Book Title: Good Omens
Author: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (authors), performed by Martin Jarvis
Style: Chapter book
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Page Count: 400
Format: Audiobook (library)
Reading time: 12.5 hours
Date Finished: 1/15/17
My impressions: It’s been about 10 years since I first tried to read Good Omens, a book I never finished for no particularly good reason (despite making it through the first quarter of the novel twice). For that reason, I decided it was time to ensure I got through the entire thing, and I did so by listening to the audiobook edition performed by Martin Jarvis, who does such a great job with the characters and the tone of the story that I’m sorry it ever had to end.
The premise of Good Omens provides a parody of apocalyptic stories, especially the film The Omen. And yet, it’s much, much more than just a parody; it’s a story that has something to say about a lot of things, and it’s such an outstanding collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (two of the finest authors of my lifetime) that it manages to rise above its sillier elements and offer some strong, emotional moments to justify all of the absurdity.
The character on the cover is Crowley, a demon who began his career in the Garden of Eden as that wily serpent who tempted Eve and who has since found himself enjoying living among the humans and finding interesting ways to make life less efficient and more tedious for everyone, much to the chagrin of his old-fashioned fellow devils who prefer the old ways of corrupting good men one soul at a time. Crowley has a long-time friend in Aziraphale, a prissy angel who has become enamored with collecting rare books and who isn’t particularly devoted to the cause of singing celestial music and spending all his time in pious obedience. Not that he’d ever disobey what he was supposed to do, of course – Aziraphale isn’t imbued with the free will humans have to go against his Creator. But at the same time, he’s got an awful lot of time as an eternal being to maintain his hobbies so long as he doesn’t go seeking orders he’s got to obey in the first place.
Crowley and Aziraphale are both present for the beginning of the end – the birth of the antichrist. But a mix-up among an order of Satanic nuns leads to the antichrist being handed off to the wrong family, and instead of being raised as the American boy named “Warlock” whom the demonic armies are grooming for world domination, the antichrist is instead raised as an English country boy named Adam Young, who’s oblivious to his infernal powers and spends all of his time with his gang of misfit friends known collectively as “Them.” But as Adam turns 11 and the forces of good and evil prepare for the coming apocalypse, his powers begin to manifest, and the world begins to slide out of control as Adam starts to realize who he truly is.
This setup is really good, and if it were just those characters, the book would be half the size it is and I probably would have found it much more readable in my previous attempts. Where Good Omens proved formidable to me in the past as a time-crunched reader was in how it meanders into telling detailed stories about other characters, such as the mysterious Anathema Device, who’s devoted to a book called “The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.” There’s also a witch hunter sergeant and his latest recruit, a part-time prostitute who moonlights as a medium and fortune teller, the four horsemen of the apocalypse (who become a literal group of “Hell’s Angels”) and several other characters who are richly introduced and contribute greatly to the story’s humor and memorable moments, though rarely in a manner that races to move the plot forward.
And this is where I’m glad I chose the audiobook this time around, because it kept pushing me forward, allowing me time to savor some of the best writing while keeping me from getting bogged down in the moments I found less exciting. The reader is so good at giving each character distinctive voices and accents that they become much more accessible, and I was even impressed how the story’s numerous, humorous footnotes were worked in to great effect despite interrupting the narrative.
In the end, I’m also not sure why I struggled so much to actually read this story. It’s incredibly well-written and has some truly funny sequences on par with anything else I’ve read from Terry Pratchett (who’s known for his humor), and it has the strong, interesting characters and dreamlike surrealism Neil Gaiman is often associated with. Having now finished it, I cannot think of anything I disliked about it, and any faults I once found in its pacing or its characters were, I recognize, my own. (It’s nice to know I’ve grown since then!)
And another thought occurred to me as I was listening today – stripped of some of the more absurd elements, this story is really very much in the vein of the show Stranger Things, introducing a group of children who realize one of their friends is developing godlike powers as the oblivious or crazy adults around them try to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The kids gradually realize some degree of what’s happening and rush to save the world, creating their own weapons to battle demonic forces and standing strong against the apocalypse. If someone were to adapt this novel that way, leaving just Crowley and Aziraphale in as comic relief, paring down some of the side characters and allowing the story to play out in the style of a 1980s film, it’d be an amazing experience.
But as a book that does contain those absurd elements? Yeah, it’s still good. Great, in fact! I’d recommend it to anyone who isn’t turned off by the suggestion that even the son of Satan can turn out to be the one who saves the world from darkness if he’s able to strike the right balance between good and evil.