A Look Back at Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Copyright © 1990 by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Copyright © 1990 by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

In light of the recent passing of Sir Terry Pratchett, I’ve decided to look into some of his books again and relive the magic of his words. Besides getting back into a few of my favorite Discworld novels, I’ve also taken a look into Good Omens, a major collaboration with fellow British fantasy author Neil Gaiman about the end of the world. I usually wouldn’t give much thought to apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories, but how could I resist something so epic and hilarious?

In the modern-day UK, an angel and a demon prepare for the End of Days. The Antichrist is delivered as a baby to his human parents by Satanic nuns—except one of them switches the babies accidentally. While the armies of Heaven and Hell put their plans into motion, a little boy named Adam Young in the small town of Lower Tadfield begins to discover that he has strange powers. Meanwhile, a young witch tries to sort everything out according to her ancestor’s book, The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.

So what does Good Omens still have to offer us?

Aziraphale and Crowley

As much as I enjoyed reading about the authors’ take on the upcoming Apocalypse, my absolute favorite parts of the story included every scene between the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley. It’s so refreshing to see an angel who struggles to get what God “ineffable” plan is leading toward and to have a demon who looks the part, but tries to be evil in subtle ways like encouraging the spread of telemarketers and traffic jams. I wish there were more “wicked” characters like Crowley in literature and I love the opening idea of Aziraphale “losing” his flaming sword to Adam and Eve.

Celestial bureaucracies

Bureaucracy is a common thread running throughout the novel. It shows up in obvious places like the Metatron speaking down to Aziraphale and Crowley trying to avoid dealing with two Dukes of Hell, but it also comes in the human world as well. Half the fun of the Witchfinder Army subplot is seeing all the archaic customs and titles that Shadwell and Newt have to manage, even when they’re effectively a two-man army without a clue.

A brilliant takedown of prophecies

I don’t often enjoy prophecies in fiction since they’re either vague enough to mean anything or so specific that any attempt to subvert it will inevitably be the act that causes it in the first place. However, no one’s done prophecy quite like Agnes Nutter, the witch whose book drives half the plot with her eerily on-the-money descriptions of modern events and plot points. It helps that the authors took the time and trouble to spell out her visions in archaic spelling, with long s‘s and extra e’s.

Clever modern updates of Biblical horrors

Everything horrific about the End of Days is spelled out the same as it is in the Book of Revelation, but with a cheeky modern spin. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride out on motorcycles and have appropriate modern-day occupations. Policemen and emergency responders have to deal with problems like fish raining from the sky and blocking up traffic. The list goes on, but it’s all a cohesive look at Biblical horrors and our mundane response to that reality.

I had a lot of fun reading this story, both for the well-researched history and lore, and for the side-splitting jabs at the supernatural (seriously, what is “ineffable”?). Good Omens is a book where Gaiman and Pratchett are both doing what they do best, playing around with the fantasy genre and common beliefs in a wonderfully cynical and uplifting way.

Good Omens is available for purchase through booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Bibliography: Gaiman, Neil. Pratchett, Terry. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd.; New York: Workman Publishing Company, 1990.

Boxed Crook, Meet Parcel Delivery: Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

Copyright 2004 by Terry Pratchett
Copyright © 2004 by Terry Pratchett

For months, I’ve heard nothing but praise about a particular character in Terry Pratchett’s beloved Discworld series. That character is Moist von Lipwig, the con artist extraordinaire and perpetually reluctant agent of the cunning Patrician, Lord Vetinari. I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for tricksters, especially when they find it in their hearts to win one for the little guy. That’s why I decided to start reading every Moist von Lipwig book I could find, starting with Going Postal.

After escaping an execution for his latest con, Moist finds himself in the office and at the mercy of Lord Vetinari. The Patrician offers him a second chance by becoming Postmaster of the failed Ankh-Morpork Post Office, which flopped after failing to compete with the clack towers that now dominate Discworld. Moist soon finds himself falling back on his old habits, using confidence tricks to revive the Post Office with the help of his golem parole officer, a group of aging postmen and stamp collectors, and the lovely chain-smoking Adora Belle Dearheart. Meanwhile, Moist has to endure the attention of Reacher Gilt, head of the Grand Trunk and a master con artist in his own right.

As a character, Moist is an excellent protagonist, forever tiptoeing the line between being sneaky and being decent. Half the time, he thinks he’s pulling a trick on someone, only to realize that he’s actually doing some good in the world. But it explains why Vetinari chooses him for the job; Moist is someone who can create grand illusions that enthrall others, which means he can inspire people to turn away from the cutthroat clacks industry.

