The Greek myths are essentially one long soap opera about a big, rowdy family being terrible to each other and having lots of sex. Gods Behaving Badly knows this and takes it in stride, abandoning all pretence that The Classics are meant to be Deep and Serious and instead happily telling a flippant and flyaway story about the shenanigans that ensue when the Greek pantheon is forced to downgrade from Mount Olympus to a run-down townhouse in modern London (except for Poseidon, who lives in a seaside shack; and Persephone, who enjoys the Underworld a lot more than staying with her bickering mess of an incestuous supernatural family. Can you blame her?) It captures the delights of myth on both the epic, world-altering scale, and in its full beauty as just tangled, emotional tales of people being shitty to each other in the most theatrical way possible.
Spoilers for the end of the novel hereafter, and discussion of sexual assault (a warning that, unfortunately, should come clipped to every look at Greek mythology)
Honestly, the main draw of the novel is that key concept: that the gods are, fundamentally, assholes. Any Classical glamour is peeled back and we’re left with a group of crass, horny, nasty characters bouncing off each other in an eternal (literally) storm of domestic nonsense, neatly transplanted into the contemporary share-house scenario. Athena, goddess of wisdom, is an insufferable academic; Aphrodite, goddess of love, a phone sex operator who enjoys teasing people (especially her son, Eros, who works in a Christian church of all places); Dionysus, god of wine, runs a bar and practices DJ-ing in the living room despite how the noise pollution annoys everyone; Zeus and Hera are the scary parents that live upstairs and Must Not Be Disturbed; and nobody ever does the dishes.
The cast is joined by two quite likeable humans, but each member of the pantheon has their own brand of entertaining and deeply unsympathetic qualities. Even Artemis, by far the most loveable of the gods in the novel and one of the main point of view characters, has a delightful and unsettling nasty streak that rings true to her ancient origins. The plot rightfully acknowledges that the elements of a Greek epic fit just as nicely in an urban townhouse as they do in the mountains and palaces of ancient lands, kicked off by—what else?—a petty household argument between deities that gradually escalates until it threatens all life on Earth. This is a story about family members being terrible to each other, and the poor mortals that get caught in the crossfire, following in Greek myth’s grand tradition while bringing it into the modern day.
It starts with Apollo trying to seduce (read: impolitely ask for a blowjob) a mortal woman, and turning her into a tree when she rejects him. Artemis is upset by this, but only partially out of a sense of justice to the human: she’s concerned that her brother is wasting what little remains of his powers, which appear to be waning in all the gods as time goes on (one Goodreads review named this “a fluffy whipped-cream version of American Gods, and the comparison is pretty on point). So, she forces him to swear an unbreakable oath that he will never harm a human being again, which he agrees to after a lot of melodramatic protest. Aphrodite meanwhile is incredibly annoyed that he’s using his powers on turning random women into trees rather than heating up the shower water, and so enlists her son Eros to shoot an arrow of love at Apollo, make him fall in love with a boring human woman, and embarrass the hell out of him/break his heart. This petty act of revenge, naturally, spirals out of control as it does in any Greek drama. They should have expected it, really; but what else is there to do when you’ve known each other for thousands of years and are so thoroughly sick of each other’s shit?
The “these characters are all awful” declaration is praise, by the way… if you like that kind of story. The novel succeeds in that it presents the awfulness in a glowing spotlight but doesn’t pay it any reverence, which saves it from being self-indulgently nasty and in some ways serves as a neat critique of the original myths themselves. For instance, the way the novel nods to the sexual violence that usually comes part and parcel with stories about the gods at play.
My entertainment fizzled out into anxiousness when Apollo falls in love with one of the human narrators, Alice, and I immediately began fearing for her safety as she was drawn into the household. And this was not unwarranted, since Apollo does end up making advances on her, and when she turns him down, only doesn’t assault her because of his oath to never harm a human. Apollo seems genuinely confused that rape is considered harmful, curiously asking Alice if that’s “why they made it illegal”. Alice escapes only mildly traumatised by her experience kissing, and then being threatened by, the sun god, only to have Hermes later assure her that Apollo’s raped plenty of women so it really wouldn’t be a big deal.
This flippant treatment of mythical sexual violence by the gods is probably the most disturbing part of the book, but I had to acknowledge that it was at least, well, in-character. Given how Alice reacts and how the story treats her reactions, I can probably rest assured that the writer very much does see it as a big deal even if the gods don’t. Though those lines from Apollo and Hermes left me with a deep distrust of the gods, I feel like that was the point—these people are awful, remember? And not just in endearing and admirable ways. Scenes like this, as well as the novel’s general refusal to depict the gods in any state of grandeur and instead focus on their pettiness, led to a message of sort of… anti-worship. There’s an undercurrent of critique amidst all the humour, suggesting that we ought to challenge the nasty elements in The Classics, rather than revering them as perfect pieces of untouchable ancient media.
After all, the reader undoubtably comes to this book knowing the myths and wanting to see them messed with… which kind of made the premise, and the fact that no mortal characters seemed to have heard of the gods (not enough to recognise their names, anyway) kind of strange. Holes start to appear in the narrative when you dig past the mess of gods and mortals and love arrows to the underlying drama that supposedly drives the plot, i.e. the fact that the gods are dying. Artemis’ big realisation that the gods were losing power because people no longer believe in them was disappointingly obvious, though I’m willing to admit that’s because I came into the story with the American Gods comparison in my head.
Still, given their obsession with worship in the original myths (they’ve been known to get notoriously, life-ruiningly snippy when mortals don’t pay them enough attention), you’d think some nice foreshadowing about abandoned altars could’ve been had amongst all the descriptions of how awful the townhouse is. And why are they staying in the townhouse, anyway? I was sad to see that it isn’t really explained, apart from the fact it was cheap, and what we can infer about them having to leave Olympus because their power waned.
The other significant hole in the worldbuilding is, unfortunately, brought up by some of the most interesting and funny conversations in the book, where Eros talks about Christianity (including trying to explain that the funny feeling in Apollo’s tummy was guilt, and that he should repent/apologise to make himself feel better—a bit of dialogue that would have been right at home in Arrested Development). All the gods, including Eros himself, are pretty convinced that the Abrahamic God isn’t real, something that’s supported by the presence of souls from all over the world in Hades’ Underworld, implying that Hades’ Underworld is the only afterlife. It seems a little presumptuous to declare that the Greek pantheon is the only one that’s actually real in this universe, you know? What about the Norse gods? African gods? Polynesian? Ancient Egyptian, even? What are they all up to in this new age? I can’t imagine they’d be too impressed, especially given that the ending alludes to a new era where the Greek gods regain their power and walk among humans again… something that’s presented as a positive thing, for some reason, despite the entire novel demonstrating how terrible they all are.
Gods Behaving Badly is a mixed bag, but it’s got a sharp and bubbly sense of humour and a consistent tone, and even a few bits of neat satirical critique thrown in along the way. The human romance isn’t even insufferable; dare I say it’s even quite cute, and not just because Alice’s other option was Apollo. The greater plot about saving the gods (and the world) is all well and good, but the big draw of the novel is the Arrested Development-esque set of unending family catastrophes and the banter that comes with it. Which says something about the staying power of the Greek myths in and of itself, and how they got something about their tangled, larger-than-life character drama so very right that we’re still replicating it thousands of years into the future.
It didn’t leave me with the same sense of unexpected existential dread that Aphrodite’s Workshop for Reluctant Lovers did, so you can also count that as a major plus.