Note: No spoilers.
This was my first Neil Gaiman novel, and I was excited to jump in. Actually, that is not entirely true (the first part, not the excited part). Several years ago I read Good Omens, co-written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I enjoyed that story, for the most part, and so I felt that giving Mr. Gaiman’s novels a try had been long overdue. I finally made the decision to do it when I noticed American Gods listed as number 10 in NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books last year.
American Gods drew me in from the first paragraph, and Gaiman’s storytelling skill kept me hooked, even when I found myself scratching my head at various points along the way. I kind of liken it to white water rafting, in that when the waters get rough, you’re fully engaged in the experience. And when the waters smooth out, you’re still primed for the next exciting turn, even if that turn isn’t immediately in sight.
The main character is Shadow, a soon to be released prisoner who just wants to go keep his nose clean and go home to his wife. His plans are derailed almost immediately, and he finds himself in the employment, and the company, of some of history’s lingering deities from days gone by. Shadow is surprisingly willing to follow along, and I found myself enjoying this character immensely. Shadow’s resignation in the face of the bizarre events that he is witness of, and increasingly an accomplice to, is manifested in what I felt to be quite plausible in this fantasy yarn. I’m determined to make my reviews spoiler free, so I’ll just say that Shadow’s employer, the cunning Mr. Wednesday, is on a mission to unite his fellow gods, old and weak as they are, to prepare for a conflict with an enemy that threatens their existence.
I loved how complex the gods are, as they are depicted in this novel. If you’ve ever read the old myths of the Norse or Greek gods, you notice how base, petty and crafty they were. Gaiman captures this idea, updates it for today, and presents us with a wide array of beings who, despite being largely resigned to a dwindling relevance in America, are stirred to action by Mr. Wednesday. But this is no easy task, and we see what it takes to marshal these forsaken spirits and ready them for a war most would rather not fight.
There are elements of the book I didn’t care for. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, I’m not a fan of gratuitous sex in books, and American Gods has some explicit scenes. I realize this is an entirely subjective and personal observation, so take that criticism as either a heads-up, if you’re of like mind, or as the tired protest of a literary prude. Either way, I’m on record as thinking such scenes rarely advance the plot, and tend to be distracting.
If you’re a fantasy fan who doesn’t like to deviate too much from the epic fantasy path, you may not enjoy this novel as much as I did. But if you like a good story, that is well written, engaging, and clever, then this book is for you.