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by Neil Gaiman
Feature, 2001. Paperback. 504 pages.
ISBN 0747274231 (buy at Amazon.co.uk)
Bought on 10 October 2001 at Amazon.co.uk for £12.59
After three years in prison, Shadow has done his time. But as the days, then the hours, then the hours, then the seconds until his release tick away, he can feel a storm building. Two days before he gets out, his wife Laura dies in a mysterious car crash, in apparently adulterous circumstances. Dazed, Shadow travels home, only to encounter the bizarre Mr Wednesday claiming to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America. Together they embark on a very strange journey across the States, along the way solving the murders which have occurred every winter in one small American town. But they are being pursued by someone with whom Shadow must make his peace... Disturbing, gripping and profoundly strange, Neil Gaiman's epic new novel sees him on the road to finding the soul of America.
Average customer review:
(based on 3 reviews)
Review by Lisa DuMond on 16 December 2001
Where do they go, the monsters of our childhood? After we conjured these boogeymen and solid shadows and beasties under the bed, did we really think they would fade away with our childish fears? Did we expect them to go quietly when we didn't need them anymore? Come to think of it, whoever said we had grown up?
Shadow, betrayed and abandoned by his own personal god, is the perfect liaison in the showdown that is coming. As the gods of our present and future prepare to battle the ancient ones, an empty shell like Shadow may well be the safest thing to be. If, that is, there is any place on Earth that is safe. Some of the places in which our hollow hero is about to find himself don't even appear on any of our maps. On every step along the journey he will suffer for our perceived sins.
Dark though the subject matter may be, American Gods is easily Gaiman's most amusing and entertaining work since Good Omens, his brilliant collaboration with Terry Pratchett. Interestingly, there are some plot points in common between the two novels -- here is clearly a theme that Gaiman tackles with glee and aplomb. If his name is not a household word yet, this book could well be the one that lands him that status.
American Gods has "Hollywood" written all over it. In the best sense possible.
The scope of this novel is reminiscent of King's The Stand, without the gratuitous 100,000 words here and there. Gaiman's command of language allows him to flesh out a character, build a setting, establish a mood, with a few dazzling, concise brush strokes. His artistry is such that, throughout the book there are phrases and passages that arrest the reader; words that deserve to be pulled out as a quote, an example of how we all wish we wrote. Or, how we wish all fiction could be written.
In a genre where cutting-edge has come to mean more graphic, more shocking, more disturbing, Gaiman represents the finest of another force in dark fantasy. While he does not flinch from violence and gore, neither does he depend upon it to carry his work. Many have said that Gaiman is the new face of horror fiction -- who could ask for a better poster-child?
American Gods is a dark, mesmerising adventure into the innermost reaches of the human heart and mind. The characters we meet along the way are distinctive and unforgettable, aspects of our own fears, desires, and weaknesses. What are they, really? Gods? Figments of our imagination? The only one who can decide that is you. Read Gaiman at his best and come to your own conclusions.
When the time comes for awards for 2001, expect to see this novel on every short list, if not in the winner's slot itself. Hard as it may be to believe, Gaiman has managed to top himself with a story that merits the label of classic.
Review by T.M. Wagner on 29 August 2001
Neil Gaiman's career has followed a trajectory perhaps unique in modern popular fiction. Starting out in the arguably undignified realm of comic books, Gaiman made his mark writing dark and dreamlike stories for the sleeper DC Comics hit The Sandman. Gaiman's work was often guilty of style over substance, but in comics, that's just fine, especially for Gaiman, whose style is so rich in nightmarish imagery and ironic wit that it has caused a great many people to embrace him as the best writer in America today. I don't think Neil's quite that good, though he is a talented and immensely readable writer. But happily for him, this talent has been enough to earn Gaiman a reputation that has overcome any possible stigma attached to writing for comics. Other comic book writers, like Peter David and Chris Claremont, have gone on to write books, but they are generally dismissed as hacks, while Neil is feted by Hollywood moguls and fawned over by critics and colleagues.
I enjoyed reading American Gods, make no mistake--but to be honest, this compellingly grim modern fantasy is good but not great. Like much of Gaiman's Sandman work, it relies upon eerie atmosphere and metaphysical weirdness to carry readers through the fact that it has one of the most meandering plots you're likely to find in any modern fantasy. In American Gods, Gaiman both romanticizes and satirizes America in a way only a European can. His story is like a mutant marriage between Wim Winders (whose films Paris, Texas and Alice in the Cities are classics of "America through a European's eyes" romanticism), Jack Kerouac, and Clive Barker, with a healthy dollop of comic book sensibilities thrown in as a nod to Gaiman's roots. Indeed, Gaiman's entire premise deals with European gods--and what is a god but a superhero, or supervillian, after all?--uprooted and transplanted to America; what bolder way to try to "find" America, than through the eyes of a lost god?
