After looking at the power of stories in Witches Abroad, Terry Pratchett turns to some of the greatest stories ever told: religions, and, somewhat more incidentally, philosophy. Small Gods, the thirteenth Discworld novel, takes place in and around Omnia, an austere land on the edge of a great desert. The church of the Great God Om dominates life in Omnia. Its Quisition shortens the lives of many Omnians, and its armies work steadfastly to bring the truth of Om to neighboring lands, whether or not those lands have any interest in receiving it.
Omnia functions as something of a mirror image of Discworld’s more familiar city of Ankh-Morpork. The latter has accreted around a river that doesn’t flow so much as ooze, or perhaps subside. It is a freewheeling city in a lush setting, home to myriad gods, where nearly everyone is on the make, or on the take. Omnia ranges around its Citadel on the border of the desert, everything professing devotion to Om and preparing for more conquest of unbelievers. There is a little bit of life that remains untamed, as both a counterpart to Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler and the Quisition’s crackdowns on superstition attest. On the whole, though, Omnia is an oppressive theocracy, bent on conquering and converting any and all of its neighbors.
The novel follows a young acolyte, Brutha, who has been terrified by his granny into unquestioning belief in Om, and whose belief is supported by perfect memory (of Om’s scriptures along with everything else) supplemented by otherwise languid thought processes. On the Disc, gods grow as belief in them grows. Thus Om was able to expand from a patron of desert herders into the moving force behind Omnia’s Citadel and its conquering armies. Unfortunately for Om, gods ebb as belief in them wanes. The real kicker is that sustaining belief has to be sincere, and that is in very short supply in Omnia. In fact, Om is down to just one believer, Brutha, as the god discovers when he is in turtle form and dropped most ignominiously by an eagle into one of Brutha’s gardens’ compost piles.
The god speaks to Brutha, and Brutha wants to believe, but he also can’t quite believe that the god is speaking to someone as far down on the totem pole as he. Before long, a whiff of something comes to the attention to the head of the Quisition, who doesn’t know quite what to make of Brutha either. Rather than applying the usual methods, the chief Quisitor decides to make use of Brutha’s memory in bringing enlightenment to the city of Ephebe, home to philosophers and other heretics but guarded by an impenetrable labyrinth. Brutha does as he is told, up to a point, while also trying to make sure that a certain turtle stays out of the soup.
Nothing turns out as anyone, least of all the gods themselves, has planned. Heresy is not stomped out even in Omnia; the Ephebans have a few tricks up their sleeves; Om has ideas; even Brutha has some unexpected notions.
I’ve seen Small Gods praised as one of the key books that can serve as an introduction to Discworld as a whole, with Brutha and Om as one of Pratchett’s great comic pairs. I’m not quite sure why it didn’t engage my enthusiasm as much. Perhaps because it all felt a bit structured to me, the working out of a premise and a setting, rather than the exploration of what happens when some characters are set in motion. It’s fun, and engaging, and occasionally deep, as all the Discworld books are at this point in the set, but I’m not as likely to return to it as I am, say, to some of the witches’ stories, or of Death’s. Small Gods is a one-off, in its setting; Pratchett did not return either.