Book Review: “Good Omens” by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Book Name: Good Omens

Authors: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

First Published: 1990

Now is a great time to reread Good Omens by Terry Pratchett, author of the Disc World series of novels, and Neil Gaiman, author of the Sandman graphic novels series and countless other works. Gaiman, whose novel American Gods provides the source material for the hit Amazon series, is serving as Show Runner for another Amazon series based on Good Omens.  The series is in production for an expected release in 2019.

If you’ve never read the book, you’re in for a treat. The sweeping satire of Apocalyptic prophecies re-situates the Battle of Armageddon in an English village. It centers on the lives of an angel and a demon, who are preparing for the war between good and evil.

The strongest points of the book stem from relationships. Seeming adversaries can form alliances, friendships–even romantic connections. The novel shines when setting up parallel dynamics. Meetings between representatives of the eternal conflict of good versus evil compare to spy versus spy. An “evil” nanny is countered by a “good” gardener. A Hell Hound tries to find his inner playful pup. A young couple finding new love contrasts with the chemistry between two neighbors at midlife.

The novel has fun upending tropes of religion and superstition in general, as well as the specifics of the Apocalypse. Some entities attempt to speed up the process, while others try to stop it from happening. Random humans appear eager to serve as acolytes to the Four Horsemen. The book parodies the standard issue glamorous accouterments of evil doers, such as elegantly appointed apartments and antique luxury cars. It also sends up divination, prophecy, witchcraft, the summoning demons, possession, and the techniques used by mediums to enhance seances.

The story is full of female characters at all stages of life. Agnes Nutter is the Cromwell-era prophetess burned as a witch. Nutter provides the nice (as in the Medieval definition of “precise”) and accurate prophecies driving the book’s plot.  Madame Tracy is a midlife “Jezebel,” who is also a part-time medium. Her neighbor is a local witch hunter who sends his assistant, Newton Pulsifer (a descendant of the man who burnt Nutter at the stake) to investigate whether Nutter’s descendant, “occultist” Anathema Device, is a witch. Device possesses the only extant copy of Nutter’s book of prophecies. Sister Mary Loquacious is a Satanic nun who supervises the substitution of the child of Satan for a human child, with many plot driving results. Red is the personification of War as a young professional arms dealer, who brings havoc wherever she goes before emerging as one of the Four Horsemen. Pepper is the only female member of the Them, a group of friends who play with the putative Antichrist. Many minor female characters are sprinkled throughout the book, such as attendees of Madame Tracy’s seances.

Good Omens is an almost perfect novel. Though the novel gives its female characters nuances and depth infrequently portrayed by male authors of fantasy literature a quarter of a century ago, it sometimes slips back into traditional stereotypical limits. When Device has an intimate moment with Pulsifer, it’s described from his point of view. A long-winded séance attendee is unceremoniously told by her dead husband through Madame Tracy to “shut up.” When Pepper protests being given a girl’s bike as “sexist,” it’s done for laughs. Pepper’s mother, who is only referred to when the children discuss their parents, is portrayed as a series of tropes. Sexual harassment is trivialized when a televangelist casually gropes the bottom of a female assistant. To the authors’ credit, he gets a comeuppance of sorts when he mistakes angelic possession for a demonic one while speaking on camera.

Such harsh turns from an otherwise positive narrative can break suspended disbelief for a moment. It is important to remember, however, that the first edition of the book was published in 1990. Put into historical context, these distractions from a story line that gives significant development to female characters may be better understood, especially when followed by laugh out loud plot moments. Overall, the book’s representation of female characters as driving the plot, rather than as mere one-dimensional plot points, marked a step forward for the genre.

Later editions of the book include extra features, such as “Good Omens, The Facts,” which tells how the story was written. Gaiman was a journalist in 1985 when he interviewed Pratchett about the first Disc World novel. Gaiman approached Pratchett with part of a short story a few years later, beginning a back and forth writing and revision process that eventually produced the final version of Good Omens.

The common theme of facing adversity with hope that flows through both Pratchett’s and Gaiman’s writing continues into this collaboration. Even during the end times, life goes on. Children can find play opportunities in the grimmest of situations. No plan, no matter how diabolical, is beyond the possibility of change. Humor can be found in the most preposterous circumstances. Enjoy!