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Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

By / September 20, 2011 / no comments

Neil Gaiman’s modern epic fantasy American Gods tells the story of ex-con Shadow, who finds himself widowed just days before making parole and inexplicably wanders into a bi-dimensional war of unfathomable proportions.

Shadow is, quite simply, kind. He is a good natured and thought provoking character who seems simply to wander through the book experiencing things that would have most terrified or inescapably perplexed. Shadow however has a slow and gentle intensity to him which is heartbreakingly endearing. He finds himself, silently wracked with grief over his wife and working for a mysterious Mr Wednesday who drags Shadow all across America recruiting all manner of exocentric men and women. Shadow begins to have strange dreams that seem so real yet are impossible by day light, he finds himself seeing into ancient civilisations and, almost without meaning to, trying to understand the nature of faith and belief.

For anyone who hasn’t worked it out yet Mr Wednesday is, quite obviously, a God. An ancient and powerful god brought to America by early Viking settlers who were wiped out before their faith could truly flourish; leaving Wednesday, or as he better known, Odin, to flounder in a faithless world.

Odin, and so many other gods brought to the America’s by ancient tribes and travelling peoples, now find their very existences threatened as belief in technology and the media become the religion of modern capitalist America. Thus Odin brings in Shadow to help him gather an army to battle the new gods who threaten these old ones.

Along the way Shadow meets some very strange, exotic and intoxicating people; gods of death and goddesses of sex, bringers of the night and guardians of peace and prosperity. Gaiman dots short and beautifully written chapters throughout the book in which we see these gods land upon American shores, we learn how they are born and what powers they have and the meaning they bring to their people; and then just to show us how impotent they have become we are thrown back into the frigid winter of modern North America where gods must survive on cash machine heists and taxi drivers wages.

In the midst of all of this Shadow is grieving for his wife, Laura, who finds herself brought back to him and desperate to keep her “Puppy” safe. Laura plays a pivotal role in the story, though she barely enters into the key storyline; yet her presence brings the two dimensional world of gods and men walking out on the earth as she lives in death, a walking but rotting corpse.

Eventually Shadow finds himself bound up a web of treachery; the lies and deception of which will undoubtedly but leave a bad taste in your mouth when you see the peril they put the harmless Shadow in. Throughout you can’t quite sit comfortably with Wednesday, and his true identity is not the worst revelation of the book.

The problem is that you can see Wednesday’s identity a mile off, and finding out at the end why he chose Shadow over all the other ex-cons in the world is about as subtle as a piano falling on your head. The sacrifice Shadow makes is the most painful part of that revelation, but its metaphor is also a bit too blatant which spoils the effect that Gaiman has clearly been going for. Any mysticism and intensity that exists in the pages that tell of Shadow’s vigil for Wednesday are tainted, not only by the betrayal of Wednesday himself; but by the ignorance that Gaiman expects of his readers – you hope he has other plans in store, that he will not take the obvious route and, as Shadow is physically and mentally tormented, you are distracted by your own disappointment at Gaiman’s anti-climax.

Also all the god related myths and metaphors are all well and good and my own lack of knowledge about many of them stands as a testament to the point Gaiman’s book is making, yet without an extensive knowledge a lot of the meaning that is hidden in brief moments and meetings gets totally lost and it kills the mood a little.

To truly appreciate this book you need an intense level of understanding about ancient religions, which you can quite clearly tell Gaiman has got after most likely putting in copious amounts of research before writing the book. But the average reader is bound to find some references just going over their head, and that just ruins the mystery and ambiance of the book; because rather than being intrigued you find yourself a little dumbfounded in places when revelations appear seemingly out of the blue.

The whole story gets a little lost in places as well, as Shadow finds himself hiding out and dipping into the lives of a small town or a family business; both of which are moments which could easily stand alone as stories, with enough personality and interest of their own that they distract from the novel as a whole and break the tension surrounding the main plot. It’s as though Gaiman is trying to do too much with this piece and rushes through the main plotline whilst lingering on smaller insignificant and frankly more interesting sub-plots.

Thankfully the silent and intense sweetness that is Shadow makes the book a very easy piece to sink into, and you find yourself largely untroubled by the books length and complex sub-plot. It passes by quickly, with its own peaks and troughs as any book does, but the final twist at the end suits the piece at large very well and the closing moments leave you feeling that, at least, Shadow might be alright after all.

About the author

Ben

Blog editor, admin and founder of BestFantasyBooks.comYou'll find me on the BestFantasyBook forums and spending my spare time reading fantasy books and writing lists for this site. In fact, I have no spare time -- running this site IS my spare time!

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