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American Gods
6.25.2002 by Julian, every Tuesday.

If you've never read anything by Neil Gaiman you've been missing out.

Gaiman established his reputation as a master storyteller with his award-winning comic book series The Sandman. The series draws on myth, legend, folklore and religion from all over the world and from every era, and blends them all together into a strange and delicious brew of magic-realism. Although there are weak spots in the 75-issue series (mostly near the beginning), they are more than made up for by the moments of sheer genius. Sandman is highly recommended.

Gaiman's first novel (if you don't count the hilariously funny Good Omens, coauthored with Terry Pratchett) was Neverwhere. In Neverwhere, Gaiman creates a surreal otherworld that exists under the city of London, in the abandoned subway stations and sewers that sprawl beneath the city. Neverwhere is a gripping adventure with a wonderfully dark, carnivalesque atmosphere. Also highly recommended.

The concept for Gaiman's newest novel, American Gods, sounds great: immigrants to America bring their belief in their gods with them, and so the gods themselves come too. But in America, belief wanes quickly, and the gods are soon forgotten. Without the belief that sustains them, the American gods are reduced to poverty: Bilquis, Queen of Sheba, has to make a living as a hooker; Odin is a wandering grifter; Thoth and Anubis, the Egyptian gods of the dead, run a small funeral home.

Meanwhile new gods are rising: gods of the Internet and of Media and of Television. And they want to wipe out the last remnants of the old gods...

Gaiman's greatest strength is his ability to seamlessly weave mythological characters into the everyday world, so I began this novel with the highest of expectations, thinking it would be Neil doing what he does best.

I was sorely disappointed. While the novel plays with some interesting concepts and has a few great scenes, the story itself lacks substance.

The first half of the novel involves our hero, Shadow, traveling around America with his mysterious employer, Wednesday. Shadow's wife has just died and he doesn't really care about anything any more. He doesn't know what Wednesday is up to and doesn't care. I, on the other hand, did want to know what Wednesday was up to, but Gaiman reveals it so slowly and clumsily that by the time he finally gets to the point I didn't care any more either.

We're introduced to a lot of characters along the way, most of whom have no significance whatsoever to the story. It's as if Gaiman had a bunch of gods that he thought were cool so he gave them all token cameo roles. And, once you get over the novelty of the fact that they're gods, these characters aren't all that interesting in themselves.

The story picks up a bit in the second half of the book—everything starts to come together, tensions rise, we have a couple of really great scenes—but then there's the hugely anti-climactic trick ending (even less climactic now that I've told you it's a trick). It's clever, I admit, but Gaiman doesn't manage to pull it off with his usual style.

I could say the same thing about the book as a whole; it's all very clever, but clever concepts alone do not make a story. There is a story, but it's secondary; Gaiman just uses it to patch together a whole bunch of clever ideas that he wanted to play with.

I'm sure there are a lot of clever allusions that I missed, not having read an encyclopedia of world mythology cover-to-cover recently, but even if I had it wouldn't have turned it into a good story. If I had read an annotated version of American Gods I'm sure I would have learned a lot of interesting facts about mythology and religion, and if you're interested in such things this book is worth reading. But in terms of great storytelling it falls short. It's similar in atmosphere to Gaiman's other work, but fails to achieve the epic scope of Sandman or the dark intensity of Neverwhere.

Come on Neil, you can do so much better!

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