Despite American Gods having been published in 2001 (with a revised edition in 2011 with some additional new text), I only heard about this book recently in relation to the television series of the same name. I have not yet seen the television series, but the premise sounded interesting, and I thus decided to read this book. American Gods won both the Hugo and Nebula prizes in 2002, and thus expectations were high for this book.
As soon as I got the book, I had second thoughts due to its size – 600+ pages! I wasn’t sure if it would be worth the effort to read this, but now – 600+ pages later – I can say it was worth the effort.
The underlying theme is about an upcoming battle between the old Gods and the new Gods of America. Who are these Gods? This is where the book is fascinating, innovative, and thought-provoking. The Old Gods are primarily the Gods brought to America from the countries where immigrants came from – one example would be the Norse Gods. First generation immigrants believed in these Gods which gave the Gods strength, but successive generations have believed less and less, or stopped believing all together, and this has caused the Gods to weaken over time.
The new Gods are the Gods of modernity – credit cards, shopping malls, television, etc. People have recently started to believe in these new Gods, which has given them strength, and this is thus the background of the battle which is brewing between the old Gods and the new Gods.
The story centers around a 32 year-old man named Shadow, who somehow finds himself unexpectedly slowly pulled into this world of Gods and upcoming battle. We follow his story as he slowly learns about what is going on, and then adapts accordingly.
The only other part of the plot which I’ll share, which is a part which I really liked, is that it is set in the ‘real America’. This is not the more well-known America of New York, Los Angeles, or Silicon Valley. This is the America in between the coasts, with small towns that have a certain character and charm, and with special ‘temples’ built that are uniquely American (the book explains details about these ‘temples’). This is the America of backroads through the Midwest, the South, and the West, and of ordinary people living ordinary lives.
The beauty about Neil Gaiman’s writing is that he combines these two themes – the battle of the old and new Gods, and life in the ‘real America’, to build a fascinating and creative story. This is the real strength of American Gods. To his credit, he also must have done quite a bit of research on Gods from different cultures across the world and throughout history, and this adds to the authenticity of the book.
I do have two gripes about this book. The first is that it does get a bit too slow at places. In fact, there was one point relatively early in the book where I thought about giving up. I’m glad that I didn’t, but some of these parts could have been shortened a bit. The second is the climax. I won’t say more, and it is not that the ending is bad by any means, it is just that I had different expectations and this part did not fully live up to my expectations.
Overall, the most amazing thing about this book is that it is so unique that it actually defies classification into a specific genre of book! Mystery? Americana? Fantasy? Magical-mystical? (e.g., such as the works of Salman Rushdie and/or Haruki Murakami), Mythological? Horror/Zombie?
The answer is ‘all of the above’ and more – and this is what, despite some minor flaws, makes American Gods an enjoyable and memorable book.
Rating: **** (four out of five stars)