Small Gods is the thirteenth book in the Discworld saga and the third not to have recurring characters as protagonists such as the wizards of Unseen University, the witches of Lancre, the guards of Ankh-Morpork or Death.1 Come to think of it, it’s also the perfect book to enter the universe created by Terry Pratchett: it’s a fantasy story, it’s an epic one, it features Discworld places that are mentioned in other books (Omnia, for example), and it showcases how the author’s satire can be pungent without weighing down the narrative.
But let’s start with a hint of the plot. Omnia is a theocracy led by the Church of the great God Om. Everyone’s expecting the seventh prophet in the Year of the Hypothetical Serpent. This is very important, since every new prophet usually adds new teachings and laws to an already infinite list since he’s considered as the bearer of the true word of Om. There’s a problem: no one actually listens to Om and hardly anyone even believes in him anymore! And since the gods’ power depends on how many people believe in them, Om is weak, so weak that he’s embodied in a small turtle.
The only one able to hear him is the humble Brutha, a novice who’s about to embark on an incredible adventure together, unfortunately for him, with the powerful Quisitor Vorbis. This adventure, which includes a trip to (and a war against) Ephebe, land of philosophers, allows Pratchett to comment on religion, power, and wars in a very clear way, tinging his usual sense of humor with a hilarious cynicism.
An example? “God’s don’t like people not doing much work. People who aren’t busy all the time might start to think” (note: think is in italics in the book).
And then the definitive sentence, speaking of the giant tortoise on which the Discworld travels in space: “You can’t believe in Great A’Tuin. Great A’Tuin exists. There’s no point in believing in things that exist.” This is brilliant on so many levels!
The contrast between Ephebe and Omnia is the perfect vehicle for the messages that Pratchett wants to send with his book. In the former, philosophers2 reason on things and elaborate theories by discussing among themselves. In Omnia, the population lives in terror and pretends to believe in a god they don’t really believe in just to survive, while dark characters rule in the name of something not even they believe in! Ephebe is a democracy, and Omnia is, obviously, a theocracy.3
So, beyond the fulminating jokes that Small Gods is literally full of anyway, the basic theme of the book makes us readers think, and it’s scary to notice that the fictional world of the book is so similar to ours. The icing on the cake comes with the religious war in the last act of the book in which Pratchett doesn’t simply show an authoritarian theocracy versus free men, but rather describes a much more multifaceted and profound world!4 I also found it interesting how the basic theme of the book is one dear to Pratchett’s friend Neil Gaiman, who has written a lot about mythology and gods (I’m thinking of American Gods, Anansi Boys and The Sandman, among other things)!
To conclude, Small Gods is an essential entry in the Discworld saga (and in literature in general). I love how the actual protagonist is not Brutha, but the God Om, who’s the only character to evolve: initially he’s obtuse and arrogant, then he gradually changes after seeing with his eyes the atrocities committed in his name. Also, it’s subtle how it’s Brutha with his faith giving Om his power, and not Om as a god having power over people like Brutha!
It should also be emphasized that everything is presented with incredible lightness, given the topics covered. I believe that no believer or religious person can be offended by reading Small Gods since everything is presented with hilarious characters (above all, Brutha and Didactylos) and the real protagonist of the story… is a god! What more could you want? In fact, even atheists or agnostics would have no reason to be angry… Ciao!
PS: Ray Friesen’s graphic novel based on the book deserves to be read too, it reprises a lot of the original text and the drawing style is cool, see an example below:
1. The other two are the third book, Equal Rites, and the seventh one, Pyramids.
2. What’s a philosopher, Pratchett wonders? “Someone who’s bright enough to find a job with no heavy lifting” is the answer.
3. Pratchett does not idealize the concept of democracy at all: “The Ephebians believed that every man should have the vote (provided that he wasn’t poor, foreign, nor disqualified by reason of being mad, frivolous, or a woman). Every five years someone was elected to be Tyrant, provided he could prove that he was honest, intelligent, sensible, and trustworthy. Immediately after he was elected, of course, it was obvious to everyone that he was a criminal madman and totally out of touch with the view of the ordinary philosopher in the street looking for a towel. And then five years later they elected another one just like him, and really it was amazing how intelligent people kept on making the same mistakes.“
4. And how could I not mention the first appearance of Lu-Tze, the humble as well as powerful history monk who plays a key role here and who will return prominently in Thief of Time?