I also like the love interest Miss Dearheart, whom I found myself comparing to another Discworld love interest: Sacharissa from The Truth. However, there’s a key difference between the two; the former is a bit vulgar and comes from a broken past, while the latter is desperately trying to fit into polite society while helping run a newspaper. Also, Adora comes with a clear understanding of golems and their rights, which ties her in nicely with the stoic parole officer Mr. Pump.

The conflict in this story felt a lot stronger than in The Truth, which had a similar premise but a more vague threat against William de Worde. Here, the status quo has some very clear defenders, like the savage Reacher Gilt and his Board of Directors. Most of the well-to-do gentlemen are given colorful personalities, making for a well-rounded cast of sympathetic antagonists to Moist’s headline-grabbing antics.

Lately, I’ve begun to notice a pattern in the Discworld novels. Maybe it’s because magic permeates this fictional universe, but it seems like every focus of a novel has its own personality and will. In Hogfather, it’s the power of children’s beliefs; in The Truth, it’s the newspaper press or “The Truth” itself; and in Going Postal, it seems to be the dead letters, who cry out to Moist to “Deliver us!” in mad visions and dreams. Compared to the first two, the power of letters and postmen in this story is much more concrete, as it’s Moist trying to restore them against the failure-prone-but-too-big-to-fail clacks towers. And when Moist pulls trick after trick out of his sleeve, you join the rest of Ankh-Morpork in eagerly seeing what’ll happen next and how old Reacher’s going to feel about it.

As both a Discworld novel and an introduction to a very fun character, Going Postal is really quite good. It’s got plenty of wonderful jokes and parodies everything from secret societies to the Internet, but it also balances the humor with some touching romance, plenty of drama, and a nice bit character development for the always-entertaining Moist.

Going Postal is available for purchase through booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Bibliography: Pratchett, Terry. Going Postal. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

Time Flies (Except When It Runs Out): Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett

Copyright © 2001 by Terry Pratchett
Copyright © 2001 by Terry Pratchett

Following The Truth in the fantastic Discworld series is Thief of Time, a curious tale of timekeeping, artificial humans, and some very cool monks. Oh, and the Apocalypse (mustn’t forget that either).

The story is focused on a pair of History Monks, Lu-Tze and Lobsang Ludd, who are charged with investigating a mysterious breach in the flow of Time. What they and Susan (Death’s granddaughter) discover is the creation of a mythical glass clock and a plot by the Auditors of the Universe to break Time apart, thereby thwarting their enemy: Life itself. What follows is a madcap adventure as the monks take on the Auditors made flesh, while Death tries to gather up his old buddies among the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for one last ride.

It’s a given that any novel that contains Terry Pratchett’s Death is going to interest me, though he doesn’t have as big a role in this story as he does in Hogfather or Reaper Man. Still, his granddaughter Susan is a nice semblance of order in a chaotic storyline, trying to make sense of everything. I also loved the inclusion of irreverent characters like Nanny Ogg and Lu-Tze (the latter being so darn insistent of getting everyone to remember Rule One). The other protagonists, Lobsang Ludd and Jeremy Clockson, are interesting in their own way, but that’s less to do with character development and more to do with identity and backstory.

One of the bits that had me laughing nonstop was the whole sequence of Auditors (based on pure logic, supposedly) trying to wrap their heads around the concept of being organic beings, ranging from such difficulties as recognizing colors, misreading social cues, and discovering the sheer bliss of chocolate. Seriously, no one will blame you if you go out and buy some chocolate after reading this book. It’s both a plot point and a recurring motif described in such loving, tantalizing detail.

But as Pratchett is so good at doing, he also brings a nice element of pathos to the story. Characters like Lobsang, Jeremy, and Myria LeJean are more amusing because of their naivete, especially when paired with more cynical characters like Lu-Tze, Igor, and Susan. But these characters also undergo the most difficult transformations, learning hard lessons on the road to self-discovery and saving the flow of Time. It has the same kind of yearning and character development that first attracted me to the series, as the same spirit shows up in Mort and Reaper Man.

To sum up, I enjoyed this Discworld story more than the last two I read. It has several great jokes and puns, but it’s also got a nice mythology and an excellent story arc for both newcomers like Lobsang Ludd and recurring heroes like Susan Sto Helit. I enjoyed the culture and setting of the History Monks, as well as the whole subplot of rounding up the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It’s a large, wild, and well-written romp all the way through.

Thief of Time is available for purchase through booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Bibliography: Pratchett, Terry. Thief of Time. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.

Wordplay At Its Best: The Truth by Terry Pratchett

Copyright © 2001 by Terry Pratchett

Nothing like a book full of puns and allusions to cleanse the soul in time for spring. I’d always meant to get back to reading and reviewing more of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. I finally got around to that trend with my latest read, The Truth.

