Sep 18, 2008

Nation by Terry Pratchett

The story told in Nation takes place in a world similar to our own. On the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean, located where our Pacific Ocean is, there is a small island known to its inhabitants as the Nation. Mau, a young boy on the threshold of adulthood, is on the Boy’s Island, as part of the ceremony that turns a boy into a man, when the big wave comes. Mau survives the big wave, and goes home to discover that everything and everyone he has ever known was washed away.

The big wave left another survivor. It brought Daphne and the remains of the Sweet Judy to the Nation. Daphne was raised by a father who took her to the Royal Society to shake hands with Mr Darwin, and a grandmother who thinks that table legs should be covered for the sake of Modesty. She and Mau couldn’t have more different backgrounds. But despite this, they soon realize that what they have in common largely surpasses their differences. They are both young people who think, who have known loss, who are alone and afraid. And as more and more survivors of the wave reach the Nation, they join their efforts to build a new Nation, a new life, a new Daphne and a new Mau.

I will now make an effort not to fill the rest of this post with twenty lines of “wow wow wow this is brilliant I love Terry Pratchett he’s a genius wow”. (But it is, and I do, and he is.)

Nation is undoubtedly one of the best things Terry Pratchett has ever written. I tend to think that he’s at his best when writing for children, and this is further proof. This is such an intelligent book. Both Mau and Daphne are smart, like Tiffany Aching is smart. They’re the kind of people who ask questions even when they’re told that asking questions is silly and childish, and that they’d better stop Or Else. They ask questions and they don’t settle for “Because” or its many more sophisticated equivalents.

Nation is a serious book. I’ve been saying that Terry Pratchett writes serious books for a long time, but I know that this is a fact that some people find hard to accept. After all, his books are fantasy. Not only that, but they’re funny. Nation is funny too (you have to love the parrot), but more often than that, it’s incredibly moving. I lost count of how many times I cried. There’s a scene early in the book, when Mau returns to the Nation and has to bury the bodies of everyone he has ever known in his life, and then…I think that rather than try to explain, I'll just show you:
There were dogs, too, and that almost broke him. The people, well, the horror was so great that his mind went blank, but the twisted bodies of the dogs twisted his soul. They had been with the people, excited but not knowing why. He wrapped them in papervine and weighted them down and sent them into the current anyway. Dogs would want to stay with the people, because they were people, too, in their way.

He didn’t know what to do with the piglet, though. It was all by itself. Maybe the sow had legged it for the high forest, as they did when, in their piggy way, they sensed the water coming. This one hadn’t kept up. His stomach said it was food but he said no, not this one, not this sad little betrayed thing. He sent it into the current. The gods would have to sort it out. He was too tired.
Nation is such a thoughtful, perceptive and wise book. Terry Pratchett really knows everything there is to know about people. He understands how they work. And even when he’s writing about people failing to think properly, making poor decisions or mistakes, he never does it from afar, there’s never anything about his writing that even comes close to being condescending. It’s always so…human. And this is what gives his books the warmth I so love.

There’s a discovery that is made about two thirds into the story, and it got me thinking about all the things that we know – how fragile they are, how important they are. If something equivalent to a big wave came, how long until we forgot who we are? Those of us who survived would only know a fraction of everything that we know as a species. How long until airplanes and spacecrafts and computers and even bikes went from memories to myths? And how long until we invented them again? There is something miraculous about the things we remember and the things we know. And also about the things that we still have to find out.

Nation is a story about the importance and the awe-inspiring quality of knowledge. It’s about life (and – yes – the universe, and everything). It’s about growing up and living and grieving and asking questions. Always asking questions, even when a satisfying answer has been found. Reading this book felt a bit like reading His Dark Materials for the first time (and actually, I think they have a thing or two in common). In the past few years I’ve read many books that I loved, but I hadn’t been this awed in a long time. I hadn’t found something that resonated this deeply with me in a long time. So much of what I think and feel and believe is in this book.

