Returning home from an end-of-boyhood ritual on an isolated island, young Mau encounters a giant wave. When he finally reaches his home, he discovers it's been devastated by the wave. He's the only survivor of his nation, which had existed on this mountainous island for centuries. Although alone, Mau isn't the only survivor of the wave. The surge dumped deep in the forest a ship, which carried safely as it turned out, a very important passenger. In this finest of Pratchett's tales for "young adults", he weaves into the story important concepts along with fine entertainment. The mix works well, in ways only Terry Pratchett can conceive. This book will outlast many other contemporary efforts that fail to incorporate the depths of thinking Pratchett can achieve.
How do you rebuild a "nation" from but one survivor? The wave that destroyed so many communities left a tithe of survivors from other islands. In small groups, they begin to accumulate on Mau's island, forcing him - at thirteen years - to become the new "chief". He has already coped with the job of burying his relatives and other members of his nation. Even that propitiating task doesn't seem to quell the demands of The Grandfathers who visit him in dreams and visions. They express unfulfilled needs which he cannot comprehend. One of the refugees Mau must deal with is a Ataba, a priest who had trained on Mau's island. Ataba knows about the gods - and the white god anchors - which are to be kept nearby and bring good luck to the people of the Nation. This idea eludes Mau who wants to know which god brought the Great Wave and why he should be thankful for it.
Another of the wave's spared tithes is "Daphne", the sole survivor of the shipwreck. She's an Unbaked One from a distant land, daughter of one of the "trousermen". Pale skin and pants were known only by rumour in Mau's Nation prior to the wave. "Daphne", who has listened to Prof Aggasize's lectures and shaken hands with Mr Darwin, is rather a special person. She's in line to ascend the throne - but only after the deaths of 139 people, including of course, her father. In the Nation, "Daphne" finds a new life - she delivers babies, amputates limbs, kills a man . . . not what she'd been "trained" to do by her Gran. Above all, she must learn about Mau, his Nation and The Grandfathers residing somewhere in Mau's mind. A considerable challenge for a girl of but thirteen.
There aren't sufficient words of praise for this book. Pratchett builds his characters with his practiced finesse, keeping the tensions of their interacting lives taut but flexible enough for negotiation. After all, these two children begin their lives together without a word of communication. More seriously, however, Pratchett has those "children" begin thinking in ways that even close adults fail to grasp. "Daphne's" confrontation with her father at the conclusion is rich with implications - even for today. Mau, beset with the responsibility of keeping the refugee community in order, ascends to the role of chief, making him the builder of a new Nation, almost by accident. Can such an endeavour actually succeed? In many ways this is one of the most subversive works of fiction for "young adults" available. It portrays not only a world that is other than the one we live in now, but offers a means to achieve it. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]