This novel follows a young writer named William de Worde, who one night has the good fortune to encounter a team of dwarves and their printing press in Ankh-Morpork. When seized by this new opportunity, William expands his newsletter to foreign nobles into the city’s first newspaper. Naturally, this leads to a conflict with the city engravers, a hostile relationship with Lord Vetinari and the City Watch, and loads of people clamoring for more stories about weirdly-shaped vegetables. But no one’s prepared for the secret plot being hatched to unseat Vetinari as ruler of Ankh-Morpork, not even one aspiring journalist.

While the cast of this novel didn’t hit me in the same as Hogfather did (which remains my all-time favorite Discworld read), it did have a quality that reminded me of Mort. William is very much like the titular character from that story, idealistic and brash in a way that puts him in danger more often than not. And just as Mort has Ygritte, William has the lovely Sacharissa to assist him, though she proves to be a far more cunning writer than he is. By far, my favorite character in the story was Otto, the reformed vampire and photographer. Besides his Bela Lugosi-type accent, every “vord” out of his mouth is a delight and he has some wonderfully terrifying moments every now and then.

It wouldn’t be a Pratchett novel without loads of puns and clever allusions, and I liked these much better than what I read in Soul Music. Here, there’s a lot more working out all the usual gripes about the newspaper business, from human interest stories to column space to advertising to police trouble. Because it’s one-part political thriller, there has to be a few jabs at Watergate and Deep Throat, but because it’s the grimy city of Ankh-Morpork, the story’s “Deep Throat” is far different than the real-life counterpart.

If I have any real complaints, it’s actually about the protagonist. William de Worde is a great lens for the rest of the story, but he doesn’t really bring much skill on his own. That’s up to people like Sacharissa, Otto, and the dwarves. But to be fair, William does have a knack for getting into people’s faces and being persuasive by whipping out his notebook. I suppose he doesn’t seem like much of a journalist to begin with only because he’s the one inventing the whole profession in Discworld.

At its core, The Truth is a pleasant read from start to finish. It’s a clever satire on journalism, an intriguing political thriller, and a heartwarming tale about dogs, newspapers, and what good writing can do for the world.

The Truth is available for purchase through booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Bibliography: Pratchett, Terry. The Truth. New York: HarperTorch, 2001.

Dig That Discworld Sound: Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

Copyright © 1994 by Terry Pratchett.
Copyright © 1994 by Terry Pratchett.

On the whole, I love Terry Pratchett and his wonderfully-written Discworld novels.  So far, I’ve been a fan of such stories where Death is one of the main characters, usually having to do with him taking an interest in humanity and all the funny and sad things that come of it.

That said, Soul Music is a bit disappointing.  Not a bad story, just not one of the best.

Susan Sto Helit is a young woman attending a ladies’ school in Quirm who finds out that she has inherited her grandfather’s business: being the Grim Reaper.  Naturally, she’s resistant to the idea, but Grandfather has gone on holiday to forget all the troubles of being the cessation of life.  Meanwhile, a trio of young and desperate musicians in Ankh-Morpork become the start of a wild new sensation–Music With Rocks In–thanks to a mystic guitar bought at a mysterious shop.  It’s up to Susan and the wizards of Unseen University to find a way to contain all this madness.

For the most part, I liked the parts of this story that had to do with Susan, being her debut novel.  She’s a very logical person trying to deal with all the irrational and mythical elements of her grandfather’s world.  Her conversations with the Death of Rats and the raven are always engaging, with her as the straight man to their wisecracks.  Even Death’s assistant Albert gets a semi-heroic role near the climax, though he’s mostly a cynical housekeeper with sardonic commentary.

That said, when it came to musician characters like Imp and his band mates, I wasn’t that drawn in.  Yes, Cliff the troll is pretty articulate and thoughtful (for a troll), but Glod is a one-note dwarf character about gold and poor bargaining skills.  Imp–later known as Buddy–is less of a character and more of a walking plot device.  Their conflict with the Musicians’ Guild is a little interesting at first, though it gets old pretty quick.

As much as I enjoy Mr. Pratchett’s wit, I found myself groaning at the sheer number of puns and allusions in this book.  There were so many veiled shout-outs to Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Blues Brothers, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and punk rockers that after a while I wasn’t reading so much as going through the motions.  I know it’s all based on a bizarre magic that created Music With Rocks In, but the mysterious magical entity doesn’t do much except persist.  There’s no real threat, just a series of rock music and music fan parodies with no end in sight.  And when it’s over, there’s no lasting impact.  Just some vague memories and back to life as usual.

If I were the sort of reviewer who rated works (and I’m usually not, I swear), then I would rate Soul Music as a three-out-of-five novel.  It’s not the worst Discworld novel ever written–not when great characters like Susan and Death are involved–but it’s not the best either.

Bibliography: Pratchett, Terry.  Soul Music.  London: Victor Gollancz, 1994.