Good Omens Book Review
Read from 06/05/2021 - 07/09/2021
I picked up Good Omens hoping for a bit of a palette cleanser. My last book was an uncomfortable read and left me feeling jaded towards someone who used to be my favorite author. Meanwhile, one of the next books I'll read takes me back to a series I'm ambivalent about and even if I like the book, its length means that it'll be an undertaking. Good Omens looked like it would be a fun, short, and sweet little romp. I was encouraged by the fact that it was co-written by an author I was familiar with — Neil Gaiman. While, in terms of fantasy, the novel appeared to be more urban than high, I was reassured by Gaiman's presence. American Gods is urban fantasy, yet managed to be more fantastical than mundane. While I didn't have any personal experience with Sir Terry Pratchett, I knew he was held in high regard, especially his Discworld series, which I hear is really funny. What sealed the deal for me was a friend's recommendation. After all, friends never lead you astray.
In the interest of fairness, I have to give Good Omens two things — it is, in fact, written by Gaiman and Pratchett and it is, in fact, an urban fantasy novel (though with more emphasis on the urban, less on the fantasy).
In all seriousness, while it does have a few things going for it (keyword here being "few"), Good Omens absolutely wasn't the palette cleanser I was looking for. While the novel wasn't heavy in terms of content, it was anything but a fun romp for me. A book I intended to finish in two weeks took me over a month, the 355 pages ended up feeling more like 700. What sounded like a fun, quirky novel on paper soon became a dense slog and by the end, it felt like pulling teeth just to finish the damn thing and I wanted to do literally anything other than read Good Omens.
What is on that paper, you might be asking?
Well, dear reader, Good Omens is a story that follows only the most pleasant of events in the most pleasant of locales — the impending apocalypse in England. Crowley is a shade-wearing, hotrod-riding demon while Aziraphale is a mild-mannered angel and owner of a bookstore where he doesn't actually let people buy books. Despite being apparently diametrically opposed to each other, Aziraphale and Crowley (henceforth referred to as "AC") are quite amicable. Friendly, even. They quite like their lives on Earth, so they're a bit annoyed, to say the least, once they hear that the anti-Christ-ushered apocalypse is imminent. The two decide there's only one thing to do — stop the anti-Christ as well as his entourage of Four ~~Horsemen~~ Motorcyclists of the Apocalypse. The anti-Christ, however, is decidedly not demonic. He’s an unassuming, kind 11-year-old boy who loves the environment, his friends, and his dog.
And that's really all there is to it. Given how simple the premise is, it's almost impressive how unwieldy the story feels towards the end. I'd clap if I wasn't so annoyed.
To understand what I think went very, very wrong with the novel, I have to acknowledge and zero in on what I think it did right.
First of all, there's the tone and voice of the narrator. The story has a very unique voice that I love, filled with dry humor and witty anecdotes/explanations in the form of footnotes. I don't know for sure, but from what I hear of Discworld, I think I can attribute this voice to Pratchett. This voice did a lot to keep the flow of words interesting. Even when I found the story to be a shambling undead creature, the words gave it some mimicry of a pulse. I both appreciate this and find it a missed opportunity. On a sentence level, I enjoyed how the book read. The bricks were beautiful — it's just a shame I didn't enjoy the house they were arranged into.
Then there's the setting. As I said before, I found it much more "urban" than "fantasy." I thought the fantastical elements were underused, often relegated to the margins of the footnotes or an aside of background information instead of being in the story itself. The novel seldom felt as whimsical as I’d like but, to give props where they're due, the story does have some great imagery and moments thanks to the fantastical elements. Ultimately, while I wished the story leaned more into its mythos I think the setting is one of the story's high points.
But the best aspect of the book is by far AC. Their dynamic is what breathes life into Good Omens. They're ultimately what I came for and whenever they were focused on, the book delivered. It was fun to read the interactions between a straight-laced angel and a cool demon as they philosophize about humans and try working together to save the world that they love.
Given how much AC shines, I should love this book. That's all fine and dandy.
But there’s one problem.
Oh, it's one, teensie-weensie issue, honestly!
A teenie-tiny conundrum.
Just a minor complication, I assure you:
Aziraphale and Crowley feel like they're barely in the book.
If I told you that AC holds the point-of-view for 30% of the book, you'd probably think I'm exaggerating. If I am, then I'm really not exaggerating that much. At the beginning of the book, they're our primary POV characters, but by the end, they are absolutely drowned by a huge cast that I couldn't care less about.
