Wastrel's Reviews > Small Gods

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
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Aug 08, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: r-ps, z-1995, fantastika-social-fantasy, brilliant

I've always remembered this as the best Discworld book, and so does nearly everybody else. And I really wanted to mark it down, both because it's always good to disagree with a consensus, and because early on in the book I got really quite irritated by the unsubtleness and heavy-handedness of Pratchett's satire against religion. And I got pretty irritated later on by the unquestioning attitude the book takes towards Pratchett's own views.

But... I can't. Those things may stop it from being my favourite Discworld book, may stop it (as it might otherwise have been) from being my favourite of all books, but they're nowhere near enough to stop it from being the best Discworld novel and an absolute masterpiece. The charm and brilliance of the book will override the thematic problems for almost all readers (indeed, for almost all readers they'll be enough to make it so people don't even notice the thematic problems, which is a testiment to Pratchett's talents, but also a little scary - he could be a really dangerous propagandist if he took up with the wrong ideology, I think...) - and even if they don't, it's just exquisitely composed. It's fun, funny, moving, thought-provoking, and infinitely quotable.

It isn't the best book I've ever read, but it's certainly up in the top tier.

My fuller thoughts can as usual be found over here on my blog.
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Reading Progress

August 8, 2011 – Shelved
February 25, 2014 –
page 296
77.08%
February 25, 2014 –
page 296
77.08% "OK, there's no denying it. This is a masterpiece."
Started Reading
February 26, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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Alfred Haplo …. (continuing from Going Postal’s review) Because the book I bought was Small Gods. Some days back, I found myself at a book shop, then at Fantasy, then at “P”. It was a toss-up between The Colour of Magic and Small Gods, then I thought shoots, which is the better book to start, is this Format A or B, old format or new and so forth, thinking back to an older conversation. Thought about pinging you but it was night here, and no sane UK person would be checking GR in the early AM. So, voila, Small Gods it was, and by default this will be my first Pratchett.

Very happy to see great reviews here & at the blog.


Wastrel There's really three reasons you might not want to start with Small Gods:

a) if you're a huge fan of organised religion and will get annoyed by criticism of it;
b) if you already know for sure that you're going to read all 41 books and you want to start at the beginning;
or
c) you want to save the best 'till last. [pace this review, I don't actually think it IS the best Discworld book. I think Lords and Ladies might be better (but maybe that's just me), and everyon agrees Night Watch is also a candidate for that, while The Fifth Elephant may be my personal favourite although I'm not sure. But Small Gods is definitely very near the top of the list.]

The Colour of Magic isn't a great place to start, unless you're a completist. I actually really like that book, more than many people do, but it's not that representative of his later books.
[None of his books are really all that representative, because 'Discworld' used different settings and characters and to some extent style, and was written over three decades. But TCOM is particularly unrepresentative, being the first.] So I think people should read it, but I wouldn't insist upon it as your first Pratchett. Small Gods is a better choice (though I tend to recommend other things first and then suggest SG as a fallback "try just one more before you give up on him" option).

Hope you enjoy it, anyway!


message 3: by Alfred (last edited Nov 02, 2016 06:05PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alfred Haplo Thank you! (Where did you start?)

a) Baptist here. Very much lapsed. More likely to be criticized by organized religion.
b) Hmm... I am kinda sorta completist...
c) Will save SG (and maybe add FE, LL, NW later) for last-ish read or if verge of giving up at Xth book.

(For fun) The conundrum…

description


Wastrel Baptist!!
We don't really have them much in this country, for all that they came from here. Although having said that, we do have plenty of them in this part of the country (we've always been a hotbed of religious enthusiasm; we've got the Mormons and the European (formerly world) HQ of scientology, and the European HQ of the Rosicrucians, and a pseudo-Amish cult and everything). But traditionally the ones around here are the Strict and Particulars, who by their nature keep to themselves in their tiny little chapels and you don't hear much from them. Although there is a formerly S&P baptist group near here who have turned all modern and actually encourage people to join and things...
('the Strict and Particulars' is the best name for a religious group ever)
The Strict and Particular Baptists are about the opposite end from what Pratchett's satirising in this book, though, which is large-scale organised religion - ie Catholicism and its replacements.

----

Unfortunately, there is no uncontroversial recommended starting point with Pratchett. This is because the books are quite diverse, and there are so many of them, over such a long span of time. Personally, my recommendation probably changes every time I'm asked.

There are probably four main way to read Discworld....
a) start at the beginning and read in order
b) pick a later book or two to see if you like them, then start at the beginning (or near it) and read in order
c) pick a 'subseries' and read it in order, then move on to another
d) read them in a random order

Pros and cons....

