Saturday, September 22, 2012

Good Omens

The basic rundown is: Most of you, gentle readers, have already read this book. You know it's good, you probably already own it, and I don't need to tell you anything. 

For those of you who don't know this fantastic book, here's the other rundown: This is a comic fantasy about  an angel and a demon trying to stop Armageddon, as various parties run around preparing for it and trying to avert it. Read this thing at all costs. It's funny, the dialogue is great, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are two absolute grandmasters in their craft, and it's a book I wish I could write, but I'm not nearly this good. Even if you don't think you like a comedy about the apocalypse, then you should read it anyway just so you know why you don't like it. Seriously. Trust me*. Full analysis, as always, below.

*I mean, you guys have this far. Have I really steered you that wrong?

"This Great Plan...this would be the ineffable Plan, would it?"

"And to think, if we'd been at all competent, none of this would have worked."
- Crowley

             I've been kinda terrified of doing this review this week. I've always said one of the foundations of comedy is not seeing it coming, and a book as well-traveled as this one, one I've read at least three or four times apart from reviewing it, has no surprises left. I mean, you know where all your favorite parts are, and when you get there, there's usually more a smile of recognition than a laugh. So does a book I first read during my "angry atheist" phase roughly ten years ago hold up once I drop the nostalgia and really take a good long look at the book? And if so, does it still deliver in the way it did all those times I read it with my nostalgia intact?

          The answer is yes. In fact, the answer is hell yes. It's still just as funny, crazy, and sweet as I remember it. Nothing feels forced, everything seems logical in the most cack-handed way possible, and nostalgia or no, the ending lines still bring a warm, comfortable feeling down my spine. It's that feeling you get when you read the lines at the end of a good story, a smile slowly spreading across your face, and you know beyond a doubt that you have read a good book. More to the point, it's a lot of fun.

          Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett is the story of the apocalypse, which will occur next Saturday. It's a plan that has gone on for fourteen years in secret, starting when the Demon Crowley first brought the Antichrist to Earth in a bassinet. He and the angel Aziraphale have been preparing for this for a long time, and they're both sort of...ambivalent about the whole deal. Though they both agree that this is for the best. Sort of.

And then things get weird.

          An incompetent satanic nun** named Sister Mary Loquacious misplaces the Antichrist with a regular middle-class English family instead of sending him off with diplomats. Crowley and Aziraphale decide that perhaps it'd be better if they let humanity live instead of causing Armageddon and decide to "throw the match" by playing mind games with what they think is the Antichrist to teach him both good and evil lessons that will cancel each other out. Meanwhile, the Witchfinder Army gains a new recruit, the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse start to ride towards a military base in Tadfield, and everything ramps up to the big End of Days. It will take a miracle and more to stop the apocalypse, and Crowley and Aziraphale will have to do everything they can to fight the Great Plan and leave humanity intact.

        And it is brilliant. 
       The main thing that drives the book is the variety of characters. All the various players (both major and minor) in Good Omens are very distinct, and each one has their own unique properties. You can actually hear the voices in the text. This is actually effective to the point of some people even casting Good Omens as if it were a film***, and it helps keep the characters very believable and very real. There's never a moment where you can say that the characters are acting outside themselves, or they all sound like the authors. In a stroke of genius, Gaiman and Pratchett have actually got the children in the book to sound like children, instead of adults pretending, something that is an absolute bear to get right. But most notably are the characters of Crowley and Aziraphale, two close friends who've remained that way over centuries who feel comfortable and are easily the most accessible and identifiable characters in the book. Gaiman and Pratchett flesh them out the most, and it's easy to see why the fandom's latched on to them****.

         Which leads us into the dialogue of the book. The dialogue occurs organically from the characters, and the lines are very quotable. There's a nice rhythm to the dialogue that keeps up throughout, from scene to scene, moving the reader from one to the next seamlessly. And it is very, very funny. I can't stress that enough. Each character, including the omniscient narrator, has their own distinct voice and cadence, from Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell's weird Scots-Welsh dialect to Aziraphale's higher-minded but quite pleasant voice, to the mumbled, slurred, malapropism-filled speech of the Antichrist and his friends. The narrator has a voice that's actually a bit reminiscient of the late Douglas Adams, complete with occasional asides and pithy footnotes*****, lending itself wonderfully to the overall comic tone.

           And finally, the tone is very light for most of the book, keeping things moving and never once slowing down or dragging. Good Omens moves at a quick pace, getting more frantic as it goes along until finally it drops into a nice subdued climax at the end, tying up all the loose ends it possibly can. This is a book that starts up sort of slow, but once it starts going refuses to stop even for a second until it's breathlessly told you the entire story. This helps with the comedy, never stopping on a joke that would go on too long.

             But there are issues with it. The main one is that the mood suddenly grows very dark in the last section of the book...justifiable since everything's going downhill and the apocalypse is starting up, but it doesn't seem to fit with the earlier tone, nor does it occur in a particularly organic mannner. To further confuse the issue, the tone is immediately restored directly after the dark section, with very little awareness of what has just gone on. Another problem, and it shares this with last week's book, is that it gets very tracty. The authors clearly have a lot of opinions on environment and religion and the like, and while when I first read the book I was a very angry young man with a lot of views on religion, and the environment, I have since calmed down and realized being angry about everything is a load of old dingo's kidneys, which gives me mild annoyance at the tracty nature. 

             In the end, however, these are niggling details, and the tone whiplash can easily be explained as one of the many pitfalls of working collaboratively with another author. The book still stands up as a classic, even if I can't review it on the strength of its jokes (which are indeed strong), and it's a book I could read again and again and find something new about each time. Buy this book. Enjoy this book. And for all of you who already read it, get other people to read this book. This is an amazing book, and everyone should read it.

NEXT WEEK: Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway 
AND AFTER THAT: The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner
Johannes Cabal and the Fear Institute by Jonathan L. Howard
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
And others yet

**Three words that should be in sequence more often
***It's becoming one. My preferred casting is Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie as Aziraphale and Crowley, respectively. Think about it. It fits too well. Sadly, we will never get to see this. If you know someone who's read the book, ask them who their cast is. Most people do have one.
****It is not quite as easy to see why they decide to write a metric ton of slashfic about them. 
*****Yay, footnotes! 

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