Sunday, 2 March 2014

Discworld: Small Gods by Terry Pratchett Review

Re-reading books from your childhood as an adult is always a bit risky. Sometimes the book holds up and it’s amazing, like somehow you’ve achieved time-travel - sometimes they don’t and that just plain sucks. So when the lovely new hardbacks of the beloved Discworld series began appearing late last year, I picked up some books I’d read a long time ago and subsequently forgotten all but a few scenes, characters and a line or two from. One of these was Small Gods which I remember liking but, having re-read it this week, I can unfortunately say that it’s an enormously boring Discworld book. 

Set in the theocratic country of Om, Brutha is a novice monk in the order of Om until one day he hears a voice in his head - it’s his god, speaking to him, in the form of a little tortoise. Things have gone badly for Om, as fewer and fewer people choose to believe in him hence his lowly status. Only one believer remains: Brutha. The people now believe in the structure of the religion led by the head Quisitor, Vorbis, who has plans to expand the Omnian empire across the Disc - religious war is brewing and only a simple novice and his tortoise can stop it! 

Terry Pratchett’s greatest strength with his Discworld series lies in the characters. Rincewind is arguably his greatest creation, Death and Vimes close seconds, and then you’ve got the witches like Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, Lord Vetinari - the list goes on. It’s a helluva cast. Small Gods - besides the requisite cameos from Death - doesn’t have any great characters. 

Brutha is a very dull character. He’s pleasant enough but he’s uncharismatic and doesn’t say or do much until the very end and even then it feels like Pratchett’s using him as his mouthpiece to put across his views on religion. Fine, but that doesn’t make him much of a character. Om reads like any number of smart-assed characters Pratchett’s written before like the Amazing Maurice. 

Neither character is particularly interesting to follow. Brutha just wanders about without purpose as a follower until the final act and Om’s goal is to become all-powerful again so he can get back to being worshipped and live comfortably in the clouds. Neither are especially great motivations, and when they’re the motivations of a pair of bland characters, there’s very little for the reader to hold become invested in. 

I won’t even go into Vorbis but suffice it to say he’s made from Pratchett’s go-to bad guy mould. He isn’t physically menacing but he uses his high intelligence and cruel nature to get what he wants, which is usually a selfish short-term goal. 

The story itself isn’t very engaging either - Omnia goes to war, then it doesn’t. The bad guy rises then falls. People learn that religion is fine but don’t force people to believe in it if they don’t want to. Eh. 

Pratchett’s known for his humour but it’s entirely absent here. The repeated “joke” is that random characters who meet Brutha and Om remark that “there’s good eating” on a tortoise, of course not knowing the tortoise is a god, and Om scowls - ooo! The other “joke” is that tortoises are afraid of eagles because they lift them up, drop them on to rocks, and eat them. I re-read Eric last year and laughed several times but didn’t laugh - or even smile - once at the lame attempts at comedy in Small Gods. I think Rincewind just lends himself to funnier situations than Brutha and Om. 

I didn’t hate all of it. I liked that Pratchett riffed on Jesus wandering the desert with the scene where Brutha, Vorbis and Om wander the desert, creating his own parody of how famous religions’ stories/parables/myths start. I also liked that the Omnian religion preaches that the Earth is round and orbits the sun while the “truth” is that the world is flat like a disc and stands on the backs of four elephants standing atop a giant turtle moving through space - Pratchett giving a knowing wink to medieval ideas about our own planet. 

I wish I could say that I read this with the zeal and love that I did when I was a kid but the truth is I trudged through it, often bored, and constantly flipping to the back to remind myself how many more pages I had to get through until it was over. Small Gods is a very bland, very dreary story that doesn’t say anything very original or interesting about religion despite Pratchett’s novels usually providing rich satire on our culture. But more importantly Small Gods fails to entertain on a basic level. I know Pratchett’s a great storyteller and I’ll always love the Discworld series but not Small Gods- it’s definitely one of his weakest books.

Small Gods

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