Small Gods is *the* book that you push into people’s hands if they ever ask you for a route into the Discworld. There is plenty to write about and I hope I can do it justice. But before I try,I want to tell you about my favourite bit of the book.
The highlight, in what is an astonishingly powerful novel, is a four and a half page segment. A boat chock full of hired goons under the control of the nefarious Vorbis is destroyed according to the whims of the gods. The crew, now all dead and having being raised in a country and culture that does not allow any sort of afterlife, debates what heaven they should explore. And then decide to set sail for that of a rival God.
I wish I could convey how much brilliance Pratchett squeezes into a few pages of…even describing them as minor characters would be overblowing their role in the book. But I reached the end of those few pages mentally screaming WHERE IS THIS BOOK? I WANT TO READ THEIR STORY!!!!
That’s how good Small Gods is – a concept some other authors would have hung a fantastic book on is dealt with in a couple of pages. Which is ok, because the rest is wonderful, challenging, thought provoking and Pratchett at his very best. It’s his second standalone book after Pyramids, which had been my favourite to date. And Small Gods covers a lot of the same ground, while deepening what was so enjoyable about the Ptales of Pteppic. In the three years between Pratchett had Pyramids published and this, he has had some six books(!!!!!!!) hit the market and is a considerably stronger writer than he was just a short time ago. (Although see the below comment. It turns out it was only six *Discworld* books)
Every time I thumb open the next secondhand Discworld book on my shrinking (only 27 books to go after this!) to-read pile, I try and remember to have a pencil to hand so I can highlight lines that leap out or scribble crazed thoughts in the margins. It’s like being back at school or university. The problem is, I tend to forget a pencil so each book is a zig-zag of pages where I mark something cool by folding the corner. By the time I closed it, Small Gods was an absolute mess, with consecutive pages folded at the top and bottom because I kept finding something noteworthy.
There’s just so much here that is interesting. But first, I have a plot to attempt to describe. We travel to Omnia, a repressive country whose religion follows that of Om, the bull God. The country is brutally run by the Quisition, the religious secret police who everyone expects to torture and repress its subjects, all in the name of Om. At the head of the Quisition is Vorbis, a stick thin autocrat (not named Vetinari, though…) who has a fervent and unshakeable belief.
Except no-one really believes in Om. Not anymore. They believe in the apparatus and ritual around the god. And because we know Gods in the Discworld are powerful precisely because of who believes in them, Om is very weak indeed and can only manifest as a tortoise. He remains bull-headed (sorry) and spends three years tracking down Brutha, a seemingly simple minded gardener, but someone with an eidetic memory and is the eighth Prophet of Om. Vorbis also comes across Brutha and uses him to try and help his aims to engineer a holy war with Omnia’s neighbours. There is much, much, much more but seriously: just read the book. This post will still be here when you are done.
Pratchett has been great at writing odd couples – Rincewind and Twoflower, the Archchancellor and the Bursar, Gaspode and Tugelbend (Gaspode and anyone, to be honest) – and Om and Brutha are no different. There’s the classic dramatic arc, where Om’s cynicism helps unlock the questioning nature of Brutha’s brain and Brutha’s innocence and religious devotion makes Om realise he too has a duty as a God. The word journey has been utterly sullied by waaaay too many weepy-eyed montages on The X Factor but Small Gods boasts two fascinating and hilarious protagonists with very different characters and motivations – their respective journeys are brilliant.
Like Pyramids, the book is not a simple attack on religion. Gods are real so faith is not foolish or misguided. Believing in Gods is as valid as believing that the Discworld is carried on the backs of four elephants standing on the back of a gigantic space turtle. It is Gods that stop the seemingly imminent war at the end of the book but this is only because Om has seen enough of humanity through Brutha’s eyes that he knows they are not merely warring playthings that perform for the Gods’ amusement. He does what anyone should do in response and starts a barfight in heaven to bring his fellow deities to his school of thinking.
What is bad is the wrong kind of belief, that which is used for dangerous means. Om hilariously draws attention to this when he commands Brutha to take a rock and kill Vorbis. Brutha, terrified, refuses. The symbol of Vorbis and everyone he stands for has more power than an actual God. That’s why Om is a tortoise, because whatever it is that people believe in Omnia, it’s not the God; it’s everything around it.
Brutha is the core of the novel, a likeable, naive, hopeless lunk whose faith is challenged and questioned throughout the book, between Om carping at him and him meeting philosophers in Ephebe – Pratchett’s Greece, which was last seen in Pyramids. But his faith endures, his faith is justified and he becomes the greatest ruler Omnia has ever seen.
Despite Pratchett’s punning pyrotechnics, he is far more subtle than he lets on. I’m thinking of the wonderful death scene during Mort’s work experience a few books back, among many, many examples. He doesn’t make it explicit but you know from what you have experienced of him and the delightfully understated way he intends to get on with things…every day, that he was the benign ruler Omnia deserved, building the best non-magical library outside of the Unseen University and staying devout to the faith that made him who he is.
Vorbis surfs across the outer limits of what a complex character should be but doesn’t quite tumble into the one dimensional realms of Moustache-Twirling Supervillain. He is a cruel, sadistic torturer but his religious fervour feels relatable. He’s not acting out of sheer self-interest, he’s acting out of a misinterpretation of faith and in what he thinks is the best interest of the state and its subjects. It’s still wrong, it’s still horrible but the core of his belief *is* justified. As I’ve mentioned before, the best villains are those who don’t realise they are the bad guy and Vorbis is Pratchett’s greatest example to date.
But Vorbis is certain and certainty is one of the worst characteristics you can have in the Discworld. When he dies (after a supersonic Om crashes through his head after tumbling from an eagle – one of the best literary deaths period, let alone in the Discworld), he has to cross the desert in order to reach…well, whatever is next. But the desert is what a person believes in: Vorbis looked inside himself. And went on looking. He keeps on looking for 100 years, until he is finally redeemed by Brutha travelling to the afterlife when he dies and showing him the way. The ending, where Brutha tells Death that Vorbis changed people, for good or ill, but he can’t change him, is brilliant.
Instead of being certain that he has stayed exactly the same, Brutha has been changed; that’s why he fulfilled his destiny of the Eighth Prophet, because he learned the value of questioning his beliefs. Ambiguity is everywhere in the novel and the key thing Pratchett is demanding of the reader is to ask questions – whether it’s of Brutha or Vorbis, or any other character and their point of view.
Everything works here. The characters are rich, real and flawed enough to give the reader a satisfying itch to scratch. The novel juggles some hefty themes and skilfully avoids easy answers but leavens it with some Butch and Sundance-style humour and some brilliant set pieces. I really don’t think I have done this book justice at all and may well come back to it at a later date. At the time of unloading my thoughts on this, I am a week on and two Discworld novels from finishing Small Gods and it’s still bouncing around my head. As much as I liked it, I’m not going to say the same of The Light Fantastic.
Pratchett’s on a wonderful roll here. Instead of novels bursting with puns and jokes, they are alive with ideas, complex characters and muscular plots. His next step is to bring a close to his witches’ trilogy. Weatherwax, Ogg and Garlick are back in Lancre. Is all’s well that ends well? Find out next week.