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Terry Pratchett's latest novel Nation is a good read. In fact I would go further and say it is an excellent read. While this book is not set in the Discworld universe it did remind me a lot of one of the Discworld novels: Small Gods. Like Small Gods the central idea in this book is an exploration of religion. Specifically the need for religion in people. Why do people believe the things they do. Does believing in some invisible sky fairies help you our in any way?
When tragedy strikes the southern pelagic islands a young man (or a boy on the way to becoming a man, only there's no one left alive to do.. something.. with a sharp knife and the need not to scream) called Mau starts to question the things he's always taken for granted. The gods he's believed in seem to have forsaken him and ripped all those dear to him away. Faced with the need to survive Mau does what he has to to survive. Gods are irrelevant and do not catch and cook fish. Nor do they bury the dead.
In a way it's a classic "my God why hast thou forsaken me" story. Mau has lost everything and so starts to question the old rituals and habits he'd been brought up with.
Joining Mau after a devastating tsunami are other survivors washed ashore. Mau must build a new nation but the people around him seem to crave the certainty of the old ways, their comfortable gods and customs.
So Mau struggles with his new-found atheism, wondering why people cling so desperately to the gods that have let everyone they cared about die. Why do people believe in gods? Do the gods actually exist? But if they do why don't they seem to care? If the gods do not seem to care is there any harm in acting like they in fact do not exist? Why not live your life based on logic and reason instead.
Of course, this is a Terry Pratchett story, so while the gods are indifferent they are still there, or at least their voices are heard in people's heads. There's Locaha, the god of death, who sometimes talks to Mau. This is not the kind Discworld Death though, the one who speaks in ALL CAPS and has compassion even if he must witness horrors. Locaha doesn't have that, this is a cold hearted death who revels in suffering, he's likable in his own way though, because, like Death, he's there to do a job and he doesn't particularly care which way it's done. And there's the Grandfathers, the souls of long-dead tribal warriors, that command and demand things from a befuddled boy who's never been taught the things a man needs to know to appease the gods. The Grandfathers who demand sacrifice and a return to order.
Joining Mau is a trouser-man girl, a white ghost girl, called Daphne. Well actually that's not her name but she likes it better than her real one. She too struggles with the way she's been brought up and the fact that none of her upbringing is really relevant when you're shipwrecked on a tropical island. She struggles with what she's been told and how the way the world actually works, the way science explains things and can lead to new insights.
Both Mau and Daphne live in the world as they see it. Though coming from very different backgrounds their struggle is essentially the same: what makes the world tick is not some uncaring or even non-existant god. The trauma you've suffered is not some punishment from the gods, it's just something you have to deal with. It's happenstance that determines the environment you're in and it's up to you to live your life as you see fit.
Of course the novel has lots of Pratchett witticisms, for example the part where Mau tries to explain why the Grandfathers get offered beer every day, which is then drunk by birds:
'Er, the way it works is that the birds drink the beer but the spirit of the beer flies to the Grandfathers. That's what the priests used to say.'
Daphne nodded. 'We have bread and wine at home,' she said, and thought, Oops, I won't try to explain that one. They have cannibals down here. It could get ... confusing.
'I don't think it's true though,' said Mau.
Daphne nodded, and then thought a bit more. 'Perhaps things can be true in special ways?' she suggested.
'No, people say that when they want to believe lies,' Mau said flatly. 'And they usually do.'
Of course there are people who've come to the island who want to convince Mau of the existence of the gods, like when they find some statues in the cave of the Grandfathers.
'Behold the gods, demon boy!' says an old priest.
'Yes, I see them, gods of stone' replies Mau.
'Why should they be of flesh? And what stone shines like that? I am right, demon boy, in my faith I am right! You can't deny it!'
'I can't deny what I see, but I can question what it is' says Mau.
And to me that makes him the one of the most likable heros in any of Pratchett's novels.
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