I've mentioned my love of Sir Terry Pratchett's work before, and one of his best novels is Small Gods. I'm not sure it's the best Discworld book, though. Yes, it's set on Pratchett's flat, round world that's carried through space on the backs of four enormous elephants who in turn stand atop a gigantic turtle. Yes, it uses that world's rules, like deities that start out as barely sentient "small gods" who, with one well-timed miracle, can glut themselves on mortals' belief and grow into mighty divinities. And yes, it's in continuity with the rest of the Discworld books, but it's a story that takes place about a century before the rest of the series, in a country that has not been visited since. Still, even if Small Gods can be considered a side-story, it remains an excellent one.
The book concerns Brutha, a novice monk in the Omnian church, and the Great God Om himself. Om has descended to the world of mortals as foretold to herald his faith's next great prophet, but he has a problem - despite intending to return from his divine vacation with a dramatic entrance, Om finds himself trapped in the form of a weathered desert tortoise, and his divine powers have atrophied to the point where he can only annoy someone with a spark of static electricity instead of smiting them with heavenly lightning. And even though the Omnian church controls a mighty empire and commands the faith of two million worshipers, out of all of them only the simple but earnest Brutha can actually hear the voice of his god.
So Om has to try to figure out what's wrong with him, while Brutha's faith is tested after he meets his deity face-to-face, and must come to terms with the fact that the holy scriptures might have exaggerated the Great God Om's infinite wisdom and omnipotence. In fact, Om can barely remember one of his greatest prophets.
"Ossory. Ossory," said the tortoise. "No... no... can't say I-"
"He said that you spoke unto him from out of a pillar of flame," said Brutha.
"Oh, that Ossory," said the tortoise. "Pillar of flame. Yes."
"And you dictated to him the Book of Ossory," said Brutha. "Which contains the Directions, the Gateways, the Abjurations, and the Precepts. One hundred and ninety-three chapters."
"I don't think I did all that," said Om doubtfully. "I'm sure I would have remembered one hundred and ninety-three chapters."
"What did you say to him, then?"
"As far as I can remember it was, 'Hey, see what I can do!'" said the tortoise.
Brutha stared at it. It looked embarrassed, insofar as that's possible for a tortoise.
"Even gods like to relax," it said.
"Hundreds of thousands of people live their lives by the Abjurations and the Precepts!" Brutha snarled.
"Well? I'm not stopping them," said Om.
At the same time, Brutha and Om must contend with Deacon Vorbis, an inquisitive fellow tasked with saving the souls of Om's children, even if it puts the rest of them through hell. Someone who will take extreme steps to protect his faith even if he himself is deaf to his god's voice, someone who ascribes to a deeper truth than what might have factually happened when an Omnian missionary went to the heathen nation of Ephebe. And so Brutha and Om must try to stop a purportedly holy war, keep each other alive, and save the religion of Omnism from itself.
It's an intriguing premise, a priest and his deity learning from each other, and Pratchett executes it wonderfully. There's a great deal of humor in the story, from the difficulties of being a god trapped in a tortoise's body, to the quirks of the book's minor characters, to some of the Disc's other deities - such as Patina, a goddess of wisdom who is unfortunately associated with penguins for reasons Ephebians don't like to talk about ("Bloody sculptor"). There are powerful moments, like when Om limps through a crowd of his worshipers and for the first time is able to listen to their earnest, whispered prayers, Brutha's revelations after everything he believed in gets turned on its head, or the description of what happens to a god who loses its worshipers. And there are dark moments, not gruesomely detailed depictions of torture, but instead a description of the jolly postcards and coffee mugs reading "To the World's Best Daddy" in the inquisitors' work pits, and their significance.
And it all meant this: that there are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath that cannot easily be duplicated by a normal, kindly family man who just comes in to work every day and has a job to do.
Vorbis loved knowing that. A man who knew that, knew everything he needed to know about people.
Most of all, Small Gods is an exploration of faith and religion. Even in as fantastic a setting as the Discworld, there's a lot we can recognize in it: the church of Om has an inquisition, obviously, but also a pro-stoning policy towards adultery straight out of the Old Testament and a zeal for holy war and directives concerning females' modesty that can be found in fundamentalist Islam. But it's less an attack on any particular theology as it is a critique of what religion can become when it grows more concerned with coercing shows of faith than faith itself. The book has a strong humanist message, and argues that right and wrong are not always the same as following what a holy tome says, but I don't think it gets too preachy. That would certainly be ironic, wouldn't it?
If I had to search for some nitpick to make, I'd complain that one or two characters are introduced more to be funny than serve a purpose in the plot, such as a mad hermit encountered in the third act, but that's about it. If you're a fan of Douglas Adams you'll find that Pratchett has a similar style, and will cut away from the action to provide context or background information with a wry sense of humor, though Pratchett's tone is a bit less biting, and even when he's remarking on something tragic he does so with somber resignation rather than snarling outrage. Pratchett is often funny, and he can be very thought-provoking, but he's always fun to read.
If this review has convinced you and you have ten bucks to spare, you can grab Small Gods on Amazon by clicking on the picture above or on this finely-crafted hyperlink. You'd be doing me a favor via the Amazon Associate program, and I think you'd be doing yourself one as well. But if this book doesn't sound like your cup of tea, that's fine, and I thank you for putting up with me gushing about my favorite author. And don't worry, we'll be back to snarking at Hubbard next week.