The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

There Will Be Time No (review: Good Omens; T. Pratchett and N. Gaiman)

Good Omens
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Corgi 1991

It's just another day in the sleepy English town of Lower Tadfield; children are playing, dogs are barking, lawns are being mowed and the Apocalypse is going to happen next Saturday. Not just any apocalypse - The Apocalypse - the fire-and-brimstone, Revelations one. The Antichrist walks among the townsfolk and the End Of Days draws near, but there's a small problem – neither he nor anyone else has any idea who he is.

An ineptly bungled switcheroo in a maternity ward some years ago, courtesy of some hapless Satanic nuns who may or may not be rejected extras from Rosemary's Baby, sets in motion the events of Good Omens, a wonderful collaboration by fantasy legends Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. A highly original retelling of the ancient battle between good and evil, it focuses on Adam Young, the clueless and innocent child of Satan, and the efforts of the Powers That Be to use him to instigate Armageddon and finally settle their scores.

From the outset it is clear that Adam is no typical hellspawn. Raised by completely normal, non-Satanic parents in middle England he is more inclined to climbing trees and building ganghuts than smiting the just and pursuing Hell on Earth. However, the forces of Heave and Hell have noticed that the child they assumed to be the catalyst for the final battle is nothing but an ordinary human child and the hunt for their missing pawn has begun. With mere days remaining, they issue orders to their troops.

Unfortunately for them, their emissaries on Earth are far from detective calibre. Aziraphale, the angelic erstwhile guardian of Eden's gates, is more concerned with his used bookstore these days and Crowley (formerly Crawly, the serpent of Eden) spends most of his time driving around and unwillingly listening to Queen's Greatest Hits on his car stereo. Over the centuries these two foes have found rather a lot of common ground and forged an amicable alliance – each ignoring the other's actions in order to avoid bother from up on high (or down below).

Joining the hunt are an array of supporting characters. Anathema Device is a witch, descendant of the prophetess Agnes Nutter and keeper of her secrets, and possibly the only (human) person in the world who is truly aware of what is happening. As fate – and the writings of her ancestor – would have it, her path crosses with that of Newton Pulsifer, modern-day witchfinder and definitely not computer genius. Their unlikely romantic pairing sends them off in pursuit of Adam with Newt's insane boss Shadwell not far behind. And of course we shouldn't forget the Four Horsemen (or bikers) Of The Apocalypse, with Pestilence ousted by modern medicine but topically replaced by Pollution. Pratchett's much-loved Death character also makes a welcome appearance bringing his trademark dry, block-capital wit to proceedings.

While the forces of good and evil pursue their goals, Adam and his gang (known simply as Them after many a name change) go about their business, blissfully unaware of proceedings. Adam's ignorance of his origins has not gone unnoticed by the universe however and soon things take a turn for the strange. Youthful and ill-informed conversations about the dangers of nuclear power result in an entire reactor core disappearing from the face of the earth – with no drop in power output. Speculation on the existence of Tibetan tunnel networks traversing the globe are soon followed by Tibetan monks become a new form of garden pest. The young Antichrist's powers are coming to maturity yet he remains unclaimed and untutored by either side. Even the Hellhound sent to guard him has morphed physically and mentally into a playful toy pup, contemplating how best to annoy the neighbour's cat rather than ripping the throats out of would-be assailants.

Through all this, time marches inexorably on and the Day Of Reckoning draws near. In Good Omens, Pratchett and Gaiman ask the simple question – why? What on Earth (or Heaven or Hell) is to be gained by this devastating battle? Why here, why not on some other remote planet? Does it even make sense any more? And really – isn't Heaven guaranteed to win anyway? Through well-crafted satire and some typically English humour they break down the distinction between the religious concepts of Good and Evil, calling the morality of both sides into question. In viewing the conflict through the eyes of a child its overwhelming absurdity is clear as day and it becomes clear that the morally ambiguous (and supposedly 'fallen') characters of Aziraphale and Crowley actually possess more decency and sense than their respective masters.

Good Omens is a book which welcomes and rewards repeated reading. On taking it up again for this review, perhaps the first time in ten years, it gave a warm sense of familiarity but also offered forgotten surprises and new angles on an old story. Pratchett's mischievous humour mixes perfectly with Gaiman's dark side and somewhat laconic wit, neither of them crowding the other out although with both allowed extended solos at times. The result is an absolutely effortless read, one in which the book does all the work and allows you to sit back an an observer. You won't even notice the many points where you drift off into your thoughts, contemplating the consequences of the agents' actions, returning to the tale unaware that you ever left.

For those unfamiliar with Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman, this would be a perfect place to start. Although I must admit it doesn't quite reach the peaks of Gaiman's individual work it remains a fantastic work in its own right and stands proudly alongside Pratchett's back catalogue. And to those who are already fans of the authors yet have never picked up this book – what on Earth are you waiting for?

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones.  Good Omens is available in good bookstores and Splendibird would like to urge that you pick up a copy.  And no, we don't care if you've read it before...

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