Beach Reads Book Review 4: Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
Updated: Jan 2, 2022
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips is a contemporary fantasy novel with a cool concept, distinct voice, and quality writing. In it, the author explores a world in which the Greek pantheon exists but is running on fumes. I mean, just imagine what the notoriously petty gods get up to in present day London.
The only downside to this read? The plot itself was pretty meh.
Our protagonist in this Greek dramedy is Artemis, goddess of the moon, hunting, and virginity. In present day, she lives with her family in London squalor, is always in a track suit, loves to run, and thinks modern dogs are embarrassingly wimpy in comparison to their wolf ancestors. She’s squeamish about sex and self righteous in an understandable way. She has to deal with her twin brother's frequent sexcapades after all. Like at the beginning of the book, when she discovers that Apollo has turned yet another mortal woman into a tree in retaliation for not wanting to sleep with him.
Which is bad on three fronts. One, because you can’t just go around turning women into trees. Two, because every use of power is a drain on their already limited reserves. And three, because Apollo used his power out of petty revenge despite not lending some to Aphrodite to heat up her ice cold shower. So Artemis and Aphrodite (now a phone sex operator) extract an oath from Apollo: he will not intentionally cause any harm to mortals for the next several years.
But Aphrodite, our antagonist of the story, is not pleased with her nephew/lover. She vows to get revenge and coerces her son, Eros, to shoot Apollo with a love arrow, and then shoot the object of his affections with a hate arrow. Eros reluctantly puts the plan into place the day of Apollo’s debut as a TV psychic. Apollo falls instantly in love with Alice, a petite and passive cleaner at his studio who has snuck onto set with her friend (a “rodenty” engineer named Neil) for the first time. Eros decides not to infect Alice with hate…and that he won’t tell his mother about that part of things.
But then Alice shows up at the gods' decrepit house, handing out cleaning service fliers. She’d been fired from her job. Artemis hires her on the spot, unknowingly putting the poor woman in Apollo’s lovestruck path. By the end of the story, a hero will travel to the underworld, humanity will face an extinction event, and a god will be crazy and naked on the roof.
While the plot itself was a bit bland, the writing and characterization throughout the story was superb. From the gods and goddesses modern-day roles to the way the descriptions in each chapter would morph to match the chapter’s perspective, I had so much fun reading this as a writer.
For example, when Neil (our "rodenty" engineer who loves TV psychics even though he thinks it's all bunk) questions his choices in life:
Ultimately the unreality of everything that was happening now just seemed to underscore how false his sense of security had been before, when he thought that everything was clear and obvious and easy to understand, and that people who thought differently were gullible fools. And all along it had been he, thinking that everything could be so easily explained, who was the gullible one.
I also loved the way the writer really focused in on what the downside to a gods’ power might be. Like with Athena, who is so wise and intellectual, but so much so that nobody can understand a word she says:
"Excellent," said Athena. "Thus. To commence. If I could request that all gathered deities address themselves to the schemata reproduced on the uppermost sheet of your textual bundle: ‘Concerning the necessity for increasing the potency of the true gods and goddesses, parenthesis Olympian close parenthesis, with additional suggestions for the implementation of organized religion–based solutions within the crowded global multifaith context.’ "
Another device of the story that really got me thinking was the gift of agency to certain characters over others. In general, only the gods have agency or choices in this story.
Artemis is our protagonist and it’s her forcing her twin brother Apollo to make his vow that is really the inciting incident of our story. She’s the goddess pushing the others to get their act together, resentful though she may be of always having to be the responsible one. And it’s Aphrodite, our antagonist, who causes the most chaos in the story in her quest to get revenge on Apollo…revenge that leads to an apocalyptic event. Apollo himself, bound by his oat on Styx, has a little less agency, but still has enough to wreak havoc.
But it is poor Alice and Neil who have little to none. Alice is already passive as a core trait, and add to that the fact that’s she’s being used as a pawn in a larger game, and she really has no power at all (besides her cleaning skills). And Neil is little better off, drawn into the chaos by the magnetic pull of the gods and forced into a role he may never have taken without their direct intervention.
The distinction between who has power and who doesn’t, and the scarce nature of power when it’s not fed by belief, was an interesting idea to explore as the story progressed. Even if it did make reading about Neil and Alice kind of boring.
In Gods Behaving Badly, Marie Phillips is exploring the power of belief to create and shape reality. So while the story suffers from a plodding plot and mortals so boring as to be unrelatable, the writing style and concept mostly make up for it. This would be an excellent book club book. But not a good book for a day at the beach. Unless, of course, you’re in Greece.