There’s a lot going on in this book. The antichrist is coming of age as a normal boy in a small English town with his rowdy friends, and Armageddon is near. The angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley have grown fond of the human world after living in it for hundreds of years and want to stop the impending great war between heaven and hell that would destroy everything they’ve come to love. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are each up to some thematically appropriate exploits in various parts of the world but must gather to bring forth the end times. The descendant of a witch who wrote the world’s only accurate book of prophecies works to decipher her ancestor’s obscure predictions about the end of the world. All of these characters and plot lines converge in this very funny book.
Read if you want something funny, irreverent, and ultimately uplifting. It would make an excellent palate cleanser to read in between heavier or depressing books.
Skip if you don’t like Terry Pratchett or books that move a little slow. Skip if you want something serious, but think about revisiting if the serious book you end up reading makes you sad.
Before this book I’d never read anything by Neil Gaiman, but I had read a good bit of Terry Pratchett. Good Omens felt very similar in tone and style to Pratchett’s other work, so now I’m curious to read a Gaiman novel. It tracks, though, that the style felt very Pratchett because in the afterword in my edition, the authors explained that Terry did most of the putting-words-on-paper although the characters, scenes, plot, etc were created collaboratively via conversation. There were details in the afterword about how they’d talk on the phone every day and send drafts to each other on floppy disks in the mail because email wasn’t a thing yet. As I sit here drafting this review in a google doc, I wonder if the book would have taken much of a different shape if live digital collaboration had been possible for the authors at that time.
I think Good Omens has some thematic common ground with the Dune series in its consideration of prescience and what knowing the future can do to free will. I think Good Omens agrees with Dune in the idea that life is mostly worth living because you don’t know what’s going to happen and that knowing the outcome of something can render the process of undergoing that thing pointless. Good Omens seems to me to also propose that you can kind of get out of the free-will trap of prescience by accepting that if the future really is known and knowable, then nothing you do will actually affect the outcome anyway so you may as well do whatever feels best to you instead of whatever you think the known outcome necessitates. Kind of a classic “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” take. I can’t decide whether I think Dune agrees with this or not. Dune might lean more toward the journey and the destination being too fundamentally connected for knowing the outcome to not also mean knowing the means of getting there.
Good Omens felt a little long to me. The individual scenes were good, and the effect of each scene was often like a really polished version of exploring an improv prompt, e.g. “the four horsemen of the apocalypse are in a biker gang with four dense humans who think they’re the secondary horsemen.” Once there were enough of these scenes, though, some of them started to hit the same and the book started to drag a bit. It doesn’t help that the entirety of the present action of the book (as opposed to the backstory) is contained within one week, which kind of limits the scenes to things that can happen in a short period of time. I also wasn’t crazy about the beginning / backstory part as it relies heavily on dramatic irony and I almost unilaterally hate dramatic irony. That said, the ending was great and very satisfying. Pratchett is fantastic at endings, and the afterword of the book said he was primarily responsible for the ending and Gaiman was primarily responsible for the beginning. The ending has a lovely, tidy little passage about Adam (the antichrist turned anti-antichrist) stealing fruit from a neighbor’s tree:
“Parental retribution was now a certainty, thought Adam, as he bolted, his dog by his side, his pocket stuffed with stolen fruit.
It always was. But it wouldn’t be till this evening.
And this evening was a long way off.
He threw the apple core back in the general direction of his pursuer, and he reached into a pocket for another.
He couldn’t see why people made such a fuss about people eating their silly old fruit anyway, but life would be a lot less fun if they didn’t. And there never was an apple, in Adam’s opinion, that wasn’t worth the trouble you got into for eating it.”
That passage is just such a beautifully-executed summation of the book, dripping with allusion to its biblical source material and metaphorical reference to the philosophical stance of the book embodied by the plot we just went through as readers. Ugh, Terry Pratchett is so good at endings.