As a result of your votes when I was struggling to decide what to read next, I picked up Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Neil Gaiman himself has said that this book tends to be a somewhat polarizing book: people tend to either love it or hate it. The novel is the story of Shadow, who is in prison for an indeterminate crime involving robbery of some sort. He is released a few days early when his wife dies in a car accident. Having nowhere to really go and nothing to do, he accepts the offer of a mysterious man named Wednesday to work for him—to protect him, transport him from place to place, run errands, hurt people who need to be hurt (only in an emergency), and in the unlikely event of his death, hold his vigil (37). Gradually, Shadow learns that Wednesday is actually Odin the All-Father, brought to America by immigrants who believed in him and sacrificed to him during the Viking Age. Wednesday has really recruited Shadow to help him face a coming storm—the new gods of television, the Internet, media, and other modern conveniences are usurping the old gods, and what’s more, the new gods want the old ones dead. Before he knows it, Shadow is on the ultimate road trip across America, helping Wednesday gather forces from among the old gods to fight the new gods.
This book was cleverly researched and interesting from a mythological standpoint. I kept wondering what Joseph Campbell would have made of it. In the novel, the reader meets gods and creatures as diverse as leprechauns, Anansi, Thoth, Anubis, Mad Sweeney, and Easter. The book certainly had me researching various mythological references so I could understand what was happening in the story. For sheer chutzpah with storytelling, I have to give Neil Gaiman props. What he did with this novel is not something very many writers could do. All that said, I didn’t completely like it. I liked parts of it. Other parts seemed to go down a path I couldn’t follow, and some threads introduced in the novel were dropped later. In some ways, it felt to me like Gaiman tried to do too much with this novel. On the other hand, some threads were brilliantly woven throughout the book. The concept is pure genius, and I don’t really even have problems with most of the execution. Ultimately, it just didn’t have some indefinable something that makes me enjoy a book. I give it four stars because I can recognize its brilliance, and I certainly don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that I hated it. I didn’t. It just didn’t do “it” for me, even though I found it interesting, and despite its size, a quicker read than I anticipated. Four stars then is a compromise between the three stars I’d give it based on my personal reaction to it and the five stars I’d give it for what I’d recognize as its epic greatness. My own reaction probably has something to do with the fact that I’m not a huge reader of fantasy or science fiction. I have certainly liked other books by Neil Gaiman: Stardust, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book. I would certainly try other books by Gaiman in the future.
I read this book for three reading challenges: the Once Upon a Time Challenge, the Take a Chance Challenge, and the Gothic Reading Challenge. Gaiman’s books are great for Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge, which asks readers to try fantasy, fairy tales, myths, and similar types of stories. The first person who ever recommended American Gods to me was a Barnes and Noble employee who described it as Gaiman’s masterpiece. While it wasn’t quite on the employee recommendations shelf, I think a personal recommendation counts for the Staff Member’s Choice part of the Take a Chance Challenge. I hesitated about including it in the Gothic Reading Challenge, but the more I thought about it, the more I concluded it had some definite gothic elements (as in Poe or Lovecraft rather than Brontë). It’s more strictly supernatural than the sort of haunted gothic of books like Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, or Rebecca.