Small Gods is an extraordinary novel, a thing of sheer beauty. At first it seems a straightforward satire of religion; then as it progresses, Pratchett balances his satire with some truly epic (by Discworld standards, of course — there's always one foot stuck in the silliness door) storytelling that manages to make worthy commentary on belief and the never-ending conflict between good and evil all without being, well, preachy about it. The story opens in the city of Omnia, whose chief god, Om, has been reduced to a pitiful existence in the form of a turtle because, despite an enormous organized religion centered around his worship, no one really believes in him any more. Om's religion exists to perpetuate itself, with its rituals and vicious punishments and wars presided over by the psychotic Deacon Vorbis. But one simple lad, a hopeless little initiate named Brutha, does believe in Om, and so it is with some surprise that Brutha first encounters Om in his melon patch... a little turtle talking to him telepathically.
Gods need belief to live and to thrive (a theme also addressed by Neil Gaiman in American Gods), and young Brutha's belief is just enough to sustain Om, who's desperate to avoid becoming one of the small gods, barely existing out in the desert wastelands with no believers at all. Bewildered, Brutha carries Om around with him, gradually coming to believe that the little animal, and not the enormous bull incarnation depicted in all of the temples, is indeed his god.
Brutha is soon conscripted by Vorbis to join an expedition to the nearby land of Ephebe. Vorbis, Brutha learns, has actually arranged to have one of his own monks murdered so he can blame the Ephebians and use the incident as a pretext for war. As Brutha tries to avert disaster in any way he can, the dynamic of his relationship to Om changes. Om, it seems, wants followers, but won't set any examples for them to live by, and in fact doesn't even seem interested in doing so. Ultimately the tables turn, as Om begins to learn from Brotha the true meaning of justice, compassion, and humanity.
The first half of the book showcases Pratchett in top comic form, with sustained scenes of hilarity that are among the best he's written. The sequences in Ephebe, particularly one barroom brawl between philosophers, are a riot, as are the very earliest sequences in which Om (a mere turtle, remember) must endure numerous indiginities at the hands of his alleged worshippers, screaming curses at them they can't even hear. But as the story enters into its second half, it begins to take on the characteristics of a genuine odyssey, complete with an extended journey by Brutha and Om through the deserts, a scenario which ought to be familiar to any reader familiar with stories of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. The effect is at times surprisingly hypnotic. Like any great satirist, Pratchett knows when he wants you to take the proceedings seriously and is able to segue into these scenes without losing touch with his wit or the reader's attention. Some Discworld fans have found the latter half of this novel rough going, but for me the shift in tone saved the book. After all, if you're just going to spoof religion, well, hey...it's not as though religion isn't an easy target. Not much effort is required to attack superstition and belief in a mean-spirited way and concoct one-dimensionally evil characters like Vorbis, if that's all you want to do.
But Pratchett — never mean-spirited even at his most trenchant — wants more, and achieves every bit of it, bringing this journey home with an ending that is poetic, profound, and more moving than just about any prefabricated religious ritual you could name. In this life, you get what you give, and you can't fight evil with more evil. In Pratchett's biting but compassionate satire, it's somehow fitting that the sorts of lessons one might expect to come from a god instead come from the mind of a simple, decent young man.