Terry Pratchett Book Club: Nation, Part IV

Even alternate history can’t stop this man from creating something kinder than what we’ve got.


The raiders arrive before dawn, and Mau has the alarm rung and brings his plan to fruition. Cox is in charge of the Raiders now as they feared, but it seems they’ve seen the cannons, so they want to talk. Mau knows they won’t talk to him because he looks like a boy with no tattoos even though he’s chief. He plans to send Milo or Pilu to speak. Cox talks to Daphne, tells her that he’s the new chief, and he’s teaching the heathens to speak his language. Daphne thinks the Raiders look just like men who work directly beneath the king, the ones who know it’s better to be advising the top than be at the top. She talks to Mau and finds out that only one cannon works and they only have gunpowder enough for one shot, but they use that shot to scare the group into single combat, chief against chief. The Raiders are panicked, so Cox agrees to the fight, thinking he’ll get to shoot Milo. Milo steps forward and announce that Mau is their chief, risen from the country of Locaha itself. The Raider priest steps forward to ask questions, disbelieving, but Daphne has all the right answers about Locaha’s country. It makes the priest nervous.

Daphne tries to talk Mau out of the fight because Cox has a revolver and another gun, at least seven shots he can fire before reloading, while Mau only has a spear and knife. He won’t hear of any dissent, however. They are both required to lay their weapons down and the fight begins when one of them reaches for theirs. Because that is the only rule, Mau reaches first for sand and throws it into Cox’s eyes. He runs toward the lagoon, remembering that guns don’t like water. He dives in and Cox continues to fire at him, only managing to hit his ear. Mau ducks under a tree in the lagoon, and Cox reloads the pistol while Mau finds an old axe he buried in the tree during practice as a boy. Cox tells him that the sharks are coming and he wants to watch them feast, but he’s getting frustrated, spending all his bullets. Mau comes up with the axe, hits Cox straight in the chest, and the man falls into the water, just in time for the sharks. Mau goes to the Raiders and tells them to bring their captives to shore and leave. When he comes to later, he learns that Daphne has been performing surgery on the wounded captives using the manual she found on Sweet Judy. The Unknown Woman seems like a completely different person, with a name now—she found her husband with the captives.

Daphne asks Mau if he would go back to a world without the wave if he could, but Mau cannot answer. There are two versions of himself, but this is who he is now. Daphne enjoys her life here and doesn’t want to leave it, but a ship has arrived. Daphne’s father is here, and she tells him about all the things that have happened to her, then brings him to the cave to show him all that Mau’s people have accomplished. Her father isn’t convinced and demands that she use scientific theory to back up her claims; he knows that others will try and disprove this. Daphne makes him promise that they won’t take anything from this place, that if others want to see it, they’ll need to make the journey, not steal away the Nation’s ancestral heritage. Daphne gets to spend nearly two weeks showing her father the island and helping him to learn that language. They play cricket with the Nation’s people. And then the Cutty Wren finds them. They explain to Daphne’s father that he’s king now and they need to do a cursory coronation right here. They’ve brought Daphne’s grandmother. But once the coronation is done, Daphne’s father finds his courage and manages to tell his mother to be silent and not insult their island hosts.

Cookie did indeed survive in his coffin at sea, and is reunited with Daphne. Daphne’s father gives the Nation the option to join the British Empire willingly, but Mau’s doesn’t want that; he wants to join the Royal Society, and says they will welcome all men of science to their island. In return, he will give the king the gold door to their sacred place of record. They ask for a telescope and a large ship the size of Sweet Judy filled with books and salted beef and other things. Mau also asks the scientists who comes to the island share their knowledge, and they ask for someone to teach them more about medicine. A week later, the king is loaded onto his boat. Mau shows Daphne that he has received his tattoos, and they say goodbye, despite wanting nothing of the sort—they both must go where they are needed. And then we move forward to Today, where an old man is telling this story to two children on the island. They learn that Daphne became queen and married a man from Holland, and that they died within two months of each other—and Daphne demanded to be buried at sea where he was. The children ask if he believes in Imo, and the old man tells them that he “just believes.”


