Most everyone I know who is a fan of Terry Pratchett in specific or a fan of somewhat nerdish literature in general was at least dismayed and typically devastated by his announcement that he had early-onset Alzheimer’s-based dementia. Pratchett is beloved on a scale most other fantasy authors never reach, not simply for his frequently brilliant writing but for his well-known level of personal warmth and generosity, and that such a figure could be handed one of the most horrific medical fates one can get, and further at such a relatively young age, seemed cosmically unfair. (If you haven’t read it, Pratchett’s own account of what living with his disease is like is worth reading. Fair warning: have a hanky ready, unless you are made of stone.)
This makes new books from Pratchett all the more precious because, unlike most other authors where the inability to write comes either long after they’ve finished their creative output or suddenly with death, Pratchett is stil an active writer, and the sense that the universe is stealing new Pratchett books from us, books that were deserved and merited, is far more active. He was supposed to write a new book every year for at least the next ten years, or at worst die in a freakish accident involving a motorcycle and a blimp that nobody could see coming, so we could get used to the idea of no new Pratchett more easily. That was the deal.
That is the bad news. The good news is this: Nation, Pratchett’s new novel (and the first non-Discworld book he’s written in quite some time) is easily one of the best books he’s ever written. There is a strong argument that it is the best book he has ever written, period. Given that the last couple of Discworld novels (Wintersmith, Making Money) have been in the “decent but not staggeringly good” range, it is thoroughly refreshing to be treated to Pratchett writing at the top of his game once again. This is, at the absolute very least, his best book since Night Watch (which remains the best of the Vimes novels). And frankly, it’s a lot better than that one was.
And this is the thing of it: Pratchett’s illness informs every page of this novel, not just in the reading of it but in the writing. Nation is, at its core, a story about how people respond to tragedy, and how religion and science can, each in their way, assist us in dealing with the cruel and random nature of the universe. There is precisely zero doubt in my mind that Pratchett’s experience has not shaped the writing of this book; it is simply not possible. There is so very much of Pratchett’s personal belief system and experiences infused into the writing that this is easily his most personal work to date.
It never seems forced, not even for so much as a paragraph. Pratchett’s story – about an alternate Earth where a young British girl and a South Pacific island boy, each the only survivor from their respective cultures of a devastating tidal wave, rebuilding society one task at a time – isn’t about Alzheimer’s, not on its face. Aging and dementia are never mentioned. What is mentioned is the palpable sense of loss that tragedy brings, and Pratchett never overplays this nor wallows in it because he recognizes that his characters don’t have the luxury to do that – they have to shove their fear and dread and grief down and get on with doing what’s necessary to go on living. But it remains there, everpresent in the novel, at times bubbling to the surface when a character can’t take the silence any more, and at no point do these moments feel gratituous or unearned.
The motif of culture clash also serves as a useful vehicle for Pratchett’s personal moments, when he wishes to expound (although of course he never breaks character to do so). Having two characters with wildly different backgrounds – who at the start of the book don’t even speak the same language – allows Pratchett to explain what he thinks about death, and life, and loss, and gain, and tragedy and triumph, and why all of these things are necessary to the human experience, and what the human experience even is. He does it subtly, and with good jokes, and the result is a work that is wholly elegant, with a deft, light touch.
It really is one of his finest books, and for that we can be thankful that the lion, moving through winter though he may be, is still capable of great things. Indeed, the writing of this novel in a way makes the point of Pratchett’s story all over again. Because this is a story about getting up after you’ve been knocked down , and getting on with things rather than wallowing in sorrow. It’s inspirational both in story and in its creation. You really have to read it.
 Much like Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping,” but not nearly so annoying.