(No spoilers, probably)
Terry Pratchett's latest, Nation, arrived in the post some time ago now - around the start of the week, I think - and I only just finished it a few minutes ago; it's not a book to go into expecting Terry's usual laugh-a-minute style. It's not an easy read, though I found it easier going as I went on, and the last 200 pages or so went by in a couple of hours; perhaps the beginning is more turgid than the rest, or perhaps - more likely? - it just takes a while to adjust one's expectations.
Anyway, I don't suppose I need to summarise the story, but just in case: island in a sort of alternate universe Pacific ocean gets hit by a cataclysm, and its sole survivor has to rebuild the eponymous Nation. And you'll get all that from the dust jacket, so that can't possibly be a spoiler. There's a hint of steampunk about it, at least the bits in the "civilised" parts of the world, and of course some bits that, in feel rather than any real substance, bring to mind Rose Macaulay's classic Orphan Island - rather aptly, in fact.
Now, Pratchett's books have always contained a fair bit of philosophy, with more philosophy and subtler humour as the Discworld series has progressed. But the Discworld books have always been humour first and foremost; dark humour in recent books, but humour nevertheless. Nation feels more like a Victorian adventure novel, and not just because of its setting; even Miss Prism's thoughts on fiction are, to a degree, espoused. But Nation is a harder, slower read, and here's why:
Nation demands philosophy. The Discworld books, even the more philosophical ones, gently insinuated philosophy, like a special operations unit of thought sneaking in under cover of comedy. You'd laugh your way through Small Gods, or Jingo, or Monstrous Regiment, and you wouldn't realise until a week later that you'd been thinking philosophical thoughts ever since about religion, or war, or nationalism, or whatever. But Nation has an overall much more earnest feel about it, like a... I'm trying to avoid using that ghastly litcrity word "exploration", but it's the only one that fits, an exploration (ptui ptui) of someone's personal philosophy... which, I suppose, may well be what it is.
The odd thing is that it works. Setting it in an alternate almost-Real World helps; the tone of the book is so very different from the other DW books that I think it would have become a very difficult read, so the setting not only provides an automatic, pre-packaged backstory but also prepares the reader for the tonal shift of the story. (Indeed, much as I love the cover, it would probably have been a good idea to make it visually distinct from the DW books.)
Hm. I'm having trouble here; I'm not used to writing seriously about literature, so I find myself cringing at every sentence I write. But ho hum, Nation deserves a good stab at it.
There are parts where the book feels rather contrived - an unexpected and conveniently timed arrival, for instance, which you'll see when you get to it - but in most cases I suspect they're of the sort that were common in those Victorian adventure novels I mentioned, and so I'm quite happy to chalk them up as deliberate stylistic references. The bits that do grate, though, are a few recurring lines (I should go through the book with a click counter some time and count the number of times "DOES NOT HAPPEN!" appears...) that get rather tiresome after a while. But they're minor complaints and nothing that really detract from the story.
Where it really shines, of course, is in the characterisation and backstory. Pratchett has a remarkable knack for character, effortlessly shifting point of view from character to character, and changing style in the body text as he does so. When he's telling the story from Mau's point of view, the narration is flummoxed by trousers; when the Ghost Girl takes over the viewpoint, you get the impression that the narrator's constantly self-censoring. It's how POV should be done, and it works spectacularly well - so well, in fact, that you don't even notice it unless you look for it.
And then there's backstory, of course. In particular, the Ghost Girl's backstory; by the time it's explicitly stated you already know more or less what the backstory is, but it's all implied and suggested. In terms of storytelling, then, it's an expert at his best.
Then of course there's the book itself. The chapters are headed with marvellous little pen drawings that reminded me of the woodcuts so often found in, well, Victorian adventure novels. And it's well worth examining the maps inside the covers... There's a nice little touch there. And the cover illustration, in case I haven't mentioned it more than once, is phenomenal. Can we have it textless as a poster, please?
So there you have it. It's a very good book, if you can avoid thinking of it as a Pratchett book; a caveat that, ironically, might make it more enjoyable on the first read-through for people who haven't read any Pratchett before. Now, at school, we had compulsory philosophy lessons, with reading on everyone from Socrates to Kant - and I think you'd be hard pushed to find more philosophy, on death, gods, dogma and bullets, in their scribblings than in this. And Nation is a better read, too.