Good Omens: the nice and accurate prophecies of Agnes Nutter, witch by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
A re-read, obviously.
The basic premise is that the popular Christian/Hollywood reading of the Bible is one-hundred percent correct: the earth was created in 4004 BCE and will be destroyed in a conflict between Heaven and Hell started off by a child of Satan known as the Anti-Christ (see Fred Clarke at the Slacktivist blog at Patheos for a thorough fisking of this concept). Heaven and Hell both have permanent agents on Earth; Heaven has the angel Aziraphale, who once held a flaming sword at the gates to a garden (but not for very long; the first couple looked cold and it seemed to be due to rain so he gave them the sword), while Hell has Crowley, who used to be called Crawley, who was a serpent in that garden. Hanging out together for almost 6000 years has made the two of them almost friends; they get together and talk regularly and occasionally help each other out (Crowley has to do some tempting across town, so while he’s there he does something divine for Aziraphale so he doesn’t have to go out, for example). It doesn’t hurt that Crowley is described as an angel who “did not so much fall as saunter gently downward”. They both very much enjoy Earth as it is.
But they won’t get to do so for much longer: it’s time for Armageddon. The Anti-Christ has been born, and the world has less than two decades to live. The baby is to be given to the US Ambassador to Britain, swapped for his own baby and raised to a life of power and influence, before pulling the final trigger.
At least, that’s the plan. But, due to a failure of communication (a particularly ironic failure of communication, considering who’s doing the communicating), the antichrist ends up being given to a Mr. Young, a cost accountant from the village of Tadfield, where he is raised as Adam Young, typical young (chuckle) scallywag, leader of a small gang (in the “Our Gang” sense, not in the criminal sense) known locally as “The Them”, or just plain “Them”.
This means that Crowley and Aziraphale spend a decade working on educating the wrong child, since they were trying to undercut the apocalypse while looking like they were helping, and now he’s going to come into his power and they probably can’t find him in time! Despairing, Crowley turns to Hell’s greatest agents on earth: the Witchfinder Army! And Aziraphale turns to his own agents, Heaven’s best: the Witchfinder Army!
Of course, the Witchfinder Army has come down a bit in the world. It still looks good on paper, but actually it’s just two people these days: Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell (who has no idea who he works for, and has never found a witch in his career) and Witchfinder Private Newton Pulsifer (who is the opposite of a technical genius)(1). Mind you, the person most likely to find Adam isn’t any of them; it’s Anathema Device, whose family is descended from one Agnes Nutter, the most accurate of those 16th/17th century witches and prophets who published their visions of the future. Only one copy of Agnes’ book survived, and it’s held by the Device family, who have been interpreting it and living by it for the intervening centuries. Anathema is kind of a professional descendant, but she has good guidance from Agnes and she lives in Tadfield.
Surely, not even the Anti-Christ can stand against the forces arrayed against him. Right? Right?
While Gaiman has nothing against tragedy and horror, he does have a sense of humour, and as the book was co-written by Pratchett you can be pretty sure it doesn’t get too grim (I could tell you were worried). A great deal of the fun of second and subsequent readings of this book is figuring out who wrote which parts; the book flows together very well so it’s mostly hard to tell. Anyway, the end result is a fun read, and highly recommended.
(1) This seems to stem from a reading of the word “general” in the phrase “witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins” as meaning “leader of an army” as opposed to “opposite of specific”, which is how I read it. Mind you, someone told me later that “general” in the sense of “leader of an army” was in fact derived from the other sense, so there you go. English, right?