Small Gods by Terry Pratchett is the 13th novel in the comic fantasy Discworld series, and the second standalone novel belonging to a small, loosely connected group of novels that cover specific, lesser-known cultures of the Disc. This novel in question is set a century before the usual present day and focuses on the land of Omnia, a powerful and oppressive theocracy that worships and acknowledges only one god: The Great God Om. The time for the 8th prophet to be revealed is close at hand and Om has manifested himself in physical form on the Disc to seek out his new chosen one. The problem is, he has somehow manifested as a diminutive tortoise and nobody he speaks to can hear him. That is, until an eagle meaning to make a meal of him drops him into the Citadel in Omnia, where he lands in a garden. There he meets Brutha, a novice of the Citadel and the only person in the whole world who can hear him.
In my slow but sure journey through this series there are a number of books I look forward to and many more I simply read because it is next. This book was one of the latter. I had no expectations going in and was utterly surprised with the experience, barring a few hitches at the start.
Brutha, our protagonist, is fairly typical as fair as Discworld main characters go. A number of them are quite distinct, but Pratchett certainly has a type with hapless, simple-minded, unimpressive leading men as well. Brutha is very compelling in his way, however, and I really liked his more innocent, straightforward perspective on the world at the outset. He’s not blind to the literal actions of the church and its Quisition’s treatment of those deemed heretics, but his belief in his God is so sincere. Having been denied any alternative perspectives it’s hard not to cut him some slack, especially with the more sinister figures in power manipulating the truth so often to suit their goals.
As the story progresses Brutha undergoes one of the best arcs I’ve read in the series. He is initially vexed by the appearance of his god in the form of a tortoise, Om being incapable of miracles of any great significance and showing a vast ignorance of his own presumed teachings, passed down by the prophets of the past. While uncertain of what to do for Om, Brutha gets swept up in the machinations of Deacon Vorbis, the head of the Quisition, who ruthlessly enforces their religion’s dogma on his fellow Omnians and beyond. Brutha has caught the Deacon’s attention because he has an uncannily precise memory, allowing to exactly remember everything his has ever seen and been told. Vorbis intends to use this to aid his dark purposes as they embark upon a mission of diplomacy to the neighboring land of Ephebe.
Ephebe is a city that mirrors the Athens of our world, populated by philosophers, and it is here that Brutha starts to learn the darker truths of what the church has been doing and has his mind opened by new ideas and perspectives. All the while he learns more and more about the nature of gods from Om and slowly comes to terms with the reality of the god he believes in. Vorbis made an especially perfect villainous foil to Brutha, believing staunchly in the rules of the Omnian religion but not the god himself. He was such a sinister character not simply because he performed or orchestrated evil things, but he was so draconian in how he exploited power and twisted people it really got under my skin.
A real credit to this book is how different it was in its approach to humour, which was little more subdued. Even with the fate of the world often at stake in other books there’s always some overt absurdity at play to soften things a little. The conflict in this book hits very close to home, reflecting a lot of our own personal history and institutions (see the Spanish Inquisition/Catholic church). It’s still wonderfully funny throughout, but at its heart it’s telling a story that really isn’t. It explores how easily dogma can be abused and how those with power need those beneath them in order to stay in power. Having gods exist in a literal sense that is dependent upon human belief was especially implemented in an interesting way. It’s a premise I’ve seen a number of times before now, but this book uses it to further question the nature of such relationships and try to reconcile the inequities that would no doubt form within them.
The only issue I had was at the very beginning. I didn’t feel like I had a good foothold in the narrative at all. I could follow the early interactions between Brutha and Om, but at first there’s an explanation of History Monks that leads to one of their members being passively involved, the setup for which muddied things a bit for me. This character went on to have no particular involvement that seemed necessary to me, save on action that could have been given to someone else, and when things came back around to their monastery at the end I had to double back to the beginning to remind myself who they even were. It’s the one part of the book that didn’t come together nicely for me, and while it is a small part of a grander narrative, it left its mark nonetheless.
Small Gods is a fantastic addition to the Discworld series, but also just a great standalone comic fantasy novel. If I were to recommend a single book to a new reader of the series just to check it out, or even someone looking for something a little different, I’d throw this into the ring. It had a bit of a bumpy start, but was utterly fantastic by the end. Go read Small Gods, why don’t you. It’s funny, fantastical, and has something to say.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5