Small Gods is the thirteenth volume in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, and for many Pratchett fans it marks his shift from an amusing fantasy author to full blown icon. It is considered to be the pivotal novel in which his work becomes much, much more than just fantasy and starts becoming a record of a much deeper and more thoughtful engagement with the world, reflected in the strange distortions of the reality of the Disc.
As such, this is a difficult novel for the young Pratchett fan. There is its themes, which are about belief and what shapes religions and people’s faith. Then there is the fact that it is much more serious than the previous books. It is, of course, amusing, but the darkness that has always been there in Pratchett, is never far from the surface in this novel. Then there is the fact that this is a standalone novel. None of the characters who appear in this novel make it into any of the others (except Lao Tse, who suddenly appears in Thief of Time), and by now Pratchett had begun to develop certain series that fans had started to hold in great affection and rejoice to return to. There is none of that here.
This deals with the novice monk, Brutha, an earnest, devout young man who has had his faith in Om drilled into him by a terrifying zealot of a grandmother. Brutha has certain unique qualities. He has a rigid grip on his faith, he has an eidetic memory, he copes best with certainty and routine, he is not equipped to deal with change. These make him the perfect novice monk, as does his lack of imagination. He spends large parts of his day in the gardens, hoeing the melons and that’s as exciting as things get until he bumps into a tortoise who is dropped into the gardens by a luckless eagle.
The tortoise starts to talk to Brutha, and Brutha realises that the tortoise is in fact a manifestation of the god Om, that Brutha so fervently worships. Om, it appears, is in a spot of bother. He had wanted to manifest as a great, roaring bull, but faith in him was so weak, he has been trapped in the guise of a tortoise for several years. Brutha is his salvation. But is Om, Brutha’s?
The interplay between believer and believed is fascinating and this is set against the wider concerns of religion/belief. Omnia is a dark, troubled place, ruled by a rod of iron and full of fear. Religion is the cornerstone of the country, and yet the fact that Om himself is so small and helpless, shows Brutha that actually, what people say they believe and what they actually believe are two different things. This is made manifest in the figure of Vorbis, one of the most unpleasant characters Pratchett has ever written. Vorbis is the chief inquisitor of Omnia, and as well as terrifying the Omnians into submission, he has plans to expand into neighbouring territories, territories where Brutha is about to discover, the issue of belief and thought is much more fluid, and dangerous.
My son found this hard going, although he warmed to it in the end. It engendered a great deal of discussion and if only a fraction of what we talked about remains for him to think over in the coming years, it will have been well worth reading, but I would say it was his least favourite so far. Now we are reading Lords and Ladies which is much more his style and he is steaming ahead with it.
As ever, I recommend these books to precocious primary students with a great grasp of vocabulary and the patience and interest to persevere, and teens and YA audiences who are more equipped to deal with the issues they raise.