I hope readers enjoyed the first two entries in my series about inspirations for characters in the Cavaliers, focussed on Augustine and George. I promised more entries, and they will be coming soon, with my intention being to write one about Adelaide (touching on her twin and on her previous incarnation) and then a joint one about Fea and the Visigoth Goth Twins.
Sadly, this week’s been far too hectic to write any of those posts, as they tend to take me a while. In the meantime, therefore, here’s a review. Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that there are books I bring up again and again – in Top Ten Tuesday lists, in posts about my own books, and as comparators in reviews. One of those is American Gods by Neil Gaiman, which blew me away as a seventeen or eighteen year old when I was really, really into mythology. I’ve read several of his books since, and although I always enjoy them, they’ve never quite hit that high note for me.
Incidentally, the one other thing Gaiman has written that is as good is his Sandman series of graphic novels. I’m not a very visual person – I definitely think in words rather than pictures – so due to personal preference rather than literary snobbery, I didn’t think I’d enjoy what are basically comics, but they are amazing and well worth a look even if it’s not a medium you’re familiar/comfortable with.
Back to American Gods. Over the years, I’ve recommended it to loads of people, referenced it constantly, and looked back on it lovingly, but I’ve never re-read it. A few weeks ago, I decided to get a copy and re-read it cover to cover. It’s always a dangerous thing to do, thanks to the risk that it won’t be as good in reality as it is in your memory, but in this case, no such problem arose. I didn’t adore it quite as much as I did first time around, partly due to remembering the plot twists and partly due to not being quite so fascinated by the subject matter anymore, but it’s still a definite 5 star read and a book I’d heavily recommend.
AMERICAN GODS – NEIL GAIMAN – 5 STARS
Days before his release from prison, Shadow’s wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America.
Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.
Scary, gripping and deeply unsettling, AMERICAN GODS takes a long, hard look into the soul of America. You’ll be surprised by what and who it finds there…
I long been a believer that “genre fiction” can be just as meaningful and well-written as some of the more obviously literary novels, and this book, (which I first read around ten years ago but re-read from cover to cover recently) is a perfect example of the concept.
The storyline is utterly compelling, with well-developed, memorable characters and some well-handled twists. The basic premise is an intriguing one. All gods and similar mythological creatures are real, created out of people’s belief in them. As waves of explorers and immigrants have come to America over the centuries, they’ve brought their gods with them, but with little belief left in Thor or leprechauns or whatever, they are mostly eking out a fragile existence on the fringes of society, as con artists or prostitutes or physical labourers. At the same time, new gods are coming into being – gods of the internet, of electricity, of cars etc, and having far more success. That rather bizarre set-up is handled well and believably, and both old and new gods are fun to read about. If you like mythology (and I love it) you’ll have lots of fun trying to work out who some of the more obscure characters are based on, and making frequent trips to wikipedia. Gaiman has clearly done his research.
Despite all the Gods drifting around and the fantastical nature of some scenes, much of the plot and the setting is very realistic, even gritty. The main character is a seemingly ordinary man called Shadow, who becomes embroiled in the old gods’ plot to regain their power and prestige, after a meeting with a Mr Wednesday, whose real identity readers with a passing knowledge of myths can probably take a guess at. Shadow starts the novel in prison for bank robbery, and the prison scenes and later fights and interrogations would not be out of place in something like The Wire. This is urban fantasy at it’s most urban, with a definite adult feel.
Sometimes, the plot is full of action and revelation. At other points, however, it becomes slow and meditative, which seems quite unusual for a novel of this kind. Shadow spends large parts of the middle section hiding out in an oddly perfect snow-covered town in the north of America. This section could easily have dragged, but my interest in the character and the quality of the writing kept me engaged, and I ultimately felt the book was better for being willing to slow down. It gave it a real epic quality.
Beyond the plot though, there are allsorts of big questions being explored. Why does every society have gods? What role do they fulfil in the human psyche? What is the nature of belief? What does it mean to be American? How does it feel to leave one country and culture behind and join another. They are the sort of questions you’d normally expect to be dealt with in a deadly serious Big Novel, but actually feel fresher viewed through this prism of gods and adventures. It’s helped by the fact that Gaiman’s writing style is consistently strong, and would actually translate perfectly to something less fantastical.
Finally, one of my favourite things about the book is the way the main storyline is intercut with both stories of random gods’ everyday lives in modern America (I was particularly intrigued by the Queen of Sheba) and stories of the people who came to America and brought their gods with them. Of the latter, the standout was a story of an African woman brought to America as a slave, bringing some voodoo type gods with her. In one chapter, it honestly delivers the most powerful reminder of how horrific slavery was that I’ve ever read. Most of the others are lighter, but still fascinating.
In conclusion, I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone that likes intelligent fantasy, as well as some people who think fantasy isn’t really for them. Gaiman’s one of my favourite authors, and this is probably his best book and a wonderful introduction to his style.
PS. This time around, I (deliberately) read the author’s preferred edition, basically a sort of director’s cut equivalent, with 12 000 words of previously cut material added back in. I’d recommend sticking with the original, slightly shorter (though still nearly 600 pages long) edition. It’s hard to be sure as it’s so long since I first read this, but I think the original is just that bit tighter and slicker. Editors serve a purpose, they’re not just there to thwart an author’s will, something that I’ve learned over time, as a naturally wordy writer.