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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1584

Terry Pratchett’s Nation is an alternative history novel written for a young adult audience. It is the latter half the nineteenth century and Charles Darwin has recently released his seminal work On the Origin of Species. England’s royal family has been wiped out by influenza; Mr. Black, who describes himself as the “Gentleman of Last Resort,” hires a ship to search for the new heir. Leagues away, Ermintrude “Daphne” Fanshaw—a young lady who is the 138th person in line for the English throne and the daughter of the Governor of the Pelagic Territories—is aboard the Sweet Judy. A tidal wave overcomes Sweet Judy and wrecked it on a beach. Daphne discovers that she is sole survivor on an uncharted island in her father’s territory.

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Before her arrival, the island had been home to a vibrant society known as the Nation. Tragically, the same wave that wrecks Sweet Judy kills everyone on the island except Mau. Mau is just returning to the island from a quest. When he left home, he was a boy. Now, upon his return, he will no longer have a boy’s soul. He will be given a man’s soul and taught new things by the grandfathers. However, when Mau returns home, there is no one waiting for him. They are all dead.

At first, Mau blames the gods. The Nation believes that Imo created the world. Imo first created the ocean and then fish. Believing that the fish were stupid and lazy, Imo took some dolphins and from them made people. Then he made land for the people so they would not have to swim all day. Soon the people multiplied and became hungry, so Imo made night and Locaha, the god of death. At this point, Imo realized that the world was flawed. He was about to start over when Locaha intervened. Locaha urged Imo to create his perfect world but also asked Imo to allow the flawed world to remain. Locaha promises turn the dead into dolphins until it is their time to be reborn, but when a person

has become more than the mud from which they were made, who had glorified this mean world by being a part of it, then I will open a door for them into your perfect world.

So Imo went on to create a new world in the sky. For centuries, the Nation has accepted the gods and has tried to keep them nearby using “god stones.” However, now Mau finds himself wondering whether the gods ever existed, and if they did, why they allowed a wave to kill everyone.

Although he has no answer, Mau begins working to restore the Nation. He begins by disposing of the dead. In his head, Mau hears the voices of the grandfathers asking him to do a variety of things, like make them beer, but because Mau was never taught anything upon his return to the island, he cannot continue the traditions of the Nation. Mau compares himself to a hermit crab that has no shell to return to. He wonders who is without the traditions of the Nation.

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Mau is in shock and grieving when he first meets Daphne next to her ship, which he considers a giant canoe. The two young adults come from different cultures and speak different languages, so misunderstandings ensue. Daphne is holding a pistol, which Mau has never seen before. Although Daphne pulls the trigger, the wet gunpowder fails to fire. Mau assumes she is offering him a device for making fire, and he takes the pistol to start a fire. Soon they begin exploring each other’s language, though they progress at a slow pace.

The fire Mau starts with Daphne’s pistol attracts other survivors. Ataba, a priest from a nearby island, is the first to arrive. Ataba is shocked by the death of the Nation and that Mau seems to be chief. He believes that Mau has no soul, and he expresses concern that a demon has made its home in Mau’s mind. He calls Mau “Demon Boy” when he hears Mau’s blasphemous thoughts. Ataba arrives with a woman and an infant who is dying for want of milk. Mau may have blasphemous thoughts, but he saves the infant by rolling in squalor to suck milk from a sow and spit it out into a gourd. Soon, Milo and Pilu, who are able to speak English with Daphne, arrive, and the Nation begins to rebuild itself.

Mau is changing quickly and is truly becoming a leader, but so is Daphne. She was raised to be a proper lady throughout her childhood, but she is now learning that many of her skills are of little use to her on the island. She serves as a midwife in the birth of the Nation’s newest child, and she learns to make beer. In its raw state, the beer is poison, but Daphne learns to spit in it and then wait for the saliva to break down the poison, rendering the brew harmless. The people of the Nation call her the “ghost girl,” and she earns (as opposed to inherits) a position of respect among them. Before long, she hears the voice of the Grandmothers, who tell her to talk to Mau about some of the things the Grandfathers have been telling Mau.

With Ataba, Mau and Daphne go into the Cave of the Grandfathers. Inside, they find many things. Ataba claims to find god stones that prove the existence of the gods. Daphne sees evidence of a past civilization. She deduces that the Nation has existed for thousands of years and that they once sailed around the world. She also sees evidence that the god of air is actually a myth about Jupiter, the gas giant. The Nation once had astronomical tools as well as seafaring technology. Upon leaving the cave, they meet two men who survived the shipwreck of Sweet Judy. Daphne recalls they were mutineers.

The men kill Ataba, but Daphne convinces them to spare her because her father will post an impressive reward for her safe return. She takes them back to the ship and offers them her beer. She spits in the beer and waits for the saliva to neutralize the poison, but the men do not follow her example. The first dies, and Daphne retrieves his gun. She allows the second man to escape. Distraught over having committed murder, Daphne demands a trial; although there has never been a trial in the Nation before, Mau agrees to allow it. After hearing the story of the mutinous men, the Nation agrees to set Daphne free.

There is little time to reflect on these discoveries and developments. Everyone in the Nation knows that soon Mau’s fire will attract cannibalistic raiders, and Daphne believes that another mutineer named Cox is leading them. Mau immediately sets to work preparing to defend the island. He appropriates Sweet Judy’s derelict cannons and has his villagers practice firing them, though they only mime the process because the cannons are too old to actually be fired and there is not enough gunpowder left for practice. Daphne worries that Mau is leading the Nation to its death, but Mau asks her to trust in his leadership.

It is a good thing Mau has made preparations for defense because when the raiders arrive, there are many. They worship the death god, and they eat their victims. They are indeed led by Cox, the mutineer. Although Cox does not speak the same language as the raiders do, he is a vicious leader. While Daphne parleys with Cox, Milo and Pilu pretend to be the chiefs of the Nation and treat with the raiders. The raiders are afraid to fight against the cannons. Although Cox knows that the artillery is old, he is forced to engage in a duel with the chief. At this point, Mau reveals that he is the chief of the Nation. He is little more than a boy, and Cox is armed with one six-shooter and a single charge pistol. Yet Mau, determined as ever, engages in the duel. He throws sand in Cox’s eyes and runs for a nearby lagoon. Although Cox fires at Mau, the force of the bullets is countered by the weight of the water. Mau overcomes Cox, whose body is eaten by sharks. Locaha comes to Mau in a vision and declares him fit to enter Imo’s perfect world, but Mau declines and says people must strive to make their flawed world more perfect every day.

Finally, Daphne’s father discovers the island and arrives to retrieve Daphne. The standard practice for a governor at this time was to claim new territory for the British Empire. However, Daphne intervenes and convinces her father to allow the Nation to remain autonomous. She explains the history of the Nation and suggests that the Nation may well be the center of human history rather than the periphery of a European empire. Soon after, Daphne’s father is crowned King of England, and he works out a deal with Mau that the Nation will join the Royal Society of England. The novel ends a century later with children studying science on the island. It is revealed that Mau became a great leader of the Nation and Daphne became a queen, but they never saw each other again. Instead, they each worked to make their nations more perfect.

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