What do you suppose has happened to all of the old gods? Like, the Greek pantheon, say. Do you think they’re still up there on Mount Olympus, doing the same stuff they’ve been doing for thousands of years? Do you think they ceased to exist? Maybe they’ve taken on mortal form and walk among us. Who knows?
With Gods Behaving Badly, Marie Phillips has taken this question and written an enjoyable novel around it. According to Ms. Phillips, the Greek gods are largely forgotten and living in current-day London, nearly all twelve of the main gang squeezed into one dilapidated flat. Artemis is a professional dog-walker, Athena works for some research company, Dionysus runs a dive bar, and Aphrodite is a phone-sex operator. Zeus is kept squirreled away in the attic by Hera. They are all on power-ration, as they have determined that their power appears to be finite, and that they may, in fact, eventually die. Some of them thrive better in the modern world than others: Ares, for example, can always find wars to start, and Hermes, as the god of money, is busier than ever.
Still, for some of them, life hasn’t changed much; they’re still looking for mortals with whom to dally, and having petty arguments which require acts of revenge. Our story centers around one such dispute. Aphrodite, angry over some slight dealt her by Apollo (they’re lovers), sets out to humiliate him during the pilot episode of his new television show. He’s a psychic. She instructs Eros to shoot Apollo in the middle of the show, and then, when he falls in love with some hapless mortal, he’s to cause that individual to hate Apollo. The unlucky soul upon whom Apollo’s affections alight is Alice (WOW, alliteration), a meek cleaning lady, who is there to see the show with her not-boyfriend, Neil. (They’re both too shy to ever make a move, despite being very much in love.) Eros balks, however, at shooting Alice with the hate-arrow. She, being a nice person, thus does not hate Apollo, but rather acts kindly towards him.
If you know your mythology, though, mortals who get mixed up with gods, however nice, seldom escape without a scratch. Somebody ends up dead, there’s an imminent apocalypse, adventures in the Underworld, a fight with Cerberus … Can Alice and Neil find happiness together? Will the gods regain relevancy, or will they give up, fade out, or simply go nuts from being made to share bedrooms? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Seriously, though, this is a really fun read, particularly if you’ve been a fan of the Greek myths since you were kid. The writing is pretty good, if trying a bit too hard to fit into the Adams/Pratchett/Gaiman mold of humor for my taste. Neil and Alice as unassuming everymen (and women) are surprisingly compelling characters, and the gods themselves are spot-on. That’s what I really loved about the novel; Phillips did a fantastic job of thinking about what those characters would be doing in a modern-day setting, how they would react, behave, and manage to get by. The arc of the novel doesn’t really have a lot of surprises, but it’s handled in a competent and unfussy manner, so it comes off well. If you’re looking for something fun to read, and if you like Zeus and the gang, definitely pick this one up.
PS-I heard about this book because there’s apparently a movie in the works. The cast, while impressive, seems to be all wrong in some quarters, but that’s not really anything new for Hollywood, now, is it?