“What is it you fear?” he said. “Here in your desert with your… gods. Is it not that, deep down, you know that your gods are as shifting as your sands?”
“Oh yes,” said the Tyrant. “We know that. That’s always been a point in their favour. We know about sand. And your God is a rock – and we know about rock.”
Most people will tell you that Small Gods is the best of all the Discworld books; they’ll tell you that it’s Terry Pratchett’s magnum opus, and many of them will tell you that it is by any measure a brilliant book. [The John Clute quote on the back of my copy is pretty clear on the ranking: “surely the best novel Terry Pratchett has ever written”.]
This leaves me in something of a quandary, because it’s really quite hard to say all that much constructive about a book that’s just so brilliant as this.
I suppose I could begin by giving a quick blurb on what it’s about. Small Gods is a standalone novel, set on the Discworld but with very, very minimal overt connections to preceding books (and almost as few to later books). It’s set principally in the tyrannical theocracy of Omnia, and principally follows a young novice named Brutha, who is big, slow-thinking, but with a flawless photographic memory. It is a satire of organised religion, and to a lesser extent of politics and of all coercive institutions.
I could also I guess give a little bit of context: this is the thirteenth Discworld novel (though it was considered the twelfth at the time), and it follows and largely caps a run of novels with quite a distinct thematic focus. Moving Pictures, Reaper Man and Witches Abroad were all about the power of stories, about images and reflections, and about dehumanisation, all set in a world where belief shapes reality. Small Gods feels like the natural endpoint of those ruminations (not that these themes ever entirely go away in Pratchett), turning the lens on the biggest stories of all. [In a subtle nod to the reflection obsession of Witches Abroad and its mirror-magic, Omnia has ruled all mirrors to be unholy and forbidden them on pain of horrible torture]. In terms of writing style, Small Gods continues very much in the vein of the fantastic concluding portion of Witches Abroad – only here that brilliance extends throughout the entire book, with no portions of filler at all. [Pratchett has finally mastered the technique, which he introduced in a big way in Sourcery, of including narratively tangential passages in a way that makes them appear thematically integral to the novel, even if on a surface level they appear to be throwaway jokes that have mysteriously been shoved into the middle of an important section describing events a long way away that they don’t overtly relate to in any way; it’s a wonderfully impressionistic effect, and would probably be lauded in postmodern literary circles, if it weren’t taking place in a comedic fantasy novel]. But at the same time, Small Gods is not only narratively but, as it were, texturally different from the books that came before – there are, for instance, relatively few in-jokes and running gags from previous novels. I suspect Pratchett may have been intentionally trying to make this book accessible to new readers [it’s not important, but it’s also interesting to note that Small Gods fits in poorly with the timeline, and may be set either contemporaneously with other Discworld novels or else hundreds of years earlier].
I guess I should discuss the flaws in the book.
The treatment of organised religion is… unsympathetic. As a not-so-veiled parody of Catholicism (with a slight hint of Islam), it would have Richard Dawkins protesting that the treatment was one-sided and uncharitable. Indeed, one wonders how much Dawkins must hate this book, as it renders him rather irrelevent – I should imagine Small Gods is more effective at converting the (in)fidel than Dawkins’ entire career (plus there are a couple of digs at him along the way). As the novel progresses, the plot provides a distraction, there’s more time spent away from the church hierarchy, and the novel attempts to develop a distinction, it seems, between organised religion and personal faith, all of which attenuates somewhat the sheer vitriolic simplicity of the attack, but in the early going it’s more than a little off-putting for anyone who isn’t a signed-up card-carrying enemy of the church. Even in the later going, Pratchett’s treatment of religion feels both more dogmatic (though he does spare a little criticism for atheists too) and more simplistic than in the similar but more nuanced earlier novel, Pyramids.
