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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This is an old review that I'm posting to make up for the fact that I didn't really like Good Omens (I know, I'm sorry). I do like Neil Gaiman's other work!

American Gods – Neil Gaiman (Published 2001)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Urban
Completed: April 1 2010

American Gods is one of those novels that won the rare Hugo/Nebula double. It is one of the most famous works of modern Fantasy and its writer, Neil Gaiman, is known in some circles as the rock star of Speculative Fiction. It chose itself as a book for me to pick up.

Gaiman himself has described this book as a ‘love it or hate it’ kind of book, which is interesting because I of course did neither. I certainly enjoyed the story and appreciated the experience of reading it but I wouldn’t be rushing to recommend it to all of my friends.

The inventive and intriguing plot follows Shadow, an unsurprisingly mysterious character, after the death of his wife and subsequent release from prison. Shadow barely has time to make sense of these events before the even more shady Mr. Wednesday convinces Shadow to work for him. From this point Shadow is increasingly exposed to the divine underworld – gods exist and people’s belief makes them physically real and powerful – and ultimately drawn into the conflict between the diminished old gods and the modern gods of technology.

None of these gods make for nice people, though some are more sympathetic or humorous than others. Most are frustrated and embittered by their loss of influence but they are, for the most part, content to mind their own business and eke out whatever existence they can. None are judged for their behaviours, however bizarre or sickening. Though the major gods in the plot derive from Norse mythology, the story acknowledges the myriad cultures of people who have moved to America from their faraway, traditional lands, dragging their gods with them.

It is the origins of these gods that Gaiman focuses his key themes and a number of fascinating (and disturbing) vignettes upon, which are interspersed throughout the story and give it more mystery, more power and an even broader scope.

Whatever your beliefs it’s difficult to disagree with the idea that faith in Western society has waned, but though we have withdrawn belief in any higher authority we unavoidably worship something – enter the gods of television, communication and finance among others portrayed by Gaiman in the story. It’s hard not to laugh when confronted with the god of the internet who is essentially a young, overweight jerk.

The conclusion was interesting in a surprising but inevitable way, though the set up was far stronger than the payoff. The link between events that ultimately come to pass in the story and the mythology that spawned it is very well drawn. The execution may not have matched the idea, but that’s because the idea was brilliant.

American Gods gets 4 stars. While Australian society shares many cultural and historical similarities with America, I can’t help but think that the themes and especially the setting would resonate far more strongly and effectively with an American reader, particularly if they are familiar with some of the locations which Gaiman has written such mystery into.

Read it – if you are American, or at least conscious of American history and values.
Don’t read it – if you hate America, in which case you have other concerns.

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