Wednesday, May 07, 2008

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This is not my usual thing, but I liked it. I was alerted to it after reading Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips, which I see now is pretty similar in premise, if not in style or execution. Gods Behaving Badly is much lighter and funnier. This book is dark, but very engrossing.

Here’s the idea: when an immigrant comes to America, he brings his gods (or other mystical creatures) with him. Thus the Irish brought the Leprechauns and the African slaves brought Anansi. These gods are still here, wandering around, getting by as best they can, even though almost no one believes in them any more. Recently, Americans have begun to believe in new gods, and they are here also; they include Media, who looks like a television newscaster, and also a god called Technical Boy – I’m not exactly sure what his area is, but he’s always going on about wireless Internet. Eventually, as you would imagine, these gods must battle for supremacy.

The leader of the old gods is Mr. Wednesday, who is of course Odin, the god of war in the Norse pantheon. But as in any good myth, Wednesday’s role is multi-layered and his motivations not always pure. He takes a protégé called Shadow, who turns out to be much more than he seems – this uncovering of people’s real (mythological) identities is the most fun part of the book. Gaiman does a great job of integrating mythology from every corner of the world, and while some characters I could identify right away, others were complete mysteries. Who is the old woman with dead mice in her refrigerator? I would love to find some kind of god-by-god guide to all the characters in this book.

Wikipedia has an article that identifies many of them, but it’s not complete, Some gods appear under their real names (Wisakedjak, of the Algonquins, and the Slavic god Czernobog, for example) but many use aliases, and the article doesn’t connect the gods to their associated characters, except in a few places. A few Web sites have popped up that do some decoding, but I haven’t found one that is really comprehensive.

My only complaint about this book is that the non-stop action and on-going puzzle of who’s who can obscure some problems with the plot. Some things didn’t quite hang together for me, and some characters’ motivations were sketchy, at best. And who, exactly, were Mr. Wood and Mr. Stone? But it was hard to get too worried about these details when the story was so compelling.

(Book 16, 2008)


Anonymous said...

Medusa. The mice were to feed the snake-heads.

Becky Holmes said...

Anonymous, that's a good suggestion. But she was just described as an old woman; I don't remember anything about snake hair in the description. I will look again and see if I missed it. Thanks!

heather (errantdreams) said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this one; while I tend to like Gaiman's short pieces best, I definitely liked 'American Gods.'

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