More generally, the one-sidedness of this treatment explains, or perhaps is explained by, what I felt to be a disappointing lack of ambition in the novel. By making the Church and its Inquisitors (and Exquisitors) so unredeemably evil, he provides a get-out-of-jail-free card so generous that it’s a little hard to see who is really going to be challenged by this book. Yes, the simplicity may be grating for many, but there’s such a large ‘I’m not talking about religion per se just about organised religion and only really fossilised and horribly sadistic organised religions actually’ loophole that anyone to the left of Torquemada can nod along and say “oh, he’s not talking about me, I’m a moderate!”. Where Pyramids felt like a man exploring an issue, Small Gods feels like a man who has ‘solved’ an issue for himself and is determined to tell everyone about it… in which case he should at least have the decency to say something controversial! There’s nothing worse than a man dogmatically insisting upon things that everyone already agrees with. It may feel a little Monty Python at times, but this isn’t even at the controversy-level of Life of Brian.
Although actually, Small Gods’ themes should be controversial – just not the bits that Pratchett seems to think are controversial. Ironically, Pratchett’s assault on Catholicism (and Anglicanism, etc, I guess) actually comes out… on the side of Catholicism. He criticises the organisation, but he actually pretty much endorses the ethics; in particular, he comes down firmly in favour of the deontologists. But frustratingly there is no real consideration of the implications of that. He doesn’t really address the moral dilemmas that arise from pitting deontology against consequentialism in the way that he does, which should be pretty evident to him given that he normally seems pretty consequentialist in his thinking: what happens if someone insisting on remaining morally pure by ‘doing the right thing’ actually results in horrible pain and suffering for others? He does raise the way that sins against deontology (and I’m saying deontology here, it may be some sort of rule or trait consequentialism, there’s not enough detail to tell) have a way of creating moral dilemmas for others, with consequentialist thinking meaning that one rotten apple can infect all the others, enmeshing naturally innocent people in situations where doing the right thing doesn’t lead to the best outcome. He raises it but offers no solution, no serious consideration, even – from a narrative point of view he doesn’t have to, because he finds a way to tiptoe his plot through the loopholes, which is very clever, and narratively succesful, but leaves the thematic issues unresolved… which would be fine (they’re big issues to resolve) except that he seems to treat them as having been resolved, purely by his authorial fiat. Indeed, at a key point the key moral question is asked, only to be met with an incredulous ‘you mean you don’t know?’ – it seems truly amazing to Pratchett that anyone might disagree with him (without thus being a sadist, or Hitler). Far too much of the extensive doctrinal content of the book is pushed through purely on the basis that the author says that’s what we should do so we should – the fact that it works so well, almost without the reader noticing, is a great credit to Pratchett’s control of plot and character, but the fact it has to do that at all (and directly contrary to the Life of Brian-esque ‘think for yourselves’ explicit message) is a flaw in the book. Nor does Pratchett ever consider at all what the difference really is, epistemologically, between his deontological pronouncements and those of the organised religions he attacks, other than that their pronouncements are, to him, obviously wrong, and his are obviously right. It is possible to provide a non-religious, or at least prima facie non-religious, bedrock for deontological theories of ethics (c.f. Kant), but Pratchett doesn’t even seem to realise that this is necessary. In the end, it all just seems to boil down to “but why doesn’t everyone just do (what I think is) the right thing, rather than (what I think is) the wrong thing?” Well thanks for that piercing insight there, your Holiness. And it tries to make that fatuous remark seem justified by making the non-Pratchett people so unambiguously wrong. Yeah, I see now that that whole ‘being evil’ thing was exactly where we were going wrong, we’ll have to do something about that…
Remarkably, the book this really reminded me of was A Canticle for Leibowitz – strange to say, but the SF about Catholic monks discussing moral issues and the fantasy about the evils of organised religion actually say a lot of quite similar things. The difference is, Leibowitz has God to fill the gap – the believer can rely on faith in the mercy and justice of God, can rely on a supernaturally indomitable hope against hope, to reassure him a) that what he thinks is right is right, and b) that if he just does what is right, everything will work out for the best, even if it doesn’t seem that way right now. Pratchett doesn’t have that, so he bridges the gap simply by appealing to himself as the author (while not noticing that bridging that gap, whether through faith or through narcissism or whatever, is exactly what leads people like Vorbis to be able to act how they do). (The other difference is that Leibowitz, though it overtly lectures in a way that Small Gods does not, is actually the more doubt-filled and ambiguous of the two).
