Downfall of the Gods
by K.J. Parker
Tom Holt/KJ Parker reminds me quite a lot of early Terry Pratchett: an amusing setup, tons of hilarious scenes, and with funny, acute, and thoroughly quotable reflections on the human condition scattered throughout. In general, I absolutely adore his short stories and have mixed feelings about his novels, so it's fitting that my feelings about this novella fall somewhere in between the two. Downfall of the Gods tackles--you guessed it-- religion.
The story takes place in a world where the gods--who are suspiciously similar to the Greek/Roman pantheon-- routinely walk the earth, mostly to stir up trouble. Our narrating goddess is the goddess of many different qualities, including the moon, mirth, and music, but her primary role seems to be as goddess of mischief. When a murderer asks for her forgiveness, she refuses; the dead man was one of her favourite musicians. But after some prodding from her father and brother, she decides to set him a task reminiscent of Orpheus's: if he retrieves the musician from the land of the dead, he'll be rewarded with her forgiveness, and, hopefully, her inattention. As he puts it:
"Play your games if you want to. It's all right. I know you'll save me. I have faith."
"Do you now."
He nodded. "I know you want something from me. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, if you want something from me, I know I'll be just fine."
As Parker clearly intended, the smug, egocentric Goddess annoyed the hell out of me, but even so, she was a vastly entertaining narrator. She has an amusing tendency of breaking the fourth wall:
"A mortal stands on the same hilltop every night and looks at the sky. To him, it appears that the stars are moving. All wrong, of course. The stars don't move; it's the earth. (Sorry, didn't you know that? Oops. Forget I spoke.)"
as well as a breezy tendency to paraphrase the villains of literature:
"All gods are infinitely strong, but some gods are infinitely stronger than others."
I may not have actually really empathized with either the Goddess or her victim, but I did enjoy their interactions:
"To the gods all things are possible," I said, "but there's stuff we can do that we don't because it would make things worse, not better. Counterproductive, I think is the word I'm groping for."
"I see," he said. "In other words, you're very powerful but hopelessly badly organized."
At the same time, Parker's characters are almost universally united by a single failing: they are uniformly, tragically static. Even the rare characters that manage a little self-reflection rarely apply it to their actions. I want characters to grow and change throughout the story, which may be why I prefer Parker's shorter works. The Goddess is understandably static; after all, one doesn't expect much change from immortal deities. In her case, the most memorable insights come from the conversations, from the parables Archias tries to tell, and from the Goddess's bald description of practical realities:
"Is what the strongest wants necessarily Right? Well, of course it is.
To understand that, consider the meaning of the word Right. Doesn't take long to figure out that it doesn't actually mean anything. It's not like black or serrated or strawberry-flavoured; it has no objective meaning. 'Right' is just a shorthand way of saying 'what we think is right.'"
Because in the end, what purpose to the gods serve other than a well-defined moral code? As the Goddess puts it,
Without us, all they'll have is Right and Wrong. They'll get themselves in the most awful tangle.
If you're looking for a short, lighthearted religious satire, Downfall of the Gods is definitely worth a look.
~~I received a copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Subterranean Press, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they capture the spirit of the book as a whole.~~