In my personal hierarchy of books, this one comes a close second after Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. What can I say - like (diabolical) father, like (infernal) son.
"It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people."
In a way, I can view this book as my own personal therapy session¹ - that is, in addition to it being a hilarious dry-humor take on Armageddon and the ever-dual nature of humanity, its highs and lows and our ability to be both, frequently almost at the same time.
¹ As a kid, I had a habit of getting into the books clearly not meant for my age - like, for instance, The Omen, featuring the world's most infamous tricycle. My eight-year-old self was petrified. For months, I had nightmares, was scared of dogs, mistrustful of tricycles and had an irrational dislike of the number "666". Eight-year-olds with overactive imaginations were really NOT the intended audience of *that* book, after all.
WARNING: THERE WILL BE MILD SPOILERS. BECAUSE I CAN.
As predicted by the titular 17th century witch Agnes Nutter in her extremely nice accurate book of prophecies, handed down through centuries to her last living "professional descendant" Anathema Device, Armageddon is quickly approaching. The four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse have set out on their way, and that must mean things are getting serious.
- You're Hells Angels, then? What chapter are you from?"
[...]- REVELATIONS, CHAPTER SIX.
"Death and Famine and War and Pollution continued biking towards Tadfield. And Grievous Bodily Harm, Cruelty To Animals, Things Not Working Properly Even After You've Given Them A Good Thumping but secretly No Alcohol Lager, and Really Cool People travelled with them.”
And this upcoming major event is a source of some serious worry for eternal-enemies-turned-reluctant-friends Aziraphale (An angel, and a part-time rare book dealer) and Crowley (An Angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards), the duo who, after six thousand years, have "gone native" and would infinitely prefer this world to the future where either side wins - the future (oh the horror!) without good music or bookshops or sushi restaurants. And so the unlikely allies decide to band together to prevent the end of the world.
"That's how it goes, you think you're on top of the world, and suddenly they spring Armageddon on you."
Except things do not go as planned.... You see, the young 'Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness', due to an unforeseen turn of circumstances, happens to grow up outside of the influence of either celestial/underworld force. Aptly named Adam, he grows up - as his name suggests - perfectly human, in a little corner of paradise - the English village of Lower Tadfield. But Agnes Nutter is never wrong, and as her prophesies suggest, shortly after Adam's eleventh birthday (on which he DOES get a much wanted Hellhound Dog) the events of the end of the world are set in their inevitable, ineffable motion. But Adam's essential humanity puts a new spin on this old story:
"Something was happening inside his head.
It was aching. Thoughts were arriving there without him having to think them. Something was saying, You can do something, Adam Young. You can make it all better. You can do anything you want. And what was saying this to him was ... him. Part of him, deep down. Part of him that had been attached to him all these years and not really noticed, like a shadow. It was saying: yes, it's a rotten world. It could have been great. But now it's rotten, and it's time to do something about it. That's what you're here for. To make it all better."
The problem with the Antichrist Adam is that he, a human eleven-year-old boy, is fueled - unexpectedly - by Love and righteous indignation. He loves this world, and he, coming into his power, wants a very human thing - he wants to make it better. Don't we all? But do (and can?) his good intentions make any difference in the way things have been prophesied to go?
"It's like you said the other day," said Adam. "You grow up readin' about pirates and cowboys and spacemen and stuff, and jus' when you think the world's all full of amazin' things, they tell you it's really all dead whales and chopped-down forests and nucular waste hangin' about for millions of years. 'Snot worth growin' up for, if you ask my opinion."
If there is one thing this book gets through it's the belief in humanity. Not in its wickedness or goodness or anything like that. Just humanity, in all the multifaceted nature of it, in its righteousness and wretchedness, love and cruelty, strengths and weaknesses, stupidity and wisdom.
"And just when you'd think they were more malignant than ever Hell could be, they could occasionally show more grace than Heaven ever dreamed of. Often the same individual was involved. It was this free-will thing, of course. It was a bugger."
Sometimes, maybe, when left to our own devices, when not preached to in one way or another, we can perhaps develop into flawed but hopefully decent beings - like Adam, named after the first human in the prophetic fashion, after all. Because what makes life interesting, as a particular angel and demon would loudly attest to, is precisely the combination of good and evil, nice and nasty, mean and kind that we all possess, in the precarious and miraculous balance that is the true treasure of humanity. Because it makes us act like people.
"I don't see what's so triflic about creating people as people and then gettin' upset 'cos they act like people,” said Adam severely. “Anyway, if you stopped tellin' people it's all sorted out after they're dead, they might try sorting it all out while they're alive."
And maybe, just maybe, due to our always-balancing nature on the borderline between two conflicting universes that we, humans, inhabit, we will be able to eventually figure it out - without anyone messing with our heads, filling them with the Good or the Evil, endlessly preaching what they believe to be true - but simple letting us be ourselves. Maybe we will figure things out on our own.
"Adam stood smiling at the two of them, a small figure perfectly poised exactly between Heaven and Hell.
Crowley grabbed Aziraphale's arm. "You know what happened?" he hissed excitedly. "He was left alone! He grew up human! He's not Evil Incarnate or Good Incarnate, he's just ... a human incarnate."
The brilliant Pratchett/Gaiman duo provides everything these two authors are famous for - easy readability, dry intelligent sarcasm-infused humor, seamless plot that pushes the limits of imagination while staying perfectly grounded in (albeit fantastical) reality, and first and foremost, very apt observations about human nature, as well as (in a true Pratchett-like way) a complete irreverence for the set-in-stone beliefs and ideas. At times it's easy for those familiar with their respective styles to tell which one of them penned which part, at times it's impossible - but it doesn't matter as their writing styles blend together so well, so seamlessly, so seemingly effortlessly.
This is an excellent book - both funny and serious, at times utterly unpredictable, at times baffling, at times logical. It's a pleasure to read, and a pleasure to seriously reflect upon after having a good laugh. And for all of that it gets the ineffable five stars.
"He stared down at the golden curls of the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness."You know," he concluded, after a while, "I think he actually looks like an Adam."
June 2013: I just listened to this one on audiobook - AGAIN. I love it more and more with each time I do. I have to advise - if you plan to listen to this one, please get the British version with Stephen Briggs as the narrator (Isis Publishing) - it is lightyears better than Harper Audio. Stephen Briggs is amazing!