Gods Behaving Badly (Book Review)

Gods Behaving Badly cover

Gods Behaving Badly

Obsolete gods withering away after their time has passed; It’s a well-worn idea in fantasy literature. In Gods Behaving Badly, though, Marie Phillips gets some mileage out of this concept by putting the Greek gods in modern London. The broad strokes of the plot feel like they could easily fit in with the classic myths if not for their new setting. However, the original myths rarely went into details about the petty bickering and foolish mistakes that typified these characters. By fleshing out those particulars, as well as devoting half of the time to the humans’ side of the story, we get a very different view of the Greek gods.

Phillips can write in a laugh-out-loud, Douglas Adams-esque style when she wants. See the first chapter (in which Artemis talks to a mortal recently turned into a tree) for the best example. However, this isn’t her default mode. Instead, she plays most of the book straight, allowing the epic powers, juvenile sulking, and casual incest to give the story an absurdist air.

The result is a fun, light read. It doesn’t always work if you stop to think about it too much (despite the gods’ waning powers, it’s difficult to believe that they couldn’t have gotten better jobs and avoided some of the traps they find themselves in), but it’s easy not to overthink it. After all, this is the story of Aphrodite making Apollo fall in love with their housekeeper to avenge a minor insult. It’s not designed for deep thought.

That said, Phillips does a great job in portraying their views and motivations. The gods are immortal, but bored and lazy, and have lost most of what they believe is their due. While they aren’t necessarily vengeful, normal people matter to them about as much as a plant would to us. The novel gets inside their heads and actually justifies this boredom and self-importance by showing us how differently they react to normal situations. In one memorable scene, Artemis considers what she would do if she “only” had another century to live. Faced with such an immediate fate, she realizes that she would move out of the dysfunctional family house. With the timescales they think in, it’s hard to believe that human lives matter. Also of note, repeated sex scenes with Apollo and Aphrodite start out interesting, but eventually demonstrate how anything can become mundane and pointless after millennia. The chapters that focus on the human characters are a more straightforward, cute love story, but the contrast shows the gulf that exists between the mortals and immortals.

There are still some frustrating aspects that took me out of the book. Much of the plot hinges on the repeated inability of intelligent people to recognize the Greek gods even when all the evidence is right in front of them. Then at the end, the resolution to the conflict is based on something that is so fundamental to this sort of story that it felt unfair to have the characters come up with it thousands of years late. Whether your frame of reference for fantasy is more Pratchett, Gaiman, or Eddings, this is something that will occur to you long before it occurs to the gods whose existence depends on it. That marred an otherwise solid portrayal of unusual characters.

Gods Behaving Badly provides a fun, subtly humorous story that makes the Greek gods into more robust characters. The story is sympathetic overall, but be warned that the obscenity and casual cruelty that mark the original myths are not glossed over. It’s necessary to overlook some flaws at times and let the novel dictate the terms of the story, especially at the end. But despite all that, Phillips is a strong character writer, and makes the journey worthwhile.

Grade: B-

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