Written By: Neil Gaiman
Published By: HarperTorch
Reviewed by Frank L. Ocasio
After a summer filled with the mystical fantasy of Stardust and the mystical, garbage-laden charm of Neverwhere, I decided to usher in the new season with another of Neil Gaiman's novels, American Gods. Was I entertained? Yes. Was I blown away?... Not so much.
Now, before I set out on what many readers will no doubt call sacrilege, let me just say that I enjoy Neil Gaiman and I think he's a good writer. Do I think his work is simply the best fantasy there is out there? No. Why not?
American Gods is a great answer.
Bear with me for a moment. You follow Shadow, a rugged ex-con, as he's released from prison. Good times, right? Unfortunately, no. As he's released, he discovers that his wife, Laura, who was a big part of the exposition, was killed along with his best friend in a car crash. Having been granted an early leave, Shadow meets an old man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday and offers him a job as his personal body guard. After some coaxing (which is typically Mr. Wednesday doing impossible and intriguing things, like appearing where he couldn't possibly appear and telling Shadow things about himself that he couldn't possibly know), Shadow agrees to work for the big man and throw away a life that isn't worth living anymore.
So, what makes this interesting? Well, Shadow discovers a very short way into the whole affair that Mr. Wednesday is a god--no wonder he could do all of that crazy appearing where he shouldn't be, knowing what he shouldn't know stuff. More interesting than that? Apparently, Mr. Wednesday has enlisted Shadow's help for an upcoming war between the gods of the old worlds and newer gods (like Media, Technology, etc.).
So, what's the problem then? Well, the writing is fine. The pacing is great. And the plot is full of enough quirks and events to keep you interested the whole way through.
The problem is though that things can get a little dry at points. A large part of the novel is meeting gods, only you don't know they're gods at first; Shadow and Wednesday drive somewhere and enlist someone for their battle. This person does something crazy or weird and, "Oh. Okay. He's a god." The first few times, this is cool and interesting. After a thick wad of pages though, it kind of gets tiring. Especially because the identities of these characters really don't matter. You could look up this one character's god identity, but even if you do see that character again, chances are he's just going to be a guy who also happens to be a god. Why is this particularly disappointing for me? Well, being a fan of mythology, I was honestly hoping for a plot strongly centered on the wild dispositions gods have. I was also hoping for a stronger tie of some kind between the gods and human characters (especially because it's stressed time and time again in this novel that gods thrive on human belief)
Will this get in the way of your reading though? Probably not. Heck, you may even take it for a game and try to figure out which god a character is before they tell Shadow (which I doubt will be possible considering a good majority of them I haven't heard of myself, despite The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology on my desk here). Either way though, you'll still enjoy American Gods. And despite all of my god bashing, you will be very surprised by certain elements of the plot (even if others manage to totally let you down or go nowhere).
One more thing before I quit:In case you don't know, Neil Gaiman is also the author of The Sandman series. A larger achievement in my eyes, however: Gaiman also penned the single creepiest graphic novel of all time, The Tragical Comedy Or Comical Tragedy Of Mr. Punch. I can't tell you if it's good or not because I couldn't get past page 3--seriously, the art is just that creepy.