I would bet that you've never heard of Neil Gaiman. Though if you're
a comic book geek like me, then you must have loved his "Sandman"
series of comics. Or perhaps you saw the movie "Mirrormask", also
written by Gaiman and produced by the Jim Henson Company. Whether
you've heard of him or not, you'll start seeing his name a lot this
summer as he also wrote "Stardust", and he penned the screenplay for
"Beowulf," both movies to be released this year.
Gaiman's novel, "American Gods", published back in 2001 demonstrates
exactly why his work is so well-loved. Often classified as urban
fantasy, "American Gods" won both the Hugo and the Nebula, as well as
several other awards.
This is a story of a man named Shadow, who has just been released
from prison and inadvertently finds himself employed as a driver for
a man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. For those not familiar with
Old English, the word "Wednesday" comes from "Wodnes daeg" or "Odin's
Day". Yes, Odin, the chief god of Norse mythology. Shadow gets a
job as Odin's driver.
As the story unfolds, we find out that many gods from around the
world have hitched a ride along with the immigrant folk who make up
our country. However, over time, as the immigrant populations
assimilate, they forget their gods and turn to "American Gods" like
the Technology, or Media, or Commerce. The old gods depend on humans
believing in them for their strength and thus they've lost their
power, they've lost their status. They've been relegated to the
fringes of society.
But now a war is brewing between the old gods and the new ones. It's
time to see who is really in charge. Shadow is just an innocent,
caught in the middle of things, watching from the wings,
insubstantial (hence the name), being manipulated by both sides.
Gaiman loves the fish-out-of-water protagonist, which he also uses in
both "Neverwhere" and "Anansi Boys". But, I think he's most
successful here. The reader can readily identify with Shadow as he
moves through the book, making the extraordinary and fantastic
elements seem more grounded in reality.
Gaiman's got a lot of interesting things to say in this book about
belief and faith and religion, which I think I'm still trying to
process a bit. He made a particularly interesting choice to
completely ignore the Judeo-Christian-Islamic Yaweh/God/Allah in his
The writing style here is quite different from his other novels: much
more straight-laced, much less Douglas Adams-esque. This choice
serves to reinforce the importance of the coming war between gods.
The only real weakness of this book is the gods themselves. Well,
perhaps the real weakness is my own cultural ignorance. Either way,
lots of these old, foreign gods are likely to be completely
unfamiliar to some readers (like me.) Early in the book he takes the
time to introduce the important ones, but unfortunately lots of minor
gods just shoot past with hardly a "Howdy!" In addition, in some
cases their names have been slightly changed or altered so figuring
out their true identity isn't straightforward. It might have been
nice if he'd included a little appendix at the back with, at the very
least, a description of where some of the mythologies come from. But
that's a minor irritation in what is otherwise a great book. I
suppose I could have just Googled them.
"American Gods" is a great introduction to Gaiman's style. Once
you've finished it, take a look at "Anansi Boys" and "Neverwhere."
They're lighter, but just as fun.