Terry Pratchett — I mean, ed Sir Terry Pratchett — is one of England’s finest humorists, ever. He’s written something like fifty volumes in his Discworld collection, all set on a strange world that actually is flat and contains some of the most humorous people in fiction. He’s sort of like the brain-child of Charles Dickens and Jonathan Swift, but on crack (in a good way). He’s also recently been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and therefore has been slowing down his appearance schedule and writing. This novel is not part of the Discworld books at all, and was published mid-2008.
Mau is just about to be initiated from boyhood into manhood in his tribe, which lives on an island in the Pelagic Ocean, when a giant wave comes and kills everyone but him and the grandfather birds. Ermintrude (who quickly renames herself Daphne, given the chance) is thirteen and 139th in line for the British throne, and was traveling on a boat when the wave came and capsized her on the island. They are the only two humans on the island at first, and they have to learn to survive, both together and separately. Also, 137 specific people have died, and although she doesn’t know it, Daphne’s father has just been named king. She’s a princess now — but will her father or anyone else ever find her on the island?
I’d heard from more than one source that this book wasn’t very good, and I’m relieved to say that they’re wrong. The book is actually incredibly good. What it isn’t, is a Discworld book. The Discworld books are puns, physical humor, and inside jokes from beginning to end. This book has about as much humor as the average Diana Wynne Jones book — which is to say quite a bit, but not nearly as much as Sir Terry’s other works. Fans who were expecting a new Discworld book are, of course, going to be somewhat disappointed, but those who go into the book pretending it’s a new work by Ms. Jones or the like will actually be pleasantly surprised.
Daphne is as well-drawn as any of his Discworld characters; she doesn’t particularly remind me of any of them, though, which is good. She’s not only English, but Victorian-era English, and she has hangups (instilled by her grandmother) regarding so many different things. At some point, she has to decide what’s herself and what’s her grandmother, and the results are a bit surprising. Mau spends most of the book in a crisis of faith, and while he never quite comes to a conclusion, I found that more realistic than him particularly deciding one way or another. His grief is quite obvious, and he deals with it in a surprisingly mature way.
Other characters generally exist to provide humor — especially the gray parrot, who flies around squawking, “Show us yer drawers!” — or balance. The other Islander characters (well, from different close-by islands) include a priest, who is funny, quite a bit, but who also reminds Mau of why he had faith in the first place. Another woman, so old that she can’t chew her own food, Daphne calls Mrs. Gurgle, but she proves to have wisdom and power beyond the girl’s expectations. These touches of light do help with an otherwise not-happy plot, but fortunately Sir Terry has impeccable balance and the book is a wonder to read. 5/5 stars.