by Neil Gaiman
Review by Ernest Lilley
William Morrow Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0380973650
Date: 01 July 2001 List Price $26.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
"I think there are several aspects of our marriage that we're going to have to work on."
"This is a roadside attraction," said Wednesday. "One of the finest. Which means that it is a place of power." - American Gods
Some say that the only thing a reviewer can say about a book is whether or not they recommend it.
The short form of this review then, is this: Yes. Wholeheartedly. Go read it.
To expand on that for those of you who are still sitting here rather than reading something really good, namely American Gods, your attention is appreciated.
In contemporary America, old gods are stirring. Gods brought over in the prayers of immigrants and changed over the passage of time. Changed, and often almost forgotten, shunted aside by the obsessions of the twentieth century, the new gods.
But gods aren't the sort of beings to go quietly into the night, nosiree, and a fight is brewing in the center of the country between old and new, on a land that does not nourish gods well.
Shadow, the books main character, is a passive sort of hero, for all that we meet him finishing up a prison sentence and patiently waiting for the day when he can walk out the prison gates back to his wife, back to his job as a trainer at the Muscle Farm, back to a world with sunlight and freedom.
But as he waits, as the day draws near, he feels a storm brewing and begins to have unsettling dreams about changes coming.
Change does come, and all too soon, when he learns that his wife and best friend are killed in a car crash, and at the funeral he learns from his friend's widow that the two had been having an affair, and the bright world outside the prison dims.
On the way plane trip home from prison, Shadow meets a man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday, since it's the day they meet. He's mysterious, manipulative, and malevolent and he wants Shadow to work for him. Shadow declines and slips off the plane on a whim when weather forces them down, stopping to get something to eat, his first free meal, he stops at a roadside bar and when he turns around Wednesday's back with his offer.
After some convincing, Shadow accepts the offer to be the man's chauffeur, bodyguard, sometime enforcer--but only on the conditions that it not require him to break the law, and that Wednesday is straight with him.
I'm not sure we actually have laws governing the conduct of Gods in mortal form, so Wednesday may be telling the truth when he agrees to Shadow's terms.
The remainder of the book is a grand road trip across both America and mythology as the two travel to places of power, in Europe sites where religious artifacts are found or built, but here on our god poor soil, freak museums and roadside attractions at loci of spiritual power.
Shadow's wife may be dead, but she's not quite ready to move off this mortal coil, and thanks to a coin Shadow came by during his job negotiations, she's still able to walk the Earth, though in increasing states of decomposition. She pops in from time to time to warn Shadow about what's coming and shuffles disconcertingly off the stage again.
It takes Shadow a bit to get used to the supernatural side of things, and considerably longer to divine his origin and role in the upcoming battle. He's not looking for trouble, but there's a cosmos of it on the way.
In between chapters of the story, Neil inserts short pieces about how different gods came to America. From the Viking party that celebrated their survival and discovery of the land, imbuing it with Odin and Thor, ready to greet Leif Eriksson when he arrived, to the gods prayed to by black slaves, torn from Africa. Though I generally don't like a plotline to be interrupted, Gaiman is such a tremendous writer that it's easy to slip into each vignette and back to the main story.
I just finished my own road trip discovering America on a coast to coast and back again trip (Ern's Route 66 Adventures) and I gave this terrific book a lot of thought along the way.
The only thing I quarrel with is the minor role Christianity plays in Gaiman's pantheon of gods. America, for all the bicoastal brew-ha-ha about other faiths, is still largely a Christian nation, if it's anything. If you don't believe me, you haven't driven across it. Neil dismisses this with a sneer, suggesting that there are none so blind to spiritual truths as Christian Ministers, and though I think he's missed the dominant element of American Godhood, if he hadn't, things would probably be pretty one sided and a lot less interesting. So maybe it's just as well.
This is exactly the kind of modern fantasy I enjoy most, illuminating the beliefs of cultures while spinning an engaging yarn. To say that Gaimen has created a superb piece of writing is to surprise no one, and I'm looking forward to talking to him at Boskone, where he's GOH.
Neil used to sneer at authors who produced tomes sufficiently thick to hold open a door against a strong wind. He is now somewhat chagrined by his hubris, now that the writing gods have visited him with a novel of significant, if not epic length. I ran across an early draft in a friend's house and had to wait nearly a year to see how the story turned out. You have it much easier, and I urge you to take advantage of your good fortune.