I can't remember when I read Terry Pratchett's first Discworld book, but I'm pretty sure it was the end of the 1980s. I had to order it specially, since back then his books weren't available in the U.S. I've read just about everything else he's written since then.
So I feel pretty confident when I say that Nation is his finest book, the one he'll be best remembered for in a hundred years.
Nation is set in a world only subtly different from ours. It starts off with two separate calamities: a plague decimating Europe's population--even the king has succumbed--and a tsunami on the other side of the world that destroys the island village known as the Nation. Only one member of the Nation survives: Mau, who was traveling back from his month-long exile on the Boys' Island to the main island, looking forward to nothing more earthshaking than his initiation as a man. He'll get a feast and a tattoo and everything.
Instead, his entire world is swept away in minutes, leaving nothing but bodies and destruction--and a wrecked ship where the only survivor turns out to be a girl named Erminrude, although she much prefers the name Daphne. Together Mau and Daphne work to reclaim a Nation of their own, dealing with refugees from other islands, their own fears and expectations, and the threat of the cannibalistic Raiders.
The real magic of this book is how the two main characters deal with their losses. Mau turns his grief into rage at the gods, questioning whether they exist--and if they do, how they could have let the wave happen. He's poised between boyhood and manhood, which he likens to being a hermit crab who's shed its old shell and is looking for a new one; he's vulnerable while he searches, but the more he looks, the more he realizes there is no shell to protect him. Daphne bore her grief many years ago when her mother and infant brother died; she's more prepared to deal with this new loss, particularly with the hope of her father coming to rescue her, but she's ill-equipped to deal with realities that her grandmother has sheltered her from all her life--like helping a woman give birth, learning how to brew beer from a poisonous plant, and supporting Mau as chief of the tiny new Nation.
Pratchett's writing is clean and confident. The story is riveting, often poignant, sometimes funny, and moves very quickly for a book that explores such weighty topics as religion and civilization. I found it thoroughly satisfying, and I loved the secret Daphne and Mau discover on the island. If I'd known how good this book was, I'd have bought it the minute it was released in hardback instead of waiting for the paperback.