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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.
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