I was inspired to read Good Omens by our Middlemarch Madness voting this year, in which an unknown-to-me Neil Gaiman character (Anathema Device) made it pretty far. The book, a joint venture between Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, tells the story of the imminent apocalypse through the eyes of a slew of delightfully quirky characters.
Did I scare you off with my use of “delightfully quirky”? I certainly didn’t mean to; the book has enough actual humor and touches of darkness to balance out the sometimes excessive quirk. As a rather voracious Gaiman fan, and as one who’d never read anything by Pratchett, I started to identify what I saw as the conflicting styles of the writers. This was actually an enjoyable experience for my nerdy self; the rest of you can do with it what you will.
The story begins with the son of Satan being switched at birth with the baby of a mild-mannered English couple, with the purpose of his coming of age in time to lead the apocalyptic battle between good and evil. (He was supposed to have been switched with the baby of an American diplomat, but there were some crossed wires in that regard.) The child, Adam, who by the middle of the story is the 11-year-old leader of a gang called the Them, is oblivious to his position in the cosmic scheme of things, because the demons sent to Earth to raise and nurture him have been doing so to the wrong, sometimes befuddled, child.
It’s pointless to try and address each of the many central characters in the story, so I’ll just pinpoint my favorites. We are more or less anchored by the stories of Crowley, a half-hearted demon who drives a vintage Bentley, and Aziraphale, an unusually thoughtful angel who runs a used bookstore. They are equal part adversaries and friends; over the millennia they’ve developed a common affection for our world and the humans who inhabit it. The two of them are charged with looking after Satan’s son, in a difference sense, of course, and so each has a stake in not only his growth but of what role he’ll take in the war between Heaven and Hell. As the events of the book unfold, they’re forced to address where exactly their loyalties lie: to their respective masters, or to the world they’ve embraced as their own.
Anathema Device, meanwhile, has a leg up on most of the human race thanks to the prophecies of her ancestor, Agnes Nutter (Witch). Agnes wrote the only completely accurate book of prophecies ever written, but her book didn’t sell, and was largely forgotten. Anathema, having been handed down the book from her father, tries to decipher the cryptic message with increasing urgency as the apocalypse draws nearer.
There are many (too many?) other strange, frightening and endearing characters swirling around the others, most of whom are racing and/or stumbling toward the apocalyptic battle, whether they know it or not. I sometimes felt that either Gaiman or Pratchett had strong affection for some of these secondary (and even tertiary) characters, who may have been better served in their own stories rather than shoved into this one. You never really get inside many of their heads, and this book falls into the common trap of describing a list of quirks rather than really describing the character. When nearly all of them have their respective defining moments during or after the climax, I couldn’t help but feeling that they, and we the readers, were somewhat unprepared.
In this book you’ll find traces of stories such as Hitchhiker’s Guide and Ender’s Game. I don’t point this out to say that any of these authors borrowed from the other; it’s safe to say that they all share common influences, from early fantasy fiction to ancient mythology. There’s a corresponding jumble of mythologies and legends that get included in the book as well: Atlantis makes an appearance, as does the childish assertion that one could dig a tunnel to the other side of the world. It’s a fun read, and a quick one, and it’s worth noting as well that there are multiple female characters in the story that don’t exist purely as a love interest. In fact, they all kick some manner of ass before things are finished.