Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Synopsis: Days before his release from prison, Shadow's wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America.

Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm or preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.

Number of pages: 635 (Author's preferred text)

Rating: 7/10

Overall Impression: I did like it even if I didn't get it fully. Bemusing but exciting and interesting in a slow-burn kind of way. American Gods is all at once, a whistle-stop tour of America, a delve into what it means to believe, and a murder mystery that I completely missed until the end.
American Gods

I am not going to lie, for the majority of this book, I didn't really understand what was going on. I just knew that these people the protagonist, Shadow, was meeting, were 'gods' from the well-known Odin to the more obscure Wisakedjak.

My lack of understanding of what was going on probably stems from not being very good at reading between the lines of stories and picking up on hints or foreshadowing. Literally, the murder mystery part of this book completely passed me by until right at the end. But more on that in a bit.

Despite that, I felt pulled along through the twists and turns, as Shadow pieces together the crumbs he is given about what is going on, compelled to find out what the hell was happening. To me, they were definitely crumbs of information but suddenly they came together at the climax, as the strings of the main plot converge in the heart of Lookout Mountain.

This is a book with a large cast of characters. Some are blips of mentions, while others keep coming back for more. As the characters are introduced slowly, it isn't too difficult to keep them all straight in your head. Although, the use of AKAs sometimes throws you for a moment.

On the other hand, I enjoyed working out which gods were which from their various pseudonyms. For example, Mr. Wednesday, a charming and enigmatic man is hinted early on that he is not all he seems, as Wednesday derives from the Old English/Germanic word for Odin: Woden.

As the main character through whose eyes you see everything, Shadow is a very apt name. Initially you know very little about him, apart from he has been in prison for 3 years, has a wife who has just died, and is being released from prison. There is little to no description of what he looks like or even why he is in prison in the first place. Shadow's character is shrouded in mystery. As the story progresses, it is like your eyes adjusting from bright sunlight to being indoors. Small tidbits of information clue you in on what type of person Shadow is, and eventually some physical descriptions too.

I loved the little side-stories of how some gods found their way to the shores of America. One that stands out for me is the story of Essie and piskies, who followed her from Cornwall to the Virginia hills. These side-stories highlighted that the old gods are not made in America. They are brought in by the immigrants. America is a place where the gods were brought but then forgotten as new gods were taking their place. This is the point of contension in the book. The old gods are fighting for their position amongst the new gods; gods of tv, cars and other such things.
People believe, thought Shadow. It's what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghost, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.
The murder mystery part of this book, appears in retrospect, to start quite early on, and is one of the last things that is resolved. Up until the big reveal, it, as a subplot, had completely passed me by. Basically because I am oblivious to things like subplots. So for me, it was like a bolt out of the blue, that still made a lot of sense... if that made any sense!

The depth and skill in the description makes this a fully-immersive world. Shadow is taken 'backstage' (a sort of unseen dimension that the gods in their 'true' form exist) and it is crystal clear in my imagination, as if I had seen it in HD with my own eyes.

Gaiman has a style of writing that is not challenging on the surface, as in I found myself reading for hours at a time, but the subject matter definitely is challenging. Definitely a must for those with a philosophical bent.

So I'll finish off with perhaps my favourite quote:
Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives. 

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