Vacations are the perfect place to get some heavy reading done: with an absence of any work (or homework) standing in your path, it's one of my favorite opportunities to really take a swing at some of the titles I've been holding off on my TBR list. Hence, why I made sure to pack this title in my suitcase as we headed down on our annual trip to Oregon!
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, follows the story of Shadow, a recent felon, released from jail, and greeted by the crippling news of his wife's death. While traveling home for her funeral, an enigmatic plane seatmate - dubbing himself Mr. Wednesday - enlists Shadow to be a part of a mysterious enterprise, tracking down ancient gods and goddesses across the United States in a final standoff against the new crowd: the burgeoning mythical brethren who guide the ideals of America today. With war on the horizon, Shadow begins to understand that the forces at play are far more powerful than he could have ever imagined... and that he, himself, could tip the balance of the world as we know it.
Okay, all hype aside - because if you're a fan of fantasy, you're sure to not just recognize this title, but the name of its prolific author - this book was awesome. Amazingly inventive, with an enthralling concept that allowed for the creation of an entire world, I was left astounded by creative characterizations, surprising plot twists, and a new paradigm with which to view the "melting pot" origins of the country.
In terms of the foundation of the story, with the idea of gods and goddesses living and walking among us, it's easy to draw comparisons, be it to a grown-up Percy Jackson, or that one Joan Osborne song. However, the ways that Gaiman classifies and explains their presence in contemporary culture make it inherently unique, as well as set up a comprehensive universe within which such powerful beings can exist alongside things we interact with every day.
One particular view that you can't necessarily get from Rick Riordan, is that the novel makes no exceptions for the more gruesome points of religion. Sacrifice, bloody and human, plays a part in too many theological contexts to go unrepresented; almighty power comes alongside a serious amount of gore. Sexual activity has always been a hallmark of ancient religion as well (ahem, Zeus), and makes its appearances within the narrative, too. While the explicit/graphic nature of some of these elements might throw some readers off, I seriously respect its inclusion, if only to remind you of the fact that religion has always been a bloody practice.
Something else I really loved about the novel was the absolutely monochrome nature of the characters: almost everyone in this novel is gray in at least one fashion. While I really liked and respected Shadow as a main character, even he had a lot of darkness to his framing, and no allowances were given in order to make individuals more or less redeemable. That way, even with the extraordinary nature of the powers at play, gods were made mortal... or, at least, humanized.
And on another side of cultural implications, I felt like the novel offered a fascinating perspective of America's consciously collaborative status: we are a nation of many peoples, and believe in a lot of different things, so to have everything from Norse to Native to many more creeds and cultures, interacting and jockeying for position and power, was pretty terrific. While it was fun to call out characters I recognized from a childhood spent devouring myths and folklore - Anansi! Kali! Loki! - it was just as much so to meet the gods of our new culture, like Media, hair-sprayed and shiny-teethed, or Technical Boy, a stylized wiz-kid who smells like burnt circuits.
Despite its 600+ pages, I zoomed through the novel. Partially, I chalk it up to interest, because once I started reading, it's all I wanted to do, but I also have to factor in language, because the more formalist elements of the novel, like diction, were still really accessible. Keeping the reading easy was only a benefit to the topic, by making imaginative and large-scoped concepts more approachable.
Final Verdict: In case you couldn't tell from my review, I really, really loved this novel. Total five stars, even if there were parts that I thought were a little squirmy. I don't have a subscription to Starz, but I feel like I'm going to have to get one, just to see how the new TV adaptation is going to play out!
It was only after I finished American Gods that my younger sister, Delaney, realized that Gaiman also wrote Stardust and Coraline! What's your favorite of his works? Let me know, in the comments below!