Marie Phillips

"Gods Behaving Badly"

(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew DEC 9, 2007)

"Gods don't have unlimited power?"

Artemis didn't really want to answer that one. "Unfortunately not," she confessed eventually. "But don't tell anyone. I'm only trusting you with this knowledge because it's an emergency."

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

Where are the old Greek/Roman gods thriving today? In science/fantasy fiction such as the Chaos series, by John C. Wright, and From the Files of the Time Rangers, by Richard Bowes, a dreamy, cluttered mosaic of alternate histories into which Zeus sends his select army of emissaries to try to rescue order from chaos. And there are gods of all sorts in Neil Gaiman's Nebula Award winning novel.

Gods Behaving Badly is the newest entry into this genre. Its British author, Marie Phillips, has transplanted Artemis, Apollo, Eros, Aphrodite, Zeus, Hera, Hades, Persephone, and rest of the unruly Olympian menagerie to contemporary London! There, they languish in a town house that's desperately in need of a good scrubbing. Some just hang listlessly around the house, trying not to call attention to their existence in a time that considers them figments of ancient Mankind's imagination. Apollo and his aunt and "simply the most beautiful sort-of-living woman ever to have sort-of-lived," Aphrodite, pass the time shagging in the loo. Eros, aka Cupid, is a convert to Christianity, although he still sends arrows zinging now and then. Zeus hasn't been seen by any of the gods except Hera in twenty years. And Artemis (whose Roman name was Diana), "goddess of hunting and chastity and the moon," walks neighborhood canines for "desultory pay."  

In the first chapter track-suited Artemis and her mutts happen upon a full-grown tree that wasn't there the day before. She talks to it, and soon discovers her brother's vindictive handiwork. A woman Apollo accosted refused his advances so he did a Daphne on her -- an irony to be sure, since Daphne was turned into bark, wood, and leaves by her father to save her from Apollo's ardent attentions. Artemis returns home and reads Apollo the riot act. She makes him swear on the river Styx that he won't use up more of his powers to harm mortals. These deities don't have any powers to waste -- their potencies have been draining away over the centuries -- and some things still need to be done. Keeping the sun blazing, for example. That's Apollo's province.

Enter two very ordinary human beings, Alice and Neil, whose blundering date leads to Alice becoming the cleaner at the gods' town house. In adoring Neil's eyes, rather plain Alice is lovely. Apollo, on the other hand, has an Eros arrow to thank for his google-eyed pursuit of her. Harassed Alice, like Daphne, isn't having any of Apollo. She loves Neil. So...yes, you guessed it, Apollo is enraged by her rejection and decides to break his vow not to harm humans. Presto, a monumental disaster occurs! 

Will the anemic gods and the two quite clueless humans -- hey, if you entered a house with strange goings-on and all the residents sporting god monikers, wouldn't you have a clue -- save the day, themselves, and the world? What kind of quest must they go on to do it? Will the mythical and the modern symbiotically merge? Ah, answers to these and other questions await in the raunchily comic Gods Behaving Badly.

Considering the book from a critical standpoint, Phillips proffers an intriguing what-if to readers in this, her first novel. Her follow-through doesn't quite do the idea justice however. Although she invests the text with some startlingly bright and well-integrated plot points, her delivery tends to flatten their impact. The same is true for the flashes of drollnessGods Behaving Badly is a promising novel that deserves more vitality and immediacy from the writing. With a cast of first-tier gods, this novel ought to have etched them into our minds with more panache and imagination. With a catastrophe of mythic proportions, this novel should have created more panic and drama amongst the characters, gods and humans alike. And one can argue that situating these Greek deities in other geographic locales would have made a better book...although Phillips abided by the novelist's admonition to "write what you know" since she lives in London.

Oh, a theological note for those interested; others may desire to skip this paragraph. Obviously, the Greek gods of old are "real" in this piece of fiction, and so is their underworld afterlife. Jesus Christ and the Christian understanding of eternal life are designated as false beliefs (keep your eye on Eros' convictions as the novel proceeds). Yet, "belief" by mortals is pivotal to the tale. Gods Behaving Badly suggests that the Olympians ascended to power alongside the rise of human sentience (an idea given flesh to its bones by Julian Janes in a fascinating psychological study called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind), and that these divinities can only rule in full puissance when people give them their due. Correspondingly, the gods claim the historicity of Jesus is either disproved as a fabrication or, if not that, doesn't count because he only "lived" 33 years. It's quite a heretical spin on god preeminence. It is unmistakably spoofy, yet pans (no pun intended) current religion. 

Gods Behaving Badly is an imperfect but entertaining diversion for those seeking a light (and a bit smutty) fantasy read.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 73 reviews


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About the Author:

Marie PhillipsMarie Phillips was born in London in 1976. She was raised in Chalk Farm and Hampstead in north London and attended boarding school. Her father is the Lord Chief Justice; her French mother acts as a tour guide at the Wallace Collection. She studied Social Anthropology and Visual Anthropology and worked in TV for several years.  She left TV to become a writer in 2003, and worked in bookshops while writing Gods Behaving Badly.  She now writes full time.

Phillips lives in London, as she has her entire life.

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