The plot: Shadow (even the characters' names are iconographic) is a young man facing imminent release from prison after doing three years for assault. Genuinely rehabilitated, he looks forward to starting life anew with his wife and a job at a gym. But when, on the eve of his release, he learns his wife has been killed in a freak automobile accident, Shadow finds himself both literally and figuratively cast out into the unknown. Immediately he meets a strange fellow who identifies himself only as Mr. Wednesday, who makes him the proverbial offer he can't refuse. Shadow begins working as a bodyguard for Mr. Wednesday, about whom there is clearly More Than Meets the Eye.
Wednesday is in fact the god Odin, reduced to a trivial existence as not much more than an ultra-suave grifter by the fact that his believers, having brought him over to America hundreds of years ago, have now all vanished. Shadow meets numerous other gods of ages and religions past, all of whom are being pushed aside by America's new gods, which are, of course, television, the Internet, rampant consumerism, etc. Even Jesus isn't sacred enough; despite His prominence in America, Wednesday tells of how He was seen hitchhiking along a lonely road in Afghanistan. "It all depends on where you are." It's not exactly a subtle satirical point; indeed, Gaiman hammers it home most brazenly in a scene where Lucille Ball talks directly to Shadow from the TV set (even offering to show her boobs). Outlandish as they are, Gaiman is able to pull off these scenes because he writes them with a quiet confidence that overcomes their innate kitsch simply by acknowledging it.
Wednesday is determined that the old gods should not go down without a fight, and drags the hapless Shadow around the country as he attempts to recruit any and all of these dispossessed deities he can find for the upcoming "storm" that threatens to burst any moment. But the new gods have formidable fighters on their own side, employing comical men-in-black type thugs to menace Shadow at every turn.
As you might have guessed by now, it can be hard to tell when American Gods is putting you on and when it's really being a lyrical rumination on the importance and consequences of mythology to a culture. Often it's both at once. And though the novel is often extremely enjoyable to read, its patchwork, vignette-driven plot can seem aimless at times. Like many of the road movies from which Gaiman appears to be drawing some of his inspiration, American Gods is more about the journey itself than what might lie at the destination. And like a long road trip, parts of it are wondrous and beautiful, and other parts monotonous. Gaiman doesn't carry the magic consistently through to the story's end, but on the whole, the book offers enough moments of the truly mystical and bizarre that fans of his from the Sandman days should feel amply satisfied. Shadow grows into a sympathetic character, and many individual scenes in the book have the verisimilitude of the best work of Stephen King, while other scenes seem as if they'd be more at home in, well, a graphic novel.
Like the country it panegyrizes, American Gods is a beautiful, flawed, frustrating and unforgettable place to be. And that may be its final charm. Love it or hate it, you're not likely to read anything else like it--at least, not in this world.
Review by Barry Forshaw on 5 July 2001
Within just a few pages of Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods, he commandingly reveals that he is at his considerable best with this disturbing and dark journey into the hidden soul of America. Gaiman, one of the most talented and imaginative writers at work today, achieved nigh-legendary status with his comic Sandman, which took the genre to heights that even the equally talented Alan Moore had not attained; Gaiman's subsequent career as a novelist has displayed the same glittering inventiveness and exquisite use of language.
Gaiman's protagonist Shadow has patiently done his time in prison. But as the moment of his release approaches, he begins to sense that some unnamed disaster is lying in wait for him. As he makes his way home, he encounters the mysterious Mr Wednesday, who appears to be both a refugee from a distant country at war and the King of America. And perhaps even a god. As Shadow and Mr Wednesday begin a bizarre odyssey across the United States, solving murders is only one of their accomplishments. With an epic storm of supernatural origin brewing, one questions whether they will be destroyed before Shadow pays the price for grim mistakes in his past.
The use of language here is impeccable, and it is wedded to a surreal narrative that brings out the most quirky and unsettling aspects of Gaiman's imagination. Forget Gaiman the Guru: just enjoy Gaiman the consummate writer:
He opened his mouth to catch the rain as it fell, moistening his cracked lips and his dry tongue, wetting the ropes that bound him to the trunk of the tree. There was a flash of lightning so bright it fell like a blow to his eyes, transforming the world into an intense panorama of image and after-image. The wind tugged at Shadow, trying to pull him from the tree, flaying him, cutting to the bone. Shadow knew in his soul that the real storm had truly begun
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