When Brother Brutha of the Omnian Church starts talking to a tortoise, he merely assumes that he has gone mad. However, when the tortoise turns out to be the great god Om who is having a Bad Day, Brutha finds that his faith is about to be put to the test...
Up to (and including) Witches Abroad, Terry Pratchett was an author who wrote books that broadly fell in two categories: books that spoofed or were a satire of modern society in some way, often through broad comedy, and other books that were a bit more serious and had a point to them, though still amusing. The two sides had come very close to coexisting in Pyramids, but arguably just managed to avoid fusing into one impressive whole.
Small Gods is where Pratchett got it right. The entire book, from its first page to its last, is a lengthy, sustained and inordinately clever examination of religion, fundamentalism and blind faith and their conflict with reason, argument and science. And you barely notice, because the story itself is extremely taut, well-told and brilliantly characterised with Pratchett's occasional bursts of silliness kept to a minimum in favour of flashes of wry and at times angry humour. Small Gods is a book that Richard Dawkins would kill to have written, and done so in such a manner that even the most God-bothering evangelical would have still been riveted to it.
Small Gods has the veneer of being just a traditional Pratchett book: there's some jokes about men in togas arguing pointlessly about philosophy (in a world where it is difficult to have a conversation about, "Are the gods real?" when a lightning bolt will come flying through the window five seconds later with a label attached saying, "YES,"), Death has a couple of cameo appearances and there is a running joke about tortoises being nice to eat. But you can tell the subject matter really got Pratchett riled up. His hatred of blind faith and the idea that killing people is okay because some book says so - and, let's face it, that book was written by a old guy who might have been bitten by a donkey that morning and was a really foul mood when he started on the bit about doing unto others with fire and brimstone and was probably not, when you get down to it, an actual deity - really comes through in this novel, but in measured tones.
Character-wise, Small Gods may be Pratchett's strongest book. Most of the cast does not reoccur in the series (Death and a very brief trans-temporal appearance by a certain simian book-collector aside), but Pratchett still has time to paint them in impressive detail. Vorbis may be one of the scariest 'villains' (if that's even a right description) in the whole series. Brutha is certainly one of its most interesting protagonists. Om's pragmatic, tortoise-meets-deity outlook on life is amusing. Even minor characters like Didactylos and would-be rebel leader Simony are well-rounded and given good rationales for what they do.
Almost as importantly, the ending does not suck. Pratchett has a patchy record with endings, with his books sometimes ending okay and others being a bit of a let-down after a strong start and middle section. Small Gods, however, has a fantastic ending, starting with possibly the biggest belly-laugh out of all thirty-odd books in the series (hint: it involves something being airborne which shouldn't be) and proceeding from there.
Intelligent but never preachy, philosophical but never boring, Small Gods (*****) is Terry Pratchett's masterpiece (okay, his strongest masterpiece). It is the strongest Discworld novel and almost certainly the best thing he has ever written.
on 31 July 2004
If, like me, you'd ever thought: "~Philosophy~. I bet that's interesting but I expect philosophy books are really hard work, full of unfathomable ideas and impenetrable language ..." , then you might like to start here, with Small Gods. Terry Pratchett seems to have a firm grasp of some profound stuff and expresses it in a way that anyone can understand.
There's a young novice called Brutha, in the church of the great god Om - a fierce god that usually manifests as some powerful creature such as a bull or an eagle. Brutha is a quiet, gentle lad with some pretty harsh, religious fundamentalist ideas, at the beginning of this story. The Omnian church is powerful, expansionist, rules with a rod of iron and has an on-going inquisition, so anyone who doesn't believe the dogma in precisely the way the church presents it, is tortured and killed. Then Brutha actually meets his god, in the form of a creature far less fearsome than Om's accustomed to, and Brutha is enlightened by revelation after revelation. Things are not what he'd imagined. He starts having dangerous thoughts that he'd better not utter. Where do gods come from? How do they become great gods? Can't people just be nice to each other and live in peace? That sort of thing. The seeds of sedition! Deacon Vorbis, Exquisitor - Head of the Quisition, would have to stamp on that sort of thinking. There's already rebellious rumblings from those infidels who try to convince people that the world is flat when church teaching is very explicit on that: it's most definitely a sphere!