It’s killing me, y’all. Because he did it again.

We’re not even reading the Discworld, but Pratchett can’t stop himself. He created an alternate history to the world he lives in, and he made it to give us a kinder world. A world in which an island nation is protected from the horrors of imperialism because the princess of England (who rightly never believed she had any chance of becoming royalty at all) lived among its people and was clever enough and humane enough to understand how they should be treated.

Daphne takes her father to the temple and he makes literally every argument that colonizers make about why this place should be stripped and transported elsewhere. He says “it belongs to the world,” and Daphne tells him that is thinking like a thief because she knows that ‘belonging to the world’ to her people means ‘stolen and displayed at home.’ He tells her that the island is far away from anywhere important, and she tells him that this place holds import. He tells her that some will argue that the spectacles she found there were left by previous European explorers, and she tells him that they couldn’t have come here before because all the gold is still there. She makes this argument before she knows that she and her father will have the power to make that choice on behalf of their people, which is relevant only because it lets the reader know where her morals reside. But it’s likely that without this twist of fate, there would have been nothing they could do to protect Mau and his people from the rest of the world or England itself.

But this book already started with the end of the world. It couldn’t end that way too. And it deserves marking because how often are alternate histories used to examine the worst options history had on offer? Nearly every time?

Not this time.

And it’s never done in a trite way that robs the story of meaning. The works is still hard, the thinking still needs to be done, and no one escapes without pain. There’s just that little golden lining at the end to reward people for trying their hardest and putting in the time.

It occurs to me that Mau is exactly like Nawi—over time, he learned to use his disability (in this case, his lack of soul) to his advantage. Because that manner of difference often gives a person a unique vantage point on the world and their place within it. And it’s poignant as always that the fight against Cox at the end takes up practically no time because that’s not where the meat of the story resides; Cox is simply the obstacle, and not a very absorbing one at that. He needs to be stopped, but his cruelty doesn’t merit our time or deep thoughts. There’s nothing interesting about evil, to paraphrase Ursula K. Le Guin.

In the end we come to a meditation on belief with the old man, a great-great-great-great-grandson of Pilu, living in present day. The children keep asking if he believes in Imo, and he gives them a lot of answers that aren’t yes or no. Until finally, he says:

“I just believe. You know, in things generally. That works, too.”

I’m trying to put my finger on a thing, because this is pretty much exactly how I wish we handled religion of any sort, including the kind we make up for ourselves outside of institutions. It’s sort of the faith-based version of “Strong opinions, lightly held,” if that makes any sense? And I find it far more comforting than any answer-based faith can possibly be. Believe in things, generally. Which is to say, not specifically, and not virulently. Believe in some stuff, to exist. That works, too.

And I come back around to the question of whether or not this is Pratchett’s best book. He believed it was, which is all that matters as far as he is concerned—because belief is how we’re made up. Do I think it’s the best? Well, no, but part of the reason for that is I’ve never really liked “best” as a marker. It’s too broad. But this book is beautiful, and I’m glad to have read it. Which is really the best any author can ask for at the end of the day. To write something worth reading. In that, Pratchett never had to worry overmuch.

Asides and little thoughts

  • When I started the book, I didn’t think I’d care too much about whether or not the parrot made it, but by the end I was so glad? It needs to live to fight the grandfather birds another day.
  • A number of famous scientists get name-dropped for having visited the island in the modern-day section, including Einstein, Patrick Moore, and Carl Sagan. Darwin, too, of course. He liked the octopuses.


That was their law. The strongest man led. That made sense. At least, it made sense to strong men.

All that mattered was this: If you don’t dare to think you might, you won’t.

They saw that the perfect world is a journey, not a place.

No one should call anyone delightful without written proof.

“No, Your Majesty. We are forbidden to laugh at the things kings say, sire, because otherwise we would be at it all day.”

“No more words. We know them all, all the words that should not be said. But you have made my world more perfect.”

Next week we’re back to Discworld with Unseen Academicals! We’ll read up to:

He was amazed that he had even asked the question. Things were changing. icon-paragraph-end

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