Strict Publication Order
Pro: you read everything in its intended order. You get to watch the setting and characters and style develop, which as well as being fun per se also means you don't come across jarring changes as you might do with big skips. You get the full benefit of running jokes and references between books.
Con: the first couple of books are aimed less at the general reader than the later ones. They're also in a slightly different style, and the setting is noticeably different. While I don't think any of the books are bad, per se (and almost all are positively good), the early ones aren't the best, and it'll take you a while to get to the mature Pratchett. It'll also take you a while before you're introduced to the main characters that people associated with the setting. Granny Weatherwax shows up in #3, but doesn't fully develop (and we don't get to see the setting of Lancre) until #6; Carrot and Vimes don't show up until #8, which is also the first time we spend an entire novel in Ankh-Morpork. So, particularly for slow readers, you can spend quite a long time going through those early books wondering what all the fuss is about (although, I'll repeat, most of them are good books in their own right).
Subvariant: some people suggest just cutting out the first two books and reading from there. This does away with the biggest clashes in style and setting, but doesn't help much with most of the other problems.

Tasting Course First
Pro: reading a later book first can give you an idea of whether it's worth reading the earlier volumes or not, and give you something to look forward to.
Con: although most books work by themselves, purists may object to spoilers and missing context, which limits the number of appropriate starting novels, and none of them are completely 'blank slate' places to start. I'm thinking of one in particular that is mostly standalone but that has one random scene with a time-travelling orangutan that makes a lot more sense if you've read the earlier books. [like: reading the words there, "time-travelling orangutan", makes me realise how odd that sounds; yet to most Discworld fans the concept seems entirely natural, and it's only when pointed out that we might say 'oh yeah, that is a bit unexpected if you don't know the whole story'.] And most of the good starting points also aren't the best books, so you're still back with the same problems, mostly.
Subvariants: sensible places to start are probably Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards!, which introduce Lance and the Watch respectively. WS parodies Shakespeare and the theatre a lot; GG has more parody of sword and sorcery, and of cinema (particularly film noir). Both a good but not great books, imo. Small Gods has the advantage of being really good, and later in the run. Basically, while SG may not end up being your favourite, if you don't see what's enjoyable about it then there's no point reading Pratchett - so it's a good litmus test to start with. [except that most of the other books aren't as overtly polemical]. Pyramids might be another option - it's probably better than, but also weirder than, either GG or WS. It's kind of like a practice Small Gods - more nuanced, but less well-written. Mort is probably too early to be useful in this regard. Going Postal is a radical from-near-the-end option, which may be more broadly accessible than the earlier books.

Series Order
Pro: much of the middle run of Discworld is made up of a rotating set of casts. These books include most of the favourite books of serious Discworld fans. Reading all the books for each cast directly in order has the advantage that you get to see the characters develop in the most direct order. And you get into the most famous characters right away. This seems to be becoming the most popular approach.
Con: the 'subseries' are the invention of fans, not the author. Skipping intervening books means you don't get all the injokes. It also means that the changes in the series are more jarring - there's quite a shift between GG and its 'sequel', Me at Arms, for instance. Since virtually none of the books actually follow on from the plot of any of the others in more than the most basic way, you don't really get an unfolding story in most cases. And many of the books don't actually fit into the framework that well. They're appended to series they don't really fit (Equal Rites and Mort get added to the Witches and Susan books respectively (the latter then becoming the 'Death' books), when they're really more like prologues. Except that actually maybe they are the Death books, and Thief of Time is an epilogue? Not sure...), or they're put into vague catch-all groups like 'industrial revolution' or 'ancient civilisations' that don't really work as series at all. Also, it can be like binge-watching an episodic, non-serialised, case-of-the-week tv show: what works great as a series of weekly installments becomes more repetitive and annoying when you see the same characters doing similar things book after book. Publication (or random) order mixes things up to reduce repetitiveness.
Subvariants: the two obvious places to start here are Guards Guards again, to read the Watch series (which are probably on average the best), or either Equal Rites or Wyrd Sisters to read the Witches novels. A macabre third option is Mort, to read the Death/Susan books.