Then there’s the ending, the absolutely stunning, perfect ending. The ending put me in mind of Carl Sagan. In a way, what it says is the exact opposite of the cosmic horror H.P. Lovecraft writes about (and don’t get me wrong, I love reading Lovecraft). We may be small, and our lives may be brief and frail, but that’s exactly why everything is so important, why looking through a telescope or solving an equation or finding out things can fill us with such awe. We’re here. We can think. We can try and understand things. It’s wonderful. And it's beautiful.

I sincerely hope that he wins the Carnegie medal again for this, because if there ever was an outstanding children’s book (or make that book, period), this is it. And from now on, whenever someone expresses an interest in Terry Pratchett but tells me they don’t know which of his books they should start with, I’m going to say, read Nation. If you’re anything like me, it’ll make you want to read everything he’s ever written.

So: Instant addition to my all time favourites, and hands down favourite of the year so far. And normally I’d be willing to bet it was going to remain my favourite of this year and the next. However:

Reviewed at:
Guys Lit Wire
The Hidden Side of a Leaf
Adventures in Reading
Valentina's Room
Books & Other Thoughts
Bart's Bookshelf
Bird Brain(ed) Book Blog
Book Gazing
Nothing of Importance
The Written World
Book Nut
Boston Bibliophile
Page 247
Fluttering Butterflies


  1. Also I have seen books by Terry Prachett I have never read any of his books, I need to look into this :}

    I haven't forgotten to send MADAPPLE...slow as usual :{

  2. This does sound like an awesome book, Nymeth. I'm adding it to my wish list right now! Great review!

  3. Brilliant review and how I want to read it right now!

  4. Oh my, just that passage had me in tears! What am I going to do with you?!! Two reviews right in a row that I feel absolutely compelled to go buy immediately. Though like I said on your last post, I thought that trilogy would make a wonderful Christmas present from Rich. But this one...well, I think I need it much sooner than that! Your review was perfectly lovely, and it went right to my heart.

  5. This sounds really good. I've heard a lot about Terry Prachett but never read any. Do you have any recommendations for the one book that I should get started on for this author? Thanks!

  6. I need to check out his books one of these days! I know how much you love his books, Nymeth. :D

  7. Fantastic review. This is on my 'to get' list of course. It sounds amazing. And yes, Mr. Pratchett does write serious books - I completely agree.

  8. Madeleine, take all the time in the world! I really appreciate you doing it :)

    Literary Feline: It's as awesome as it gets :)

    Bookchronicle: You will LOVE it!

    Debi: Yes, you need this one soon. It's released on the 30th over there, same day as The Graveyard Book. You can kill two birds with a single trip to the bookstore, or stone :P I think both you and Annie will love it. And you know, maybe I have the wrong impression, but I think that so would Rich. He would probably appreciate all the references to Darwin, Dawkins, Einstein, Feynman, Newton, etc. That passage had me tears too. First when reading it, then again when typing it up. Sigh.

    Alice: I do - this one!

    Melody, I really do. And you have to indeed!

    Cath, I can't wait to read your thoughts on it. And I wonder if someday more people will realize this about him.

  9. "There is something miraculous about the things we remember and the things we know. And also about the things that we still have to find out."

    This idea is a recurring theme throughout Terry Pratchett's body of work and it's a perfect illustration of one of the many reasons that he is indeed a serious writer.

    Yet another great review, but you didn't add to my tbr pile this time . . . I preordered it a couple of weeks ago when you FIRST mentioned it!

  10. what a glowing review! I postponed reading this because..all the other books at home bla bla bla,challenges bla bla bla...but this review make it sound like I'd be foolish not to read it as soon as I can! especially coz u said you'd recommend it to someone who wants to start reading Pratchett. If you don't count Truckers, which I've read as a child, I'm a newbie so it should be just the thing for me!

