review by Manus Lenihan
Small Gods is one of the high points in the long span of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. In this novel (which, like most of the series, can be read as a standalone) Pratchett imagines a fanatical religious society called Omnia, which worships ‘the great god Om,’ in whose name the cruel inquisitor Vorbis roots out heretics and traitors. Meanwhile on the humbler end of Omnia’s social order we meet a deeply religious youth named Brutha. One day while working in the fields Brutha is harassed and threatened by a tiny tortoise who claims to be the all-powerful god Om. The god has been reduced to this pathetic state for unknown reasons, and only Brutha can hear his angry little voice. This is the set-up for a fun and thought-provoking adventure.
The audiobook is narrated by Andy Serkis, of The Lord of the Rings and more recently Andor. Here Serkis gets to show off his great comedic range, from the various voices and accents of the characters to Pratchett’s witty narration. This is a whole area of his talent that I hadn’t even known about.
Anyone familiar with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels will know there are funny little footnotes and that Death is a recurring character, his dialogue all in capital letters. So Andy Serkis gets help from Bill Nighy, whose unmistakable voice reads the footnotes with a weary air, and from Peter Serafinowicz (Shaun of the Dead, Black Books) who does the deep and implacable voice of Death.
The most striking character is Om, in whom we see the desperation and hubris of a god locked in the body of a feeble tortoise. But Brutha is the heart and soul of the book. At first he seems clumsy, but it turns out he has an extraordinary memory and knows the scriptures off by heart. He can recite any passage from the holy books at will. The god Om fumes at having his own words quoted back at him thousands of years after he uttered them.
Rebellion brews in ultra-religious Omnia, and diverse characters join forces to defeat the tyrant Vorbis. The novel comes at the theme of belief from a totally different angle when Brutha searches for answers in Ephebe, a parody of ancient Athens overrun with philosophers running naked in the streets and having bar-room brawls over the nature of reality.
Though it’s a short and light novel, the story touches on serious themes and is epic in scope. We learn how gods come into being, how they can be fossilized and ossified by their own dogmatic churches, and where they go when no-one believes in them anymore. There are a few digs at atheists along the way too – for the sake of balance, I suppose.
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