Review: Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

I was looking to read a well-loved fantasy novel and then I remembered Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. But where to start – there are 40 of them! Following the first blog I came across on Google, I chose this one, Small Gods.

All I knew about the Discworld is that the cycle is set on a flat earth supported on the back of a turtle swimming through space. In Small Gods this is a central point of philosophical contention, between those who accept that the turtle exists, and the “round-earthers” who believe the world is a globe. How crazy!

Small Gods is set in the empire of Omnia, a theocracy run by people “several levels down, where it’s still possible to get things done”. One of these people is Vorbis, head of the Quisition, the branch of the church charged with hunting down heretics (with a side-hustle in expanding the empire). Vorbis is hilariously evil, a man who says things like “where there is punishment, there is always a crime” and “the real truth must sometimes be protected by a labyrinth of lies”. He has a “terrible memory for names. He knew every one”.

The Omnians believe the world is round and worship the god Om, a patriarchal figure said to take the appearance of a bull. Om likes his rule to be followed absolutely and his detractors to be punished with extreme prejudice. It seems to be a clear allegory for the Abrahamic faiths, except in this world, gods are not a matter of belief, but a simple fact of existence. There are thousands of gods, “for bacteria and microclimates and the spirits of places where two ant trails cross.” However gods also desperately require human believers, or risk banishment to an eternal desert limbo.

Bumbling through this world is Brutha, a novice priest of utter faith and without guile. He might be a fool or a saint, or maybe both. When Brutha runs into the god Om in the local veggie patch, he sets out on a journey that will see him questioning everything he believes.

Across the desert and sea from Omnia is Ephebes, a hotbed of heresy (otherwise known as philosophy). It is a city ruled by a democratically-elected Tyrant that has “gods in the same way that other cities had rats”, allows its slaves holiday leave and places enormous value in “free listening”, the freedom to react to what you hear in whatsoever way you wish. It is no wonder then that Ephebes also appears to be the source of a dangerous idea that could upend the accepted way of things: that the world might be flat. After a diplomatic incident, Vorbis goes to Ephebes with Brutha in tow to sort it out, but of course Vorbis has ulterior motives.

I initially thought, with its emphasis on evolutionary theory, that this book might be going down the same irascible path as Richard Dawkins circa God Delusion. But this is complicated by the character Simony, an atheist whose “sort of atheism was a rock. It was nearly belief.” The real enemy here appears to be certainty, the unshakeable kind that is impenetrable to new or different ideas.

I enjoyed spotting the real-world resonances in this book, from Ancient Greece to Egypt. It is at its sharpest when it is satirising human irrationality, narrowing in on corrupted beliefs, hypocrisies and untidy thinking with a hawk-like gaze.

The plot jumps around a bit, and I was a bit undersold by the ending which wants to have it all, but all this is just a skeleton on which to hang Pratchett’s wit. Pratchett’s comedic talent is well known but I was interested to see the same skills at work in some clever and surprising imagery. A desert beach is “a barren hem where the land met the ocean”, a dirty toga “must have once been white, in the same way that once all continents must have been joined together”. This book is full of surprising and delightful lines like that.

Gay rating: 0/5 for no queer characters or themes. 

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