On his way back from the Boys’ Island to his coming-of-age feast, Mau survives the giant tidal wave that wipes out his entire Nation. On her way to join her father at his new island governorship, Daphne’s ship is caught in the same wave and runs aground on Mau’s island; she is the only survivor. As more survivors arrive from other islands, Mau and Daphne lead them in building a new Nation.
On one level, this is a rocking adventure, complete with shark attacks, cannibals, and a duel. On another level, it’s a gorgeously philosophical exploration of religion, science, and colonialism:
“Hah, you fall silent,” said the priest. “You are a good child, the women say, and you do good things, but the difference between the trousermen and the Raiders is that sooner or later the cannibals go away!”
“That’s a terrible thing to say!” said Daphne hotly. “We don’t eat people!”
“There are different ways to eat people, girl, and you are clever, oh yes, clever enough to know it. And sometimes the people don’t realize it’s happened until they hear the belch!”
It has some touches of Pratchett’s trademark nonsense, just enough to keep things light, but this is not a silly book. It is a brilliant book that I’m going to be thinking about for awhile, and you should all go read it so you can think about it with me.
It doesn’t hurt that it speaks to one of my literary kinks. You know I have a thing about fantasies in which people defy their destinies, and this is the ultimate anti-destiny book. Mau’s entire character arc has to do with discovering who he is when he can’t be what the culture of his people expected. He left his boy’s soul behind, but he never had the ceremony to give him a man’s soul. So who is he? His people’s gods and revered Grandfathers are always speaking in his head, ordering him to recreate the Nation as it was. Much of the book is about Mau learning to ignore those voices and think for himself, while still appreciating the value of ritual and tradition.
Read-alikes: Honestly, this reminds me of nothing so much as The Princess Bride. The His Dark Materials trilogy and Kenneth Oppel’s Airborne have a similar feel as well (self-reliant girls bucking society’s expectations; a magical touch of new science), and of course you can’t beat Bloody Jack for 18th century high seas adventure.