Anyone who knows me, knows that I love Terry Pratchett. So it might come as a surprise to find that there are still a large number of his books that I have yet to read. Recently, I finished his book Small Gods, originally published in 1992. The book was surprisingly well-received at the time and is still well-considered today, despite being a satire of religion in all its forms, something that might usually provoke outrage in certain areas.
The narrative describes the origins of the god Om, trapped in the body of a turtle, and his developing relationship with his infinitely-kind but slow-witted prophet, Brutha. It is set against the backdrop of expansionist Omnia, who seeks to take first the neighbouring kingdom of Ephebe (the Discworld equivalent of Ancient Greece) and then eventually the rest of the world. This is led by the Quisition, who foster belief in Om through torture of their citizens and military might, and their leader Vorbis, who seeks to become Om’s next prophet. During the sacking of Ephebe by the Quisition, Brutha escapes with Om and a wounded Vorbis and carries them across the desert, back into Omnia. However, at the end of the desert, Vorbis recovers and abducts Brutha, seeking to martyr him in his bid for the role of prophet. After Vorbis is killed and Om restored, Brutha becomes the next prophet and leads the Omnian religion and country into a new era of peace and religious tolerance.
The book, like the majority of Pratchett’s work, is very funny, particularly in the first half of the book. For example, the sequences with Om – an old and powerful God, now trapped in the body of a turtle – spitting useless and graphic curses at anyone (which is everyone) who disrespects him. However as humorous as it was, Pratchett also knows when to treat his subject matter – and his audience – with seriousness and care. The barfight between philosophers that was played for laughs in the first half is mirrored near the end. Om forces the rest of the Discworld’s Gods into a brawl for human lives, realizing that his followers are not playthings. But even here, there are bright spots of humour – Death himself hiding with cowering human soldiers from the Gods’ fury – which I believe displays Pratchett’s talent and versatility as a writer. Like the rest of his work, it displays Pratchett’s love for humanity but also, I think, his horror at what humanity can do to each other. It also continues to question the world, mixing religion and philosophy and history, culminating in a book that asks its audience to consider what justice and kindness, and the human concept of a fair universe truly mean in the face of an omniscient God. Through this exploration of themes, the latter half of the book experiences a marked shift in tone, and the ending of the book was a truly moving one. The relationship between Vorbis and Brutha, and the depiction of Brutha’s innate kindness was a light amidst the edgy, unkind protagonists that fiction appears to favour lately.
If I had any criticisms of the book, it would be that I feel at times Pratchett loses the pace, particularly during the opening and during the desert sequence. But that would, honestly, be it.
Overall, I think it’s a fantastic book. There have been books of Pratchett’s that I haven’t really enjoyed – The Light Fantastic and Raising Steam are the first two that come to mind – and this is definitely not one of them. Pratchett combines a sometimes-cynical humour with warmth, and what feels like a genuine love for humanity, and this along with its complex characters and thoughtful themes serve to make it one of his best books.