Anyone who has spent an amount of time here will know that I’m a HUGE Terry Pratchett fan. That said, it’s a very long time ago since I read the majority of the Discworld series, so when I saw that Small Gods was up on Netgalley, I immediately requested an arc. This was one I remembered with huge affection – would this reread be as much fun?
BLURB: Just because you can’t explain it, doesn’t mean it’s a miracle.’
In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was: ‘Hey, you!’ This is the Discworld, after all, and religion is a controversial business. Everyone has their own opinion, and indeed their own gods, of every shape and size, and all elbowing for space at the top. In such a competitive environment, shape and size can be pretty crucial to make one’s presence felt.
So it’s certainly not helpful to be reduced to appearing in the form of a tortoise, a manifestation far below god-like status in anyone’s book. In such instances, you need an acolyte, and fast: for the Great God Om, Brutha the novice is the Chosen One – or at least the only One available. He wants peace and justice and brotherly love. He also wants the Inquisition to stop torturing him now, please . . .
REVIEW: First things first. If you are new to Pratchett’s writing and that ‘Book 13’ is a problem for you – please feel free to completely ignore it. While Small Gods is set on the Discworld, because the desert location is a long way from Ankh-Morpok, or Lancre where most of the main characters get caught up in adventures, this is essentially a standalone.
This is the book where Pratchett tackles religion and the nature of faith. I suspect that’s why he set it away from the more well-trodden parts of the Discworld and provides us with a completely new cast of characters. The protagonist is endearing Brutha, a novice who is cursed with an infallible memory and is in the lower echelons of a highly aggressive sect that worships the great god Om. Om had decided to make one of his regular transformations – but instead of becoming a huge, powerful ox with steel hooves designed to trample unbelievers into the earth, something went wrong. And three years later he surfaces to discover he’d turned into a tortoise, instead. And he has only one steadfast believer, who is Brutha, a humble novice who works in the garden. Harried by an eagle, he manages to make telepathic contact with Brutha, who protects him.
The first thing that struck me about the book is that although there is a strong, pacy storyline featuring Brutha and the machinations of Vorbis, the ideas around the nature of faith and religion are just as important. It’s no accident that Om spends a fair amount of time trying to get away from an eagle, as the tale of the eagle and the tortoise is one of those foundation fable/myth stories that pops up all over the world and has been around for hundreds of years. Interestingly, the outcome of the classic story varies. Sometimes the tortoise gets eaten by the evil eagle who tricks him, other versions have the tortoise as the discontented grumpy one who insists on being taken up to see the world. Holding onto a stick with his mouth as he soars through the air, he then lets go to moan about something and falls to his death. Pratchett doesn’t go into all these variations – but I love the fact that he chose such a multi-faceted myth as a main reference point.
The other aspect that stood out for me is the violence. I hadn’t remembered just how savage it is – though it makes sense when considering the bloody history of many of the main religions. What I’d loved the first time and also impressed me all over again, is how effectively Pratchett disguises his own views on a really tricky topic. While he clearly dislikes the heavy-handed violence of the Omnians, he also makes some hefty arguments about the need for humanity to have something bigger and better to aspire to. In typical Pratchett fashion, he turns the issue on its head and focuses on the responsibilities that gods have towards their believers. It’s a clever book with lots of apt, witty observations on the nature of faith, including philosophy and the love of knowledge.
Any niggles? I got a bit fed up with the desert version of Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibber, who sells dodgy stuff on sticks at any large religious gathering. The gags were funny the first time, but didn’t really bear the repetitions. And my arc copy didn’t have any hyperlinks to the enjoyable and very funny footnotes, though I’m assuming the published ebook has these in place. Nonetheless, once more I was impressed at the quality of the satire throughout – and moved at the merciful act at the very end. If you have ever wondered about some of the big questions around our existence, reading Pratchett’s take will provide some thought-provoking insights as well as an entertaining story. Highly recommended. While I obtained an arc of Small Gods from the publisher via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.