This is not like any of the other Disc World books I've read (about 8 so far). It's not quite so funny but it's even more than usually thought-provoking. There's a dark under-current that the author carefully draws attention to whilst not dwelling on excessively. There are people being tortured and slaughtered in the name of a god that, it turns out, hardly anyone really believes in - wars are fought and people suffer. A man betrays his friends to save his father (who committed the terrible crime of nailing a horseshoe on his wall) from the inquisition. Terry Pratchett has managed to get all this horror into a very entertaining Disc World novel. I'm impressed.
I recommend this book, and if you haven't read any disc world books before, this is not a bad place to start.
In this era of triumphant religious fundamentalism, Small Gods is a pretty dangerous item to be seen carrying. Terry Pratchett, bearing a reputation of being a major force in writing fantasy and humour has shed both elements in this penetrating book. It's an incisive satire of the mores and methods of the three major religions of Western Civilization. Pratchett's astute axiom that the Discworld is a "mirror of worlds" applies with more force here than any other Discworld book. Pratchett casts away whatever subtle restraint he's given other philosophical issues to directly confront us with a harsh truth about faiths.
The basic theme is a simple, but rarely recognized, truth. Gods are created by people. The fewer the believers, the smaller and weaker the god. When belief fades or believers eliminated, the gods cease to exist. Once mighty, the god Om has been relegated to the body of a tortoise. He retains but one true believer: Brutha, a novice in the Citadel of Om. Brutha makes frequent reference to segments of the "holy book" Om supposedly authored. Mystified by attribution to himself of these writings, Om wonders who really wrote them. And why they were written. What has been perpetrated in His Name?
Brutha, who has a photographic memory, is conscripted into a religious crusade against neighbouring Ephebe. The Omnian Church wants to erase Ephebe's false belief that the world is a disc riding on the backs of four elephants standing on a turtle swimming through space. According to Vorbis, head of the Quisition, such false doctrine must be erased, erasing the Ephebians in the process, if necessary. Besides, Ephebe's on the best trade route to the Turnwise coast. Tucked away in Brutha's pocket, Om is taken along. But how does Vorbis expect to conquer mighty Ephebe, home of philosopher kings, with a token force of fifty soldiers?
Pratchett is as direct as Vorbis is devious. There's an old saying that runs "I'm not a bigot, I hate everybody". Vorbis doesn't hate anybody, just those following false doctrines. Nor does Pratchett hate anyone, but his scathing wit in this book leaves few untouched . There are some light passages, but this book is deadly serious. It's not small gods, but small minds that Pratchett targets and he hits the mark unerringly [He's nearly prescient about Christian reaction to J.K. Rowlings' Harry Potter books]. Pratchett holds the mirror before us to consider our beliefs. What do we have faith in, and what sustains that faith?. If it proves false, how do we respond? What an experience it would be to visit Pratchett when one of the evangelicals arrives at the door! If he's as verbally devastating as he is with the printed word, there'd only be a smudge on the doormat.
This would have to be one of my favourite Discworld novels - the blend of philosophy (spot of Plato, anyone?), strange countries and customs, the wonderful naivety of Novice Brutha, the malevolence of Vorbis, and all the other characters, make it a jolly and enlivening tale. Along the way, Death pops up occasionally, and the inscrutable Lu-Tze wields his broom enthusiastically. The `in-joke' of Cut-Me-Own-Hand-Off Dhblah (presumably a distant relation of Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler from Ankh Morpork) made me chuckle. I particularly enjoyed the Ephebian philosophy, with its hints of Ancient Greek philosophy, and the weirdly `knowing' Didactylos.
Novice Brutha, with his memory which never allows him to forget anything, finds himself companion to a Small God having an off day, and goes on a journey with Vorbis to Ephebe where everything Brutha thought he knew seems to end up being something that he didn't know, and isn't altogether sure he wants to know. A completely twisted tale that takes the reader down byways and along highways unknown and unexpected, and ends up with the world pretty much the right way up again - or at least sufficiently the right way up that nobody else will notice.
Funny, insightful, sad and truthful all at the same time - a really good Discworld novel. Highly recommended.
on 29 October 2002
For years I have successfully avoided reading anything by Terry Pratchett. Perhaps because everyone else seemed to be doing just that, or perhaps just because I never heard about him from the right person.
