I’m one of those readers that is lukewarm on Neil Gaiman. I passionately love some of his work, but some of his work just leaves me cold. It always strikes me as not as ground breaking or cutting as it wants you to think it is, if you know what I mean.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Gaiman deserves his place in the fantasy pantheon, even if he just wrote Coralline, he would deserve his place. But I am not as is enamored with American Gods as several of my friends are.
It’s not a bad book; it’s a fine book – not great, but fine. It’s perfectly enjoyable as a first read or a re-read, but it’s not great. At least, not in my view.
Part of this is that what Gaiman does has been done, something he freely acknowledges (and Gaiman is wonderfully honest when he writes and speaks about this book). Part of it is, quite frankly, it really isn’t a road novel. It really isn’t. And it really isn’t quite the love of road novels/America that I’ve been advertised.
In case you don’t know the plot, the main character, Shadow, is recruited by Wednesday to add in a coming war between the Old Gods (i.e. the beliefs that immigrants brought with them) and the new gods (for lack of a better term, the American mythos – town, city, internet). The idea is interesting and the conclusion to the war is actually pretty good.
For a road novel there doesn’t really seem to be a sense of traveling. There is traveling, don’t get me wrong, but it’s like plot traveling. I need to move the character so . . . When I compare it to a real road trip novel, say something like Freddie and Fredericka (which doesn’t advertise as one, but in many ways is one), American Gods lacks. The best parts, strangely enough for a road trip, are when Shadow is relatively stationary. When he is in Lakeside, in particular.
Furthermore, why so many white gods? True with the use of Wednesday and Shadow as a former prison inmate, Gaiman hits the rising prison population and its revival of Norse gods on the head. But considering the vast amount of immigrants from places other than Europe (even in 90s) wouldn’t more than just a nod to an India deity, Egypt, and references to Buffalo heads and thunderbirds is called for? It is to Gaiman’s credit that Shadow is big and that Ansani makes an appearance (and is the focus of the sequel) but it still feels like a whole group was left out. Perhaps this was intentional. The lack of Native American beliefs seems to be done to highlight the decimation of the tribes at the hands of settlers, and this works (and provides a poignant realization in the reader), but shouldn’t there be more Asian deities?
Another problem is Shadow, who in part is supposed to be as his name implies; he is a Shadow, an Everyman. But that also is a weakness. He doesn’t feel like a character, but a cipher, a plot device. You could say that this is due to shock, and Shadow’s wife hints at his lack of living, but it is hard to care because there is no real sense of who Shadow was before the events of the novel really start going. He loved his wife, he’s jail, but he’s a good guy. Okay. But that is really it. His relationships with two of the female characters feel really forced, and it is somewhat disquieting when supporting characters are better drawn than than main one.
Gaiman could have intended this to be the case – to capture grief and re-introduction to society after prison or even suicide. Shadow is an everyman in some way. Yet for a long book one wants a little more. I just really didn’t care about Shadow at all. If Gaiman created him for the above reasons, it doesn’t quite work.
Now before Gaiman fans hunt me down, I repeat it’s not a bad book. The Lakeside sections are beautifully written and are some of the best Urban Fantasy every. In the town of Lakeside, Gaiman really does covey a beautiful sense of place, almost like Charles De Lint and Newford, but Gaiman makes it his own. The book itself does fly once it really starts going and moving along. It’s a fun read and a pleasant re-read.