I got a distinct, sinking feeling when I first finished the prologue and found myself slapped with a dramatis personae (yes, it's really called that) consisting of no less than 27 characters. A character list isn't strange in a play — it's really just a way to show all the speaking parts. In a novel, however, if one goes through the trouble of listing characters, there's a bit of an assumption that said characters will be important. My sinking feeling came from the sheer size of this cast list. There's nothing wrong with a story having a lot of characters, but the trick is to ease readers into the cast, let them realize slowly, but surely, how many characters there will be. Reading the dramatis personae was daunting — I questioned if I could both remember and care about all these characters.
The answer was a depressing "no" and "no."
It would be one thing if these were just characters we'd see during the story, but no, these are point-of-view characters that we experience the story through. No matter who a character is, regardless of if they're compelling or not, we'll follow them for at least a few pages too long. The loads and loads of inconsequential point-of-view characters made it so I quickly grew numb to what was happening on the page. My eyes would glaze over and I began skimming entire sentences at a time hoping to get to a section with characters I found more interesting. Then, I'd find myself rewarded with some other point-of-view character that I couldn't care less about.
I'd like to say that the problem is that these point-of-view characters have the spotlight for such a short time that it's hard to care about them. While that's certainly part of the problem, Good Omens has its stale cake and eats too by having POVs so short they feel inconsequential and POVs so long they overstay their welcome. As it turns out, no matter the length, boring is boring. In addition to AC, Adam and the Them, Anathema Device, and Newton Pulsifer can all be considered main characters. I admit that I found Adam and co.'s dialogue a bit cute at first, but then their sections would go on and on, come again and again without much interesting happening. We don't see much of Adam discovering his powers and grappling with them. For the most part we just...observe eleven-year-old kids being eleven-year-old kids. As I'll get into, there's not much going on with them to make following them interesting. I said before that this is more "urban" than "fantasy" and it really shows. Here, Gaiman and Pratchett have an opportunity to showcase children reacting to one of their friends having superpowers but they don't take it. What we're left with are fairly average children characters who grow old quickly.
And then there's Newt and Anathema, who we similarly spend a lot of time with but I'm struggling to remember anything about them as characters. Newt's bad with computers, I think? Plus there's a romance between them, but it came out of left field and I really don't care because they're more anthropomorphic slices of white bread than realized characters.
I'd swear that Pratchett and Gaiman just plain don't know how to write compelling characters if not for AC. It's a bit baffling how they got AC so right whilst getting everyone else so horribly, terribly wrong. And AC's not interesting just because they have an actual personality, but also because they actually utilize their supernatural powers and abilities.
I would have loved interaction between AC and Adam — at first, I thought the book would have them meet Adam with the intention of killing him, but struggling to do so due to Adam's kind nature. But no, AC and the kids barely interact, and it's a wasted opportunity. In fact, AC barely interacts with any of the rest of the cast and it makes the story feel even more disjointed.
The plot, unfortunately, doesn't really make up for the lackluster characters. The plot moves along pretty briskly for the first section of the book before slowing to a crawl once Adam is introduced. By the end of the novel, we're hyper-focused on a very small timeframe where not-much-happening is stretched across too-many-characters. I feel this was to show the scale of the apocalypse, but this falls flat once you take a step back and realize that not much is happening. Given that the apocalypse is averted in a page or so, there's a whole lot of buildup to a whole lotta nothing and I can't help but feel that my time was a whole lotta wasted.
The story's a satire, but save for how Famine operates in the twentieth century by peddling horrible diets, I didn't really find any of it notable. Similarly, while the prose is certainly engaging, I found little in the story particularly funny. Many of the book’s fans will state that its detractors simply don't "get it," whether due to not being British enough or get Christian enough. I'll concede that I'm, in fact, a Yank, but even if I'm not religious, I understand the references. Regardless, most of it just doesn't do it for me. I think a story should stand on its own, independent of its references.
At the end of the day, Good Omens is a book that I'm surprised I disliked as much as I did, especially since I loved Gaiman’s American Gods so much. It had the makings of something great, but for whatever reason, the dream team of Gaiman and Pratchett left their A-game at home. There are points that end up being pretty good but they're so few and far between that they really don't rise above the drudgery.