RogerBW's Blog

American Gods, Neil Gaiman 10 May 2018

2001 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning modern fantasy. Shadow finishes his time in prison… but learns that his wife has died just before he was due to be released. He goes to work for Mr Wednesday, who's gathering forces for a big fight…

Fair warning: many people loved this book, and it just didn't grab me at all.

I think that that may be because it relies for its effect on giving the reader Amazing New Ideas – what if gods rise and fall by the amount of worship they get? What if the old gods came to America, and what new gods would modern culture form? – and to me they weren't particularly new. Diana Wynne Jones did gods walking among humanity in Eight Days of Luke back in 1975; and the early successful books of Tim Powers (I'm thinking particularly of The Anubis Gates, The Drawing of the Dark and On Stranger Tides) handled the integration of hidden fantastic elements into the mundane world, and the rise and fall of gods. All that really needed to be said about the New Gods was compressed (among many other things) into Pratchett and Gaiman's own Good Omens. (And now I want to read those books again.) When Gaiman hands the reader such "subtle" names as Mr Wednesday and Low-Key Lyesmith, I at least find myself rolling my eyes; this book still has the same good ideas, but they've been watered down for the mass market, for people who want to think they're clever for spotting the references.

After the setup establishes Shadow's situation (characterisation: he's a big man), the book fragments into a picaresque series of microstories, showing us how various gods have adapted to living in America on minimal amounts of belief. (And yet, there's no mention of the god that an actual majority of Americans claims to believe in.) It's all supposed to be a bit trippy, but in fact it comes over as strangely sober and un-fantastic: Anubis works as an undertaker, ho ho. But the New Gods are just as self-interested as the Old Gods and I never felt any degree of sympathy with anyone involved, which doesn't help. People talk, and talk, and tell stories, and talk more. The Great Big Climactic Resolution to all these wars and rumours of wars consists of Shadow saying something that everyone already knew, or could have guessed.

Gaiman has done a great job of creating a creepy and magical atmosphere in other books, such as Neverwhere; here it doesn't come off. All the same, I could forgive a lot more if the book weren't just shy of 200,000 words.

Reread for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread.

(Other nominees for the 2001 Best Novel award were Bujold's The Curse of Chalion, which I loved and plan to re-read soon; Connie Willis's Passage and Robert Charles Wilson's The Chronoliths, neither of which I've read or even heard of; China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, which almost everyone liked much better than I did; and Ken MacLeod's Cosmonaut Keep, which I'm fairly sure I've read but which left absolutely no impression on me.)

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