Moving away from the themes, I think it’s also fair to say that, as is often the case, the ending is a little bit too complicated and drawn-out, with too many different climaxes. On the other hand, this does feel much more justified than in, say, Witches Abroad, where the end was an unravelling of complications that had only that minute been put in place – in Small Gods, by contrast, each part does feel justified in light of what came before. But it is still a little anticlimactic (the bit that people remember as the end of the novel has a good thirty or forty pages after it).
Well, I think that’s all I can think of.
What this novel does have going for it is, basically, everything good that Pratchett can do.
Silky, stylish prose? Oh, check, definitely, some great descriptive passages.
Humour? Sure. This probably isn’t one of his absolute, laugh-out-loud funniest books, but it’s consistently amusing. As usual, the humour combines a sardonic wit and sense of irony with a dash of the absurd, a sprinkling of unexpected cultural references, and the odd groan-inducing pun (sometimes obvious, sometimes deviously hidden).
Erudition? Oh definitely. Quite aside from making the reader smile, the sheer breadth of the references should impress, from ‘80s pop culture through to the Bible (this being a book about religion, it would help if you’ve memorised the Bible – for instance, there’s one joke I love now it’s been pointed out to me but didn’t notice when reading it, which relies on the reader being able to spot a quotation from an obscure part of the Song of Solomon), by way of James Watt and an extended tour of Greek philosophy. [Why? Why does he do it? How many people are actually going to get the Aquinas joke/reference/symbolism!?]
Deep, meaningful themes? Check. As I’ve suggest above, I felt that Pratchett fails to show his working adequately in places and is preaching to the choir in many more, but nonetheless, these are important questions he’s considering – particularly if, as I think is fair, you look beyond the immediate religious context of the book and treat it more as a consideration on systems of authority, hierarchy and intellectual control. It should also be said that the frustrating inadequacy of the intellectual side of the book is only brought to the front by Pratchett’s willingness to engage on these issues in a way that is unexpected for ‘this sort of’ book.
Clever and effective plotting? Sure! I’m only 90% sold on the ending, but otherwise this is one of the tautest and most professional novels Pratchett has written. Though there are many superficial little diversions and flourishes, fundamentally there’s no flab here, with everything working together like so many cogs.
Badass awesomeness? Ooooh yeah. At his best, Pratchett can write scenes that appeal on a really instinctual, primal level. He reached that point at the end of Witches Abroad, but here it feels like the whole second half of the book is a long series of fully-earned ‘crowning moments of awesome’. [Sorry to get all tropery on you there, but… that really is what they are]. A key part of this I think is metaphor. Pratchett can always carve a fascinating metaphor, but here they’re not just imaginative, they’re powerful, and they’re not just powerful, they’re cohesive, and they mount up in a way that gives the book a frankly Biblical grandeur in places. This reminds me of (conincidentally, given the titles) The God of Small Things, where I think I said in my review that Roy uses metaphor, and repeating patterns of metaphor, in such a way as to in effect construct her own language, her own shorthand for the reader. Pratchett doesn’t do it to quite the same extent, but the continuation and repetition of certain metaphors and images – of the desert and the sea, of rocks and sand, of eagles and tortoises, goats and sheep and so on – acts as this deep and powerful ostinato beneath the events of the plot, giving an intestinal resonance to their notes.
Appeal to all the family? Indeed. For young kids, there’s plenty of wacky moments and silly lines. For older kids, there’s a real feeling of significance to the book, a feeling that this is a book that people should shape their lives by – and maybe it’s a bit too simplistic for the most sophisticated readers, but this could and I’m sure does work fantastically for younger readers: Pratchett is a writer who can do that tricky thing of feeling like a father and a friend at the same time, giving you a line on important life truths without feeling too much like he’s lecturing you. For adults, there are the hidden layers of meaning. And for everyone there’s a really good exciting story being told.
