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24 November, 2003

Review: 'American Gods' (Neil Gaiman, 2001)

Over the weekend, I read this novel; all 632 pages in about four sittings, which should give a clear idea of its draw.

There's no point in my going into detail, as I'm recommending you read it for yourself, but this is a book which sets out compelling ideas, then explores them in the context of a good story, which is precisely the criterion I find most attractive in a book.
To give an example: the central premise of 'American Gods' is that when immigrants traveled to North America, over thousands of years, they took with them the belief systems of 'the old country', including the stories of piskies, leprechauns - and deities. Conventional so far, but Gaiman goes on: what if that was to be considered literally? That the Vikings took a belief in Thor with them when they colonised North America, and hence an aspect of Thor is still there, personified? So what happened to him after the Norse religion declined to just a mythology? What happens to a god without believers? What do those ex-believers worship now? To be honest, the resolution of these core ideas is a bit disappointing in the book, and could have been taken further, but if a reader takes away fresh ideas and is stimulated to think for him/herself, that can only be considered a success.

One of my all-time favourite books is 'Snow Crash', by my fellow introvert Neal Stephenson. The first couple of pages introduce the lead character as a pizza delivery man in a black high-performance sports car, who habitually carries a pair of samurai swords. Having read those first pages, I could only grin; "A ninja pizza delivery man! Cool!". The book went on to explore aspects of linguistics, ancient history and an interesting variant of virtual reality, all in an excellent cyberpunk story. It was that first page, though, that gave an initial thrill, and hooked me immediately.
'American Gods' has a few of those moments, often when one connects a casually-mentioned aspect of a character's appearance with another seemingly innocuous comment made 20-30 pages earlier, to realise that, say, the down-at-heel electrician one has become familiar with is really Zeus (I don't want to diminish the impact of the instances in the book, so that one was invented).

In his rambling way, Stephen King has the ability to get into his characters' heads, and give a sense of what it's like to be an American. Gaiman's writing doesn't have that unselfconscious ability, which is a minor problem when his characters occupy the same type of small town setting as King's; the comparison slightly interferes with suspension of disbelief, but only slightly.

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