With The Last Adventure of Constance Verity just over the horizon, we continue our trip down the A. Lee Martinez backlist, Action Force. Let’s talk about Divine Misfortune.
Misfortune is probably one of my most misunderstood books, and there’s no two ways about it. It’s all because of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Misfortune will always sit in the shadow of Gods, and I long ago accepted there isn’t a damned thing I can do about it. For a lot of people, Gods will always be their “Story about gods”, with perhaps Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods being a close second. And I’ll admit that it bugs the hell out of me. Not because I have any problems with either of those novels. It’s simply that the themes of both novels have almost nothing to do with the themes of Misfortune.
I don’t usually indulge in a lot of upfront worldbuilding. I much rather have the world be a real place in the background, but for Misfortune, it’s vital to understand the differing influences and rules of that universe versus just about any other modern day story you might read about gods.
To begin with, most stories about gods in the modern day are all about faith. Most specifically, faith of humanity and how our beliefs empower and enable the gods. This is actually a fairly new idea, culturally, and in most ancient worlds, the gods didn’t need you to believe in them. They existed whether you believed in them or not. They were all the unknowable cosmic forces, both grand and small, that screwed with your life. You might offer them prayers and sacrifices in hopes of appeasing them, but you didn’t expect them to go away because you simply stopped believing in them.
Perhaps it’s simply a cultural evolution. Humanity has gained more and more power over our environment, our health, our world, for good or ill. The unknowable cosmic forces are still out there, but their domain is smaller than ever. I think we’ve come to believe in our ability to control our world and our future, and so we’ve come to this idea that we can control our gods. Zeus might be amazing, but he’s nothing without you. I wouldn’t call it egotism, but I’d say how the human race views the universe has changed over the centuries, and that’s reflected in our fiction about our gods.
And it is almost completely absent from Misfortune. The gods in that story don’t need you to believe in them. They exist. Everyone knows they exist. They aren’t impossible entities or unknowable. They walk among us, and to deny they exist would be to deny your friends or family, your house, the country of Portugal. These all exist, and there’s no point in debating it.
The deities of Misfortune do draw power from mortal followers, but they do so via process of tribute. The mechanism is hinted at in the novel, but it’s as simply as sacrifices and inconveniences offered up to the gods. Prayers are useful, sure, but so are blood sacrifices, weird ritualistic behavior, and even cold hard cash. It’s explicitly a transaction, like a car payment or a cell phone contract. This is why faith simply doesn’t exist within that universe, and why the official term for a god’s patrons is “follower”, not “worshipper”. Worship implies a sense of wonder and awe, but the mortals of this story know their gods too well. They see them as the flawed, foolish creatures they are and accept them because they have no other choice and as a convenient way of solving some problems and getting ahead.
Once you understand this, Divine Misfortune becomes its own story, and I think a great one. More than just about any other novel we’ve explored so far, this is a story about personal responsibility as embodied by its divine cast. Lucky (raccoon god of fortune), Syph (heartbroken goddess of love), Gorgoz (mad god of chaos), and Quick (down and out Mesoamerican god) are all wrestling with their own version of this.
Divine Misfortune has the smallest stakes of any of my novels. The universe isn’t in danger. The world is never threatened. The most at stake are a few mortal lives, which amounts to almost nothing to our cast. Or so it seems. It’s not unusual to have powerful, god-like creatures in my stories. It’s not unusual for those creatures to undertake an emotional journey to understanding and empathizing with tiny mortal creatures. (More on that when we get to Chasing the Moon.) The difference here is that is the entire theme of Misfortune.
The question all these gods must answer is “Just because you can walk away without consequence, should you?” Also, as Quick points out, there will be consequences. Even gods must learn to live with their decisions, and for immortals, that can be a hell of a long time.
I love the characters in Divine Misfortune. I love that Teri and Phil are happily married, and that their relationship feels natural. I love Lucky and Janet, how they grow because of each other. I love Gorgoz and Syph.
Most of all, I love Quick.
And I love the universe of Misfortune because it is so classically mythical and modern at once. I’ve always summarized Divine Misfortune as the meeting place of Ancient Legends and Modern Sitcoms. That might make it sound light and fluffy, but damn it, there’s some powerful themes at work here, if you’re willing to look for them.
No, Divine Misfortune isn’t American Gods, but I like to think too that American Gods is no Divine Misfortune. That’s wishful thinking on my part, but until the god of literary interpretation comes knocking on my door, it’s the best I can do.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,