That last point just changed - thanks you so much darling Liz - and she started me off with "Small Gods". I enjoyed it so much that I read it in stolen moments during two working midweek days, and now I curse the stupidity that made me wait this long.
This is a very clever book. Pratchett uses his mythical Discworld and its inhabitants to say far more about our world than he does theirs. This is a savage indictment of organised religion which will at the same time leave you holding your sides in pain as you try to stop laughing. It's most definitely not suitable for the Pope's Christmas stocking.
It may be a paradox, but if this world was a little bit more like Pratchett's, things would actually make more sense here than they do measured against accepted rationality.
I can't imagine there could be a better introduction to this author - an engaging and hilarious romp across another world, and a penetrating spotlight on an aspect of this one. Buy it!
on 9 May 2000
Well, this one's quite a departure. A very different "feel" to the story, with much less of the normal knockabout stuff and much more of a dark tone to proceedings.
There's a sense throughout that Terry Pratchett wrote this book as a way to explain his feelings on the whole matter of belief, and the quite complex theological positions that some of the characters take up would seem to support this. Some of the writing feels - well, the nearest word would be "angry", and one or two events in the book will send a shiver of horrible recognition down your spine.
This isn't really the first Pratchett you should read, as it's rather unrepresentative of the series as a whole, but if you've read some of the others and are looking for something slightly different, then Small Gods can be highly recommended.
Of all the many stories Pratchett has written set on the fictional Discworld, 'Small Gods' stands out. It's something of a one-off, rather different from anything else in the series. For this reason, even those who haven't enjoyed other books by the author (and let's admit, it's not everyone's cup of tea) might find this one worth reading. Meanwhile those who are fans of Pratchett are likely to find it similar enough to his other work to still enjoy.
'Small Gods' is a novel about religion and can be read on various levels. On the one hand, it's an entertaining story with enough plot and action to keep readers looking for no more than a diverting read happy. But, being a story about religion and belief, those looking for more depth should find plenty to think about here. It would also be a good book for a reading group or English literature class.
The story focusses on Omnia, a religious state dedicated to the great god Om. Religion is compulsary in Omnia and there is a brutal Inquisition to stamp out any heresy. But when Om himself decides to make an appearance, he is horrified to discover that despite all the pomp and circumstance aimed at his glorification, only one person remains who actually believes in him. In other words, the routine and ritual of the religion have replaced the actual belief and worship.
Incarnated as a small tortoise (the only form available to the enfeebled God), Om and his one supporter (a novice monk named Brutha), set out to rekindle belief and save the country from the grip of cruel Deacon Vorbis. This involves meeting up with philosophers in the laid back neighbouring kingdom of Ephebe, surviving shipwreck and desert, and preventing a war.
Omnism isn't meant to represent any particular religion, rather all religions in general, and the points that are made could apply to any belief system where things are carried to fundamental extremes. By setting the story on the established fantastical world of Discworld, Pratchett is able to make many points that would be very hard to make otherwise. I don't think the story is offensive to people who hold religious beliefs - it challenges the way humans behave in the name of religion, rather than criticising it per se. Any relgious person who enjoys debate and discussion should have no problem with this book.
I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in questions of religion and belief (very relevant in modern times), even if they are not normally a fan of Pratchett or fantasy writing in general. This isn't a fantasy novel in the true sense of the genre, so don't be put off if you aren't keen on 'goblins 'n' elves' style fantasy. The book stands alone so there is no need to have read any other Discworld stories.
'Small Gods' is a thought provoking and original story and transcends the traditional fantasy genre. I would encourage readers to give it a fair chance, even if it doesn't appear to be their normal type of reading.
on 15 February 2004
This is one of the funniest and *deepest* discworld stories and definately has a lovable hero in Brutha the novice. He's certainly not Mort though I would say in his pigheaded determination to be and do the right thing he has something in common with Sam Vimes of the nightwatch. Brutha has to help his god to regain his strength and stop being a tortoise and at the same time Brutha must confound plots by humans and the greater gods to let the situation descend into full blown and bloody war. With a few cameo's from Lu-Tze the sweeper and some great philosophy (its a funny old world and no mistake), this is the standard against which I measure the rest of the discworld novels - and I always find them wanting. Fantastic.
