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Friday, May 22, 2009

American Gods

American Gods

by Neil Gaiman

(4/5 stars)

I mentioned this in my review of "Good Omens" but just to recap, I came by this book after reading Terry Pratchett's fabulous Discworld series. From there I went to "Good Omens", an apocalyptic comedy penned by Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. So now I'm segueing to Gaiman solo in "American Gods." I have to say, for the record, I think Pratchett's books on the whole are a lot more fun. While there is humor in "American Gods" it's darker and a little more subtle--ironic might be the best way. The difference is probably that the Discworld books are written as comedies while "American Gods" isn't. I still enjoyed this, but in a different way.

"American Gods" covers territory covered by Gaiman and Pratchett (or Pratchett & Gaiman) in "Good Omens" and by Pratchett in Discworld books like "Small Gods" and "Hogfather." That territory is the concept that gods exist because people believe in them; gods are an extension of a human belief to believe in something. Over time, for a variety of reasons, belief in gods rises and falls. For instance, thousands of years ago no one outside the Middle East had ever heard of the god we know as GOD. They believed in their own more local gods, some like the Greek/Roman gods we studied in school and still remember because they're named for things like planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto) or Greek restaurants. Others have pretty much faded away from memory entirely, except perhaps for an artifact in a museum.

What Gaiman does in "American Gods" is to take that concept a step farther. For thousands of years people have been coming to America--"Native" Americans, Spanish, French, English, Dutch, and of course the Vikings--and with them they bring their gods and make sacrifices to them and build places of worship to them and so forth. And in the process they give life to those gods in America. But what becomes of the gods after war, disease, slavery, and assimilation have eroded that belief in them? Basically they're left roaming the countryside, living essentially as mortals.

A big man named Shadow gets out of prison and meets one of these fallen gods, a grifter now going by the name of Mr. Wednesday. With no job, no family, and no place to live, Shadow agrees to become Wednesday's bodyguard for a dangerous mission that takes them across the United States, though much of the action is centered in Illinois and Wisconsin. There's a storm coming, one that threatens not just Shadow but the entire fabric of reality. Because, you see, there are new gods being created everyday--gods of Technology and Media and so forth. When old gods and new gods clash, all hell is bound to break loose.

As for Shadow, he has to confront his tragic past and his destiny. Plus he has to find a way to bring his zombie wife back to life.

Overall this is a good book, though the ending seems pretty anticlimactic. I guess that's how life is sometimes. It would help too if you knew more about mythology than I do; I know a little about Greek and Norse myths from school but Gaiman includes myth creatures from pretty much every culture in the world. (Though it seems like the Greek gods like Zeus, Aphrodite, Athena, Poseidon, and so forth are missing.) Anyway, I think this is the kind of book I'd really have to read a second time--or possibly more--to GET it because there's so much going on.

Of course a lot of people will probably steer clear of a book like this because it might challenge their personal beliefs. Though I personally like a religious philosophy where pretty much everyone can be right.

That is all.

PS - I feel a little ethically compromised because Mr. Gaiman is my "friend" on the Goodreads site and I follow him on Twitter.

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