by Terry Pratchett
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Small Gods has the rare distinction of being one of only a couple of Discworld books which stand on their own (as well as on the backs of four elephants which may, or may not, stand on the back of a giant turtle which may, or may not, move through space). It is also considered by many to be one of the best novels in the Discworld series.
Terry Pratchett uses Small Gods to tackle the topic of religion and intolerance, electing to focus on the country of Omnia, where the Great God Om is worshipped. Unfortunately for the Great God Om, he has spent the last three years inside a tortoise. It isn't until he gets near the novice Brutha, his most ardent (and possibly only) worshipper, that Om remembers who and what he is.
Brutha is gifted with a eidetic memory, an innocence and piety which are enough to bring him to the notice of Vorbis, the Exquisitor. Brutha (with tortoise in tow) is invited to accompany Vorbis as part of a peace delegation to the neighboring land of Ephebe. In his travels, Brutha learns more about what godhood really means and Pratchett is able to examine the difference between a belief in God and a belief in a religion.
Small Gods may not be the most laugh-out-loud funny of the Discworld novels, but it is the most philosophical book in the series. Pratchett is able to remain on course as he explores the meaning of religion with a smattering of philosophy. His characters, plot and concepts all come together to form a cohesive whole which does not allow itself to get sidetracked for the sake of a joke or a situation. At the same time, Pratchett manages to incorporate jokes and satire throughout the novel, although not quite at the same pace as he has done in other novels.
While most satirists have a tendency to focus either of the roles of God in religion, or, more frequently, the life religions have apart from their gods, Pratchett examines both. Vorbis and other followers of Om have little, if any need for the actual deity, although few of them realize it. Om, on the other hand, has a great need for worshippers, yet cannot fathom the religion which they built up in His name.
Although among the best of the Discworld novels, Small Gods may not be a good place to start the series because in many ways it is atypical. Only two of Pratchett's regular characters, Death and the Librarian, appear in the novel and none of his more common locations are seen. Furthermore, few of the other books can hold a candle to Small Gods as far as literature is concerned and readers may find subsequent books vaguely unsatisfactory until they realize what Pratchett is doing in them and get used to their style.
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