See, didn’t I tell you that I would be reading things other than Ian Rankin? I actually had just looked at a list of the top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy books and Gaiman’s American Gods was there. I had looked at this book a few times, and with the knowledge that many people liked it, I figured I would give it a shot. I am ashamed to say that it is only my third Gaiman novel. I read Neverwhere last February while I was on holiday in Fuerteventura. My fiance was frustrated because I could not put the book down, so while he ran around in the Atlantic, I sat on the towel and read. I just read Stardust a couple months ago, though I own the movie and have watched it several times (two very different works of fiction, however). So when I picked up American Gods, I guess I expected something slightly familiar and similar. I was wrong.
American Gods is one of the most imaginative books I have ever read. Shadow is our MC (I think I’m going to make a glossary of terms that I’ll frequently use) and we meet him while he is in prison. A few days before his release, he knows something is wrong in the world, and yet he cannot pinpoint the feeling. He learns, just two days before his parole, that his wife has died in a car accident. The prison warden releases Shadow early so that he can make his way home for the funeral. Because he had to rearrange his flights at the last minute, Shadow ends up in first-class with a Mr. Wednesday, who offers Shadow a job. We follow Shadow as he works for Wednesday, and discover that Wednesday is really Odin and all of the gods of the past are still living, those that are remembered. They were brought to the Americas by their immigrant believers, and are now fighting for recognition in the world with the gods of technology. Wednesday wants to unite the old gods so that they might conquer the new ones, and somehow Shadow becomes the focus of ire for the new technological gods.
It’s honestly really hard trying to give this book’s synopsis. Some novels put themselves into neat packages that are easy to summarize. American Gods has so much going on that it’s almost impossible to do that without telling you the whole story or spoiling the various plot points. What I can talk about are Gaiman’s immense talents in writing.
American Gods is roughly 460 pages long, and meaty. Honestly, I am a very fast reader, and normally a book this length would not have taken me days to read. I’ve been reading it for almost a week. Sure, I do have less free time now, but there are so many things embedded into each and every word of the book. Gaiman makes you think very hard about everything he’s presenting to you. After all, the entire basis of the story is that our own human imaginations are so powerful that we have brought gods, folk heroes, and creatures into existence. I have never seen anything quite like this. Granted, Julie Kagawa’s Iron King series postulates that if the human imagination created the fae, then there would also be Iron Fae (it’s actually a pretty good YA novel). Even the Percy Jackson series tells us that the Greek gods immigrated to the States when it became the center of the world’s civilization. So, with our imaginations we carry our gods with us. It’s an incredible idea that we can create without knowing it, and very flattering to the human ego as well.
Gaiman also mastered giving us a character we care about. Shadow has our sympathy almost immediately, despite being a convict and a big, intimidating guy. When Gaiman kills Laura, Shadow’s wife, we are only on page 11 and already we care. I actually felt sorry for him, as if I had known him for more pages than we were given. And when Shadow discovers his wife had been cheating on him while he sat in prison (for her), your sympathy doubles. We never really know his whole story, and for the most part, the novel is about Wednesday’s goals and Wednesday’s plans. But Shadow really comes alive towards the end, and he steals the plot from the others and creates his own story. I never would have thought a relatively passive character would have been so interesting, but Gaiman has done a fabulous job of making his audience care first, then slowly changing Shadow into a character worthy of our attention. It’s almost as if having his story told gives him the confidence for that change. And if you’d read the book, that sentence would sound far less crazy.
The thing that really makes readers love Gaiman is the basis to his stories – that there is a world there hovering next to (or under) our own that we just don’t know about. That there is something magical and if only we were able to open our eyes we could see it. I have seen that same thread through American Gods, Neverwhere, and Stardust. I cannot say for sure whether or not this theme prevails through all of his novels, but it is certainly common to the three. But his imagination, his ability to show us the world that we could see if we were only to open our eyes, is very reminiscent of Peter Pan and so many other childlike classics. Of course, just to ruin the image, Gaiman has to throw in sex, violence, and other adult themes. But you understand what I mean. It’s the childlike desire steeped in adulthood. Something like that.