Thursday, January 15, 2009
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
For lovers of modern fantasy, there are two names that are on most people's must-read lists: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.
At first glance, there doesn't seem to be much in common with this pair. Terry Pratchett writes the world-renowned Discworld series, a fantasy epic set on a flat world, which is supported by four elephants, who in turn are standing on a great turtle which swims through the emptiness of space. What started as a parody of the "sword and sandals" genre of fantasy, Discworld has become a mirror for our world, taking familiar ideas and giving them a sharp twist.
Neil Gaiman, on the other hand, gained fame with his groundbreaking comic book - sorry, graphic novel - series, Sandman. Over seventy-five issues, packed with mythological retellings, Shakespearian inspiration, love, Death, family, heartbreak and redemption, Sandman is still considered to be one of the most literary comics of the modern age.
Despite these superficial differences, however, their shared love of a good story makes them perfect for each other. Like chocolate and peanut butter, steak and eggs, hydrogen and oxygen, when you put two great things together, you get something that's even better.
This book is about the End of the World. It begins with a birth, that of the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan and Lord of Darkness.
Also known as Adam Young.
With his birth, the inexorable wheels of Revelation begin to turn, the Horsemen start their long ride, and two immortals - a demon named Crowley and an angel named Aziraphael - find themselves in the unenviable position of having to make sure everything works out the way their respective sides want. Rivers of blood, skies of fire and the scything clean of all life in the world, that kind of thing.
Crowley and Aziraphael, for their parts, really don't want the world to end. They've been walking it since it began about 6,000 years ago, and found that they quite like it, for all its flaws and problems. And despite their innate loyalty to their masters, they'll do their best to try and stop its end.
It's an outstanding book, one of my top five of all time. Not only is it roaringly funny, with outstanding characters and witty dialogue, but it has the kind of razor-sharp insight into human nature that can only come from Gaiman and Pratchett. Ostensibly good people act like utter bastards, and people we know to be bad by their very natures end up doing the right thing. There's no clear-cut line between good and evil here, which is perhaps a lot more realistic than most end-of-the-world stories go. Also, very few end-of-the-world stories are quite as funny as this one.
Humor can be used for many purposes, but the most noble use of humor is to illuminate truths that we routinely ignore. When you read this book, you think about God and the Devil and everything in between - namely, us. What is the purpose of humanity in this benighted world, and what is our responsibility towards it? These are all questions that the characters have to deal with, and, of course, so do we.
While neither Gaiman nor Pratchett would claim to have an answer to that, they have a great ability to point us towards the question.
As I said, this is one of my top five of all time. I think I own three copies by now - one that's been read to death, a hardcover edition with that weird M-25 illustration on the front, and a softcover signed by both Neil and Terry. This is my Precious, and I hope it's buried with me someday.
So, as you may have guessed, I can't recommend this book enough.
And now, a quote from the book:
"It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people. "
- Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens
Neil Gaiman's homepage
Terry Pratchett's page at HarperCollins
Terry Pratchett at Wikipedia
Neil Gaiman at Wikipedia
Good Omens at WikiQuote
Good Omens at Amazon.com