This story takes place in the past, but in an alternate reality from our own where the Russian Flu is killing people including the 138 people in line to be king ahead of Daphne’s father. Around the same time, a “big wave” destroys all the island nations in the ocean. Mau, a boy who believes he has no soul because he had been transitioning between boy and man (like a hermit crab between shells) when the wave destroyed his nation, finds himself alone on his island. But soon Daphne’s boat crashes here, and after a shaky start, she and Mau become friends and learn from each other. She learns how to make beer and do rudimentary medical procedures while he learns that although his island is the biggest he’s ever seen, it’s hardly a smudge on the map of the world.
Mau and Daphne aren’t alone for long as refugees from the other islands start to show up. Mau is angry at the gods for destroying his people and putting him in charge of a broken mismatch of people. He begins asking questions, for the first time wondering if the gods are real at all. Daphne, who’d grown up in a Western religion begins to ask similar questions.
Their journey takes them to an old cave, in which are the secrets of Mau’s ancestors and a secret that unlocks the mystery of the whole world.
Later on, the island is visited by mutineers, cannibals, and worst of all, Daphne’s etiquette-obsessed grandmother whom Daphne suspects killed the 138 people in line to the thrown to see her son wear the crown.
At the end of the book, in the author note, Pratchett warns that this is a book that should make you think. I wouldn’t be surprised if people felt threatened by this book, but that’s the way people are. “He was a good man. He deserved better gods.” Pratchett is a humanist, but he doesn’t preach atheism here. While Mau is very angry and defies his gods, Pratchett is not his characters. He wants people to ask questions, but he’s not telling you what to believe. In fact, in the end, belief is looked upon as a good thing, though belief in what doesn’t seem to be so important as long as people believe in something. Now, I’m not saying I necessarily agree with that statement, but I want to point out that it isn’t atheist propaganda. I was astonished to see that his theme was that it’s good to ask questions, which is what my theme in my book, Riff, was turning out to be. I don’t think I can do it as well as it’s done here! I think a lot of religious people are afraid to question things. Somewhere down the line, we were taught not to question. But what’s there to fear? This book discusses faith not as a sermon but as a calm discussion with the reader. Few books can pull it off so quietly. It approaches it in the same way as Looking For Alaska by John Green. Both books say it’s okay to ask questions even though Pratchett’s coming from a humanist point of view and Green from a Christian one. Isn’t that interesting?