Oh, and in Brutha Pratchett not only has a great character but a really great (a little less great on too close an inspection when you can see the seams but still great) character progression – something that normally isn’t one of Pratchett’s strong point. And aside from Brutha, and of course Vorbis (who, yes, is cool, but let’s face it he’s just the nightmare lovechild of Dios and Vetinari), there’s the incredible creation of Didactylos (clever name there, btw), who feels like an icon for philosophy fans, and has the wit and wisdom to live up to the billing.
So what you get with this book, in the end, is… an astonishingly good book. Yes, one gets the feeling that maybe Pratchett was just a touch too careful in making sure he could land this one, maybe he could have pushed it a little more in places. But at the same time: wow. I mean honestly. If anyone ever doubts that either fantasy or comedy can be wonderfully-written and meaningful literature, this has to be near the top of the list to prove them wrong.
Adrenaline: 4/5. Not exactly a thriller, per se, but there’s an effective plot with plenty of twists but that never gets confusing, and that trots along at a very decent pace throughout with a real sense of threat and uncertainty for characters I cared about.
Emotion: 4/5. I didn’t actually cry, but I did well up at times, which I think is as much about the power of the writing as about the engagement with the characters, but still: I really did care about what happens, and there are so many, so many classic scenes of triumph and defeat.
Thought: 4/5. Stops short of being a really sophisticated take on the topic, opting for polish rather than breadth. But it still takes on big question, and while it may not fully honour them it never feels façile or ignorant either. Plus a twisty plot and clever bits.
Beauty: 5/5. Oh, Pratchett can be so beautiful at times. The imagery, the metaphors, the finely-weighted prose. He’s not the greatest living stylist, I’m sure – he’s a little too polished for that, a little too formulaic at times – but on form he can be a great one, with the imagination and insight to make up for any momentary lapses… and here he’s on form almost continuously. There are too many wonderfully quotable lines to count, ranging from the witty to the profound.
Craft: 5/5. Quibbles about him not always doing what I wanted him to do aside, and giving him the benefit of the doubt on the very slight foot fault on the final landing, this is one where Pratchett Gets It Right. He’s always strong on the details, but he sometimes loses marks on the big picture, with problems in pacing or in bringing the subplots together. Not here – this is one of the few times when it feels as though he may have planned it all in advance. In fact, I’m not giving him enough credit here, because this is a book just so full of foreshadowing that it really bowls me over how clever the man is.
Endearingness: 4/5. I’m afraid that for all its technical merits, its thematic problems mean I can’t quite love it. I suppose that in this respect the more disciplined plotting and the tight character focus actually hurts it a little here as well – it’s a little controlled and there a fewer likeable characters with less time to show off. Nonetheless, it’s a basically good-hearted and intelligent book that is really impressively written, and is fun, and is funny. So yeah, you could say I like it…
Originality: 4/5. To be honest, 3/5 would probably be more impartial – it’s a religious satire, at least in part, and you can’t write one of those without treading some old ground. But the way Pratchett treads is – the way Pratchett doesn’t just find his own path but takes everyone else’s paths and commandeers them to a point where it seems like the whole area must just belong to him, that’s original. Nobody else could have written this.
Overall: 7/7. BRILLIANT. There are no reasons not to read Small Gods, and indeed given its short length and wide availability there are really very few excuses for not reading Small Gods. There are, perhaps, two reasons not to read Small Gods before reading other Discworld books: first, that if this is the sort of thing that irritates you, Pratchett’s treatment of religion and ethics maybe doesn’t display him at his most immediately likeable (although the sheer brilliance of the novel as a whole is likely to wear down any initial reservations, I think); and, more importantly, that maybe it’s not the most fun way, to begin with the best and then work your way down – the earlier books rarely have the proficiency of this one, and the later books rarely have the originality and passion of this one. This is why I would probably recommend starting a few books back and working up to Small Gods. Having said that, if you don’t think you’re going to read Discworld, you should read Small Gods anyway. Unless you’re a teenager growing up in a conservative family, or a fanatical hardline believer on the cusp of major crisis of faith, this probably isn’t a book that’s going to change your life. But it is a book that is really, really well written, and a great deal of fun.