87 of 89 people found the following review helpful
Oh Brutha, Where Art Thou?,
This review is from: Small Gods (Mass Market Paperback)
The first twelve Discworld books were adolescent affairs, obsessed with corny jokes, screwball plots, and bumbling but lovable characters. Enjoyable treats all, but in retrospect less substantial than they could have been. "Small Gods", to me, is Terry Pratchett's first 'adult' book. The corny jokes, screwball plots, and bumbling but lovable characters are still here, but only to service a narrative soaked in significant themes and obsessed with our place in the multiverse.
For the most part it stands on its own as a complete story. Except for a few notable exceptions (i.e., an appearance by the cousin of Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, a quick cameo by my all-time favourite Disc denizen The Librarian, and a couple of pregnant references to Ankh Morpork), you don't have to be Discworld savvy to follow the story. It's set in the previously unheard of locale of Omnia, where the Quisition, led by Deacon Vorbis (as evil a character as anything Pratchett has put on paper), tortures into its heretical citizenry a belief in the Great God Om. But the central question in the book, the one that drives the plot forward, is this: what happens when belief dissipates, and is replaced by simple routine? Following the rituals of a religion is not really the same as believing in the power and glory of a God.
And on the Discworld it's not like your wanting for Gods to choose from. There are billions of them, and they're all likely to strike you down where you stand if you insult them in any way. Great God Om used to be the greatest of all Gods, but he's fallen on tough times. The brand of belief favoured by Vorbis is not the kind of belief Om needs. He's losing true believers in the process, and has become quite ineffectual. So much so that he woke up one day to find himself in the body of a small turtle, dropped by an eagle attempting to break his shell (because, as we're constantly reminded, "There's very good eating on one of these, you know"). The only thing keeping Om from disappearing altogether is Brutha, an illiterate novice, who barely knows anything of the world outside the confines of his garden.
Brutha and Om follow a Pratchett tradition of teaming a wide-eyed innocent with a cynical curmudgeon, and watching as the two personalities eventually meet in the middle ("Om, bumping along in Brutha's pack, began to feel the acute depression that steals over every realist in the presence of an optimist"). Brutha is a true believer in the face of pure evil, and it's this innocence/ignorance that allows him to survive. Om is a perpetually pissed-off little dude, angry at his new lot in life, and unsure how to get his powers back. All he knows is that Brutha is his only hope, for Brutha is the only one that can truly hear him. Their joint quest is a joy to follow.
Along the way, we meet an eclectic cast of characters, all looking to revolt against the tyranny of Omnia, or to sit back and wait for the cards to fall where they may. The most fun is a brief excursion to Ephebe, the Disc's Greek doppelganger. Its philosophers are known to run through the streets dripping wet, dressed only in a towel and carrying a loofah sponge, after an Archimedes-esque "Eureka" moment, and it's tyrannical ruler (rightly called The Tyrant) is guarded by an impenetrable and lethal labyrinth. Terry has much fun poking holes in this world of ideas, just as he's had poking holes in the world of beliefs. Which is probably the greatest thing about this book. No matter what side of the line you fall on, be it atheist, zealot, intellectual, or priest, you'll find someone/something to laugh at, and many reasons to pause for thought.
You'd think a book like this, thick with ideas, would be short on plot and humour. Well, this still is a Discworld book, so it has plenty of both. The plot moves along like a steam engine (or a steam-powered turtle), plunging Brutha and Om through danger and chaos until the fantastic denouement, which drops from the sky like some divine providence. It's a thrilling ride and a satisfying ending. As for the humour, Terry's remarkable wit remains intact even after thirteen entries in the series. My favourite moments here involve faux-Latin translations, that clean up the original version with PC precision ("Cuius testiculos habes, habeas cardia et cerebellum" doesn't necessarily translate to "When you have their full attention in your grip, their hearts and minds will follow", but the joke comes when you realize what that second Latin word must really mean).
"Small Gods" is most assuredly a parody of other sci-fi/fantasy books, just as the rest of the Discworld books have been. But it is so much more than that. It really does stand on its own as a perfect satire of religion, and what it means to be religious (or more simply put, to believe). I fancied myself a fan of Terry's previous books, but have to admit that this is leaps and bounds ahead of those previous works. And thank Om for that!