Random Order
Pro: since there's almost no ongoing plot, you can actually just read anything in any order. You won't get all of the injokes and you may occasionally be confused by a minor point of detail, but not very much, and the books basically work find like this. To some degree this replicates the original experience of reading and re-reading the books in random orders as you found them over the 30 years it took to publish them all... this approach means you don't get stuck with any set of characters for too long, and you avoid stretches of mediocrity. The series will seem more coherent in style if you mix installments up, and to some extent it can feel richer - if, for instance, you keep randomly bumping into some characters you get more of that feeling of them being there in the background all along, than you would get if you read chronologically and realised they were only around in one particular run of books.
Con: as well as missing injokes, you also miss a lot of the context of the characters and relationships - although the plots don't carry over much, the characters do, so reading out of order means you don't get the full emotional impact.
Subvariants: there's one real sequel: #2 follows on from the cliffhanger of #1, with the same characters. Also, #14 technically follows immediately on from #12, but other than a one-page reminder of what's happened there's basically no shared plot; similarly, it may be helpful to know that parts of #26 and #29 happen on the same day, but really it doesn't particularly matter. More of a concern is that #29, Night Watch, is very introspective and nostalgic and doesn't really work if you haven't read the previous books; I'd say the same is true to a lesser extent of #24 and #23 and maybe #34 as well. Actually, I'd stick to reading the Watch novels in order in general.


General recommendations: if I were sure you were going to go away and read 15 (short) Discworld novels in the next 15 weeks, no questions asked, without coming to any judgement until you'd read all of them, and wouldn't get grumpy about it, I'd definitely say to start from the beginning (although then I'd be worried about you burning out!); if I thought you were going to read one and then run if you didn't love it, I'd definitely say read Small Gods.


But what I'd actually say is: don't overthink it! You have Small Gods in front of you. There are no prerequisites for Small Gods, it's standalone, it's very good, if you don't like it at all there's probably no point reading any others, and if you do like it you can always start at the beginning and catch up to that point, and it's right there in front of you. So read Small Gods.

[also, it's generally believed that SG is chronologically the earliest of the books in setting, so it's sort of starting at the beginning...]


Personally, I started with The Colour of Magic and read my way on from there. This is partly because I was probably about 8 at the time, and the internet didn't really exist, so I had no reason to do anything else...


Alfred Haplo Wastrel wrote: "‘the Strict and Particulars' is the best name for a religious group ever’"

No ambiguity what the congregation signed up for. Though “Straight & Particular” could mean different things to different groups, I imagine! (We, the First Baptists, are just the boring, unoriginal, unfunny, very conventional branch of the Baptist denomination.)

Thanks for doing the heavy thinking of pros & cons for me! Much appreciate, because I really didn’t know where to start. I’ve narrowed it down to (a) or (b), and this seems to be a good compromise “[also, it's generally believed that SG is chronologically the earliest of the books in setting, so it's sort of starting at the beginning...]”. In any case, if (a) or (b) fails, there's always (c) and (d) as fallback...


Wastrel [technically, one book does involve a brief section at the creation of the universe, so SG isn't first. But SG is the earliest setting for the majority of a book. It isn't explicit, but fans have calculated it's probably a century before the rest of the series.]


The name of the Strict and Particular Baptists is indeed somewhat misleading. "Strict" means they believe in closed communion: only Strict and Particular Baptists can take communion in Strict and Particular Baptist ceremonies. More specifically, only members of that local church are allowed to take communion - members of a near-identical church in the next village are not permitted to partake. "Particular" means they are Calvinists, believing in limited atonement - only the elect can be saved, and they can't avoid being saved.
Some Strict and Particulars are just called 'Strict' baptists these days. But some 'Strict' baptists have over time become more... jolly. Some of these no longer call themselves strict, because it frightens off new customers, but others still do, I think. [my hometown has both semi-evangelical strict baptists and actual strict and particular baptists; apparently they don't get on]


Alfred Haplo Have you ever attempted to map out the Discworld universe, with timelines, cross-over characters etc? Mentally, I starting to build a "3-D" visual image of this world the more I learn about it.


Wastrel Err... no, I've never really dedicated myself to documenting a fictional world to that extent.

There have been attempts at timelines, but they don't work very well. Pratchett's timeline began ad hoc, and when he got more serious about it there are still a few obvious errors that screw everything up.

There are charts of the 'subseries' that books belong to. An 'official' one from his publishers is here: although some of the links are a tad tendentious.

There is an official world map, and an official detailed street atlas of Ankh-Morpork. There's even an official iphone app to help you find your way around the city, should you ever happen to find yourself there.

And if you really want to learn about the Disc, there are several very thick volumes of companions chronicling everything in the world.

But really, you'd have much more fun not 'learning about' the world from second-hand sources but going and reading the books.

After all, you might not like them!


Alfred Haplo Haha, I'm just a babe taking the first few tentative steps in this world, a fascinating world for sure, but not up to running yet! Thanks Wastrel, this has been super fun, and if ok, I'll reach out sometimes as I go along with the books. (Yes, I'm pretty sure it'll be plural.)


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