Beware! There may be spoilers ahead.
My first thought when I picked up A. Lee Martinez‘s latest novel, Divine Misfortune, was “Somebody’s been reading The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.”
In a nutshell: Phil and Teri can’t get a break. Everyone around them seems to get ahead, regardless of personal merit, entirely on the basis of offerings to their gods. So when Phil gets passed up for yet another promotion, the unhappy couple decide it’s time to find themselves a god as well … and go searching for one on the internet. In the end they settle upon a minor god of prosperity named Luka, spill a little blood on the mouse to seal the deal, and click “accept.” Within moments Luka appears to them: an anthropomorphic raccoon in a loud Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses (“Call me Lucky!”), who promptly crashes on their couch and invites some of his other down-on-their-luck god friends over for a party. From there, life for Phil and Teri goes all pear-shaped, as they discover the reasons why Lucky is down on his own luck, and find themselves contending with the Goddess of the Jilted (not her official title) and a primal god of chaos and destruction who prefers to spend his time sitting in the basement watching reruns (and occasionally eating cellphones in frustration at not being able to figure out how to use them properly).
This is a light, enjoyable read. The action is very brisk and there isn’t any time wasted. The nature of the gods, in as much as it’s defined at all, is defined mostly by example, or revealed only as it’s needed. Neither Phil nor Teri have had many dealings with the gods before, even in a world where Haephestus is a major car manufacturer and Zeus has a PR agency, so they make natural sounding boards for Lucky (or more often Quetzlcoatl, who has a supporting role as one of Lucky’s slacker-god pals) to expound on the nature of the world and just what the hell is going on at any given time.
The characterization is nice and vivid throughout, as well. Lucky is of course very likable — the book lights up when he’s on the scene and tends to drag just a hair when he’s not. Ditto Quetzlcoatl, who comes off as an ex-addict who’s seen the light and is trying to rebuild his shattered life. As one might expect, the gods tend to overshadow the mortals most of the time. Phil and Teri are a standard “cute young couple” from Central Casting, which is very deliberate (one of the gods specifically comments on how dime-a-dozen Phil is), but also by its nature leaves them without a lot of inherent interest when the gods aren’t around.
There isn’t anything I would really call bad in Divine Misfortune, except by omission. By which I mean, the book just isn’t very deep — and here is where the similarity to something Douglas Adams might have written becomes a hindrance rather than a help. Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul was mysterious, evocative, poetic … Divine Misfortune comes off cartoonish and lightweight by comparison. By the end of it, in the theater of my mind Lucky was speaking with John Candy’s voice and Syph (the aforementioned goddess of the jilted) looked a goth manga character. This is perhaps a somewhat unfair treatment of the book — to many people (myself included), cartoonish and lightweight is usually a feature, not a bug — but in this case, I kept wishing there had been more meat here.
There was one other glaring omission — which was that for all the tons of gods buzzing around in the story, one rather important one is completely left out — to wit, Jehovah. Granted, the clash between monotheism and polytheism would have been likely to add some baggage to the story, but to completely skip around it leaves a giant hole. Those conquistadors who left Queztlcoatl in such a lurch that he’s spent the past 500 years bumming around with Lucky — they were Catholics, weren’t they? How does that figure into the scheme of things?
Very little to say here. Except for one major “Idiot Ball” moment that’s done to set up the third act, the plot is nice and tight and the writing is all very clear. The one major issue that didn’t seem to get sufficiently addressed (aside from Christianity) was what made Gorgoz (the primal god of chaos and destruction who likes to watch old reruns) any noticeably worse than the rest of the gods. He demands sacrifices … but so do plenty of other gods. He is cavalier or even hostile to his followers and mankind in general … but so are plenty of other gods. He’s pretty disgusting … but so are plenty of other gods. The one “offense” he seems to commit that’s somehow beyond the pale is to desecrate Lucky’s temple (a.k.a. Phil and Teri’s house), but Lucky invaded the dreams of one of Gorgoz’s followers to get dirt on him first, which seems to be just as big a violation of the rules.
The net result of this is that Gorgoz comes off as something of a nonentity. All of a god’s vices with none of the virtues, more or less, except that every other god in the book is pretty light in the virtue department as well. So the big ending, while very showy and full of special effects (in as much as a book has special effects), doesn’t come off “epic” so much as “out of proportion.”
The Bottom Line
Overall, Divine Misfortune is a fun book and a fast read, but I kept waiting for it to get really good and though it occasionally came close, it never quite made it.