There’s two things I will say before beginning this review. First, I’m going to keep it as spoiler-free as possible. Second, I’m going to out myself…I have never read a Neil Gaiman book before.
<pause for gasps and exclamations of shame>
I’ve read plenty of his comics, like Sandman, and of course it’s spin-off, Death: The High Cost of Living, I loved his Swamp Thing run. I’ve also enjoyed many of his TV outings, his episode of Doctor Who was a beautiful highlight of the otherwise mediocre 11th Doctor’s run. Alas, I’ve never read any of his books. Suffice to say, I have never before read American Gods.
This past weekend, HarperCollins sent me a review copy in what I’m assuming was a marketing push for the upcoming Starz TV series based on the book. I sat down, looked at this rather intimidating, dense (okay, maybe not as bad as Dance of Dragons and I got through that) novel, and said, “Well, here’s my opportunity to rectify an oversight.” I’m glad I did.
American Gods is the story of a man named Shadow and the adventure he is dragged through. It delves strongly, as you’ll see, into the fantasy realm, however, do not dismiss this as a “kids book” or even a YA Novel. American Gods goes to some pretty dark, adult places.
Shadow begins our tale in prison. He hasn’t killed anyone, just made a bad move. He is quiet, polite, and stoic. He doesn’t get involved in anything. “Do your time” is his mantra. He eats, sleeps, works out, reads, and keeps his head down. His cellmate, a well-read con man, offers interesting bits of advice, and a particular tome that would replay its lessons in the days to come. That aside, Shadow was a simple man, he wouldn’t ask for a lot, barely anything at all. Upon his release, this was his plan:
First, he was going to take a bath. A real, long, serious soak, in a tub with bubbles. Maybe read the paper, maybe not. Some days he thought one way, some days the other.
Second he was going to towel himself off, put on a robe. Maybe slippers. He liked the idea of slippers. If he smoked he would be smoking a pipe about now, but he didn’t smoke. He would pick up his wife in his arms (“Puppy,” she would squeal in mock horror and real delight, what are you doing?”). He would carry her into the bedroom, and close the door. They’d call out for pizzas if they got hungry.
Third, after he and Laura had come out of the bedroom, maybe a couple of days later, he was going to keep his head down and stay out of trouble for the rest of his life.
Alas, none of that would come to pass, and Shadow would be thrown into a world he could barely believe; Gods are real. They’re in worse shape than most of us, and they’re going to war.
You see, the interesting thing about Gods is, they live a sort of thoughtform existence. When the Nords came to America, they brought with them aspects of Odin, Loki, etc. The Hindus brought Ganesha and Kali, the Irish brought leprechauns and Faeries, the Slavs brought Czernobog and his twin Bielobog, the Egyptians brought Horus, Thoth and Anubis……you get the idea.
These weren’t necessarily the orignal aspects of these gods. These were new, transplant aspects who never belonged in America. As their believers and worshippers die off or forget, so do they begin to fade and lose power.
By example, there’s Eostre, the Germanic goddess of dawn, who lives off the Christian assimilation of what was once her celebration and rituals in the form of Easter.
And then, there are the New Gods. The gods of media, technology, the Intangibles who fancy themselves the “Invisible Hands” of Wall St., and the intimidating Black Hats who themselves are the self-styled police of the New Gods, borne out of America’s obsession with the Men in Black, Black Helicopters, and the like.
As one might imagine, the new and old aren’t quite fond of each other. The new want the old gone and forgotten. The old, mostly just want to be left alone, to live out the rest of their existence in peace.
Mr. Wednesday has other ideas. Mr. Wednesday is a god whose real identity you can surmise early on. Through a series of unfortunate events, he comes to hire Shadow as his right hand. Shadow is to run his errands, protect him, fight if necessary, and hold his vigil if he were to perish.
Simple enough. I want to keep this spoiler free.
Along his journey, Shadow will come to meet and befriend many gods. Some still famous, some you may have never heard of, some you’ll remember from 4th grade history and social studies. Shadow also meets some legends. Non-god manifestations of our beliefs. One in particular who has a strong attachment to our protagonist, and really, is neither.
It’s not all about the gods and legends either. There’s a very interesting sub-story involving some very human characters that I wouldn’t mind reading a (shorter) book about on their own.
All things aside, I don’t want to write too much about the book. It’s too easy to spoil, there’s not a lot that you can’t figure out with the slightest of hints. In some ways that could be considered a negative, but in the format of Gaiman’s writing here, it works. It leaves the book very approachable, with a sort of universal appeal. There’s a bit something here for everyone. As such, I’d like you all to read it for yourselves. It didn’t blow me away, but I most definitely enjoyed it, and I’m very glad I read it before the TV series premieres, which before reading this I only had a passing interest in. Now I’m very excited for it. However, I like to get a picture of things in my head before seeing how they translate to screen. It’s an interesting contrast, what you envision vs what another creates. I think American Gods will translate very, very well to a cable tv series. This way they don’t necessarily have to pull any of the grittier, more adult punches.
Check it out. The previously harder to acquire “Author’s Preferred Text” version has been re-released this week with a series tie-in cover by HarperCollins publishing.
Also of note, if you enjoy American Gods, Neil Gaiman has written two short stories, The Monarch of the Glen and Black Dog, continuing the tale of Shadow Moon.