all of everything, and carefully threw up anything that didn't fit, taste right, or had woken up and started to protest."

Yet Ermintrude -- or Daphne, as she takes to calling herself since she's always hated her real name -- isn't, in fact, alone. Of all the many islanders, just one boy has been spared by the gods: Mau. But spared for what reason, if any? Mau has lost everyone he ever loved, everything he knew, all that he had looked forward to being part of, his entire world. He alone survives of the Nation. Half crazed by grief, he soon starts to hear the ancient voices of the Grandfathers ringing in his ears, constantly whining for the age-old rituals and their special beer and the restoration of the "god anchors" that have been swept away by the great wave. Little wonder that Mau first imagines that the pale Ermintrude, or rather Daphne, must be a ghost.

Eventually, of course, these two young people -- a girl who one day might become the Queen of England and the boy who is, by default, the chief of the Nation -- join forces and together begin the long effort of survival. It is a thrilling story.


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