  11. excellent I want to read this book. I've never read Terry Pratchett.

  12. Ken: True, this book explores a lot of the themes that were present in his other books (The Bromeliad, for example), but I think it does it more fully and better than before. Also - and I always hesitate to say these things, because what do I know? - I suspect it might be one of his most personal books. I seems to encapsulate the way he thinks about...everything, really. Just the other day I realized that it's going to be released on the same way as The Graveyard Book there. I think that would make my head explode :P

    Valentina: I really can't think of a better one to begin with. I hope you enjoy it!

    Naida: You have to read him! I hope you enjoy his work when you get around to it :)

  13. I've said this before--but I really admire your passion. This sounds really poignant--and I love the questions that you bring up about what would happen and where would we be if something catastrophic such as a big wave wiped most of us out. Good food for thought.

  14. Thank you, Trish :) In many ways, Nation is about those questions. But I can't say more about that without spoilers. But anyway, this is definitely a book that will make the reader thing, regardless of what age they are.

  15. This sounds fabulous - I can't wait to read it! Wonderful review, Nymeth.

    I'm in the middle of Making Money right now, and of course I'm loving it. Mr. Fusspot cracks me up. :-)

  16. Darla, you will love it! And lol, the Chairman is the best, isn't he?

  17. You know, I think you're really does sound like Rich would love it, too.
    I'm so bad about knowing when books come out. I didn't realize that Nation wasn't already out here, so I drug the family to bookstore on Saturday to buy it. Then learned the sad truth that I was going to have to wait. Oh well, I suppose the bright side is that I now have time to finish up some of the books I have started and will be able to jump right into Nation unencumbered.

  18. I'm loving Making Money! The wonderful Chairman has discovered a particular, um, toy, and is carrying it around (last seen perched on the top of a golem horse) - I almost drove off the road, I was laughing so hard! :-)

  19. Debi, sorry! At first I didn't realize the US release date wasn't the same as the UK release date. But I guess a trip to the bookstore is never a waste of time :P

    Darla: that part completely cracked me up :D

  20. So I take it you liked it then?!? I know what you mean about his children's books being the best, I definitely agree. Will wait until Alex gets a copy for christmas off his mum and then pinch it :)

  21. (Debi pointed me to your review.)
    Like you, I'm a monster Pratchett fan and like you, I found this book to be a gift to the world. I was so moved that I've not been able to write a proper review, just lines about how much I was moved and how beautiful it was. Thanks for the eloquent review. It brought tears to my eyes with the memories. :)

  22. Rhinoa: Definitely yes! I hope you and Alex do too :)

    Medbie: Thank you so much for stopping by and for your kind comment. It's been weeks now that I've read this book and every now and again I still find myself remembering bits of it and getting teary-eyed. You said it perfectly: a gift to the world.

  23. Both my son and husband are huge Pratchett fans, so I'm thrilled at the chance to get this book for them before they hear about it elsewhere. Though I may give it to them and hear, "Oh. We read this last week, didn't you notice?" Then I'll feel like a big loser. But it's the thought that counts, right?

    Great review as always!

  24. lol, I hope that doesn't happen, Dewey! But yes, it's the thought that counts.

  25. I am quite a serious Pratchett fan and have been since The Color of Magic. (As in, yes, I've read pretty much everything the man has published).

    This may be his Best Book Ever.

  26. Y'know I absolutely love reading reviews of books I've already read (and it's even better when they I agree with them). I'm still not sure about it being his best ever (because I am massive attached to both Small Gods and Witches Abroad) but it certainly makes the top five.

    Also love your defense of Pratchett as a 'serious' writer - why won't people listen?

  27. Witches Abroad and Small Gods are definitely top five material for me! It's so hard to pick the best...the man is just brilliant.

  28. So here we are, years later, and I just HAD to say that your saying read Nation first was absolutly perfect. As is the book. Thank you for telling me to start there.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.