Small Gods by Sir Terry Pratchett

The Big Peat

Darth Buddha
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By way of introductory remarks, let me state that I’ve been sitting on the chance to review Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods for a while, savouring the chance to have my say about one of the most universally respected Discworld books.

The reason for that respect lies equally in the premise and the execution, so let us talk about the heartbeat behind Small Gods and why I recommend it to just about everyone.

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The central character of this book is Brutha, a novice in the great temple of Om who boasts some near unique virtues. Honesty. Obedience. A perfect memory.

And actual belief in Om.

Oh, he is surrounded by those dedicated to Om. Just none of them truly believe in the god himself. They believe in his church, and the power of his church, and the red hot pincers belonging to some of the powerful of the church. But not Om himself.

This is a big problem for Om because on the Disc, belief is power, and gods who nobody believes in dwindle back down to become small gods, clinging on to that one last believer if they even have that…

Most books you can talk about without talking about the attached world views. Pratchett’s views on religion, faith, and humanity so suffuse Small Gods that it is not one of them. There is a story here, and characters, and fine things they are too, but this is art as philosophy.

Normally I steer clear of that sort of thing, but the incredible trick that Pratchett pulled off here in the expression of his views is that he’s received fan mail from Christians thanking him for his support and fairness for Small Gods… and fan mail from various stripes of non-Christians thanking him for skewering them. Sir Pterry is at once judgmental and non-judgmental; perhaps best to say he rips into the game with glee, but shows a great amount of respect for the players, even the most evil of them.

And there is real evil here. Small Gods features one of his most memorable villains from Discworld’s forty-something book run in Vorbis, the head of Omnia’s torturers. He isn’t just impressively sinister and implacable. Vorbis is one of those characters who gives the sense they’ll change the whole world for the worse if not stopped. At one point, one of Vorbis’ enemies is accused of acting just like him, and the accusation is right. Vorbis’ evil, Vorbis’ power, is to make the world run on his ideology of control and domination, even if the others don’t agree with his other beliefs.

If Vorbis is a memorable villain, then Brutha is equal as a hero, with one of the better growth arcs I’ve seen in all fantasy. Brutha starts seemingly stupid, but we quickly learn he is merely naïve and ignorant. Shown the world, Brutha comes to understand it, with compassion and anger.

At times the journey there seems slow and, in a way, muted. I think there could have been more dramatic power to some of the small arcs of Brutha’s journey. In a way though, that makes sense. Brutha doesn’t understand the true drama of what he’d seeing. That, at least on one level, is the point. Brutha stares at the absurdities of the world like a true innocent. If he doesn’t, there is no book. So Small Gods rattles along on Pratchett’s trademark jokes and small increments of suspicion for most of the book and come the ending, makes good on every promise of drama you could want. It is a godweight punch of an ending, a scathing and forthright manifesto for the humane use of power.

As for that very last scene? It contains some great truths about humanity and a very touching, fitting encapsulation of everything Brutha was as a character.

I do not think this is the best Discworld. I mightn’t even put it in my top five. As an example of Pratchett’s gifts as an exponent of humanism though, there is no finer book, and it does still read very well to boot.

Small Gods deserves its giant reputation.

(review originally posted at Small Gods by Sir Terry Pratchett)
 

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