Roughly,I announce to you with great joy, we have a turtle God. That should have been the announcement that greeted the arrival of the God of the City of Om upon his return to Om. Unfortunately he was greeted by stunned disbelief by his sole remaining true believer. Since the size and power of any God/god on Discworld is directly proportional to the level of belief in each God's by its adherents this god is but a turtle. Out of such co-dependent relationships are small gods and Terry Pratchett's Small Gods made.
Co-dependent seems an apt term in this context. In Small Gods, Pratchett looks at organized religion through the prism of the co-dependant relationship. This theme is set against a backdrop which, if filmed, would have been produced by David Lean and looked remarkably like Lawrence of Arabia. (The Omnian attack on Ephebia and Brutha's trek with Vorbis across the desert between their cities both left me with images of Lawrence's attack on Aqaba and his disastrous trek across the desert with his youthful assistants.) Specifically, Pratchett examines the co-dependency of man and his God(s). Each is entirely co-dependent on the other. The plot, including the hilarious deus ex machina climax, has been well summarized in the product description and in other reviews so I'll confine myself to a few random observations.
No matter how deeply philosophical the underlying theme, the potential reader should know that Pratchett is an excellent writer and capable of some of the funniest lines and paragraphs you are likely to encounter in fiction. Pratchett introduces the Ephebians' leading philosopher Dydactylos thusly: His philosophy was a mixture of three famous schools -- the Cynics, the Stoics and the Epicureans -- and summed up all three of them in his famous phrase, "You can't trust any bugger further than you can throw him, and there's nothing you can do about it, so let's have a drink." It is no small compliment to state that the passage reminded me of Month Python's Philosopher's Song.
Pratchett's sharp tongue and wonderful sense of humor does not detract from his ability to get a point across. For example, the villain of the piece, Vorbis is engaged in diplomatic negotiations with the leader of the Ephebians, known simply as "the Tyrant". "Slave is an Ephebian word. In Om we have no word for slave," said Vorbis. "So I understand," said the Tyrant. "I imagine that fish have no word for water." In context, this exchange is simply brilliant. Small Gods is full of these little pearls.
Pearls, actually, form the basis of my final thoughts on Small Gods. I think it clear that Pratchett does not look kindly upon the excesses and brutalities committed in the name of God(s). However, those who do maintain such a belief system should not construe that as an attack on faith itself. I think one can liken the philosophies expressed by Moses, Jesus, or Buddha for example as a grain of sand. The grain of sand can be perfectly beautiful but because it serves as something of a societal irritant when first expressed it becomes covered with layer upon layer of outer covering until it evolves into a pearl. Now that pearl can be beautiful but it can also completely obscure the pure beauty of that grain of sand. So too with the trappings and dogma of oragnized relgion. When doctrine and dogma take pride of place the beauty of the idea is lost and can turn horrid. Vorbis' role as leader of the Omnian inquisition is no accident. The comparison between Vorbis and Brutha is beautiful for its symetry. Vorbis is all form and structure but totally devoid of content, of soul. Brutha is close to being the opposite. As we look at the trappings of our own faith (those of us that choose to have one) it might not be a bad idea to examine whether or not the trappings of that doctrine obscure the initial meaning and purity of the ideas around which those trappings were created.
That any author, particularly one so consistenly funny, can evoke such a thought process, is, perhaps, a minor miracle.
on 14 January 2014
I was given this as an audio book, I put in on as I set off for a 6 hour or so drive to Manchester, not my favorite journey. However listening to the story took all the boredom and stress out of the journey. I just love the Great God Om, who is now a tortoise, and Brutha. Their relationship had me laughing non stop. Even Vorbis and his single mindedness, reminded me of people I have met, who are so convince of their view on how everyone should live and how you should worship only their chosen God. However evil is only allowed to exists, because nobody is willing to say No. Everyone hopes that they can stay alive by keeping well under the parapet. Despite this serious point; the story is so enjoyable that you pick up the message, without even noticing it. If you have never read Terry Pratchett, then this is good one to start with, as it is a one off book, but gives you the style and homour of the author.