Reviews: American Gods

A Road Trip on Four Flat Tyres

Because delayed gratification is apparently a thing I canít live with, and I canít be bothered to wait for the next season of shiny new tv show American Gods TV series to come out, Iíve gone and read the book to find out how it all ends.

A combination of thriller, murder mystery, road trip, and urban fantasy, American Gods tells the story about how an ex-convict called Shadow Moon gets recruited as a driver for Mr Wednesday, a mysterious figure who is at the very least a con artist, but also (according to him) an ancient God. Shadow is required to tolerate a great deal during his contract with Wednesday, but he takes it all in his stride, no matter how dangerous or weird it becomes. Itís just as well as Wednesday is recruiting for an all-out war between the old Gods and the new, and heís going to need Shadowís help.

Road trips traditionally have a sense of forward progression Ė you know what the end goal is, you know you are getting closer to it, and you know that a diversion or rest stop is literally just that, and you will be back on your way soon. American Gods does not have a very good sense of this at all. Shadow drives Wednesday all across the states to meet all manner of peculiar people, and these are the highlights of the book, but Shadow also spends as much time in one place, not doing anything in particular. At one point, Shadow is told to lay low in a sleepy, snowy town Ė and so he does, for what feels like most of the novel. The story stops dead here and we are stuck with Shadow, passing the time by listening to some creaky old guy tell anecdotes or reading up on town history. I knew the tv series was drawing itself out, but it never occurred to me that the book had done the same. It's only slightly less boring then it sounds, and whilst it has an eventual pay off, it comes after a long test of patience.

A much weaker pay off is used for the novelís finale, during a climactic confrontation between the many powerful gods. We've spent the whole novel waiting for this moment, but the story fails to follow through. Likewise, a bunch of characters get squandered resolving a let-down of a plot twist that only serves to undercut the exciting scenes we should be getting.

American Gods is a book that introduces many interesting characters and cool urban fantasy elements, but it doesn't use any of them particularly well. Perhaps Neil Gaiman wanted to tell a more personal, smaller scale story but he's spoiled it through using such larger-than-life figures to do it. I didnít like American Gods enough to recommend it, but there is enough good things in it that I canít unrecommend it either. Read it, but expect to find the experience frustrating.

If you haven't read this book since you were a teen, *hoo boy*...

To be blunt, like the angry, nihilistic cinema of David Fincher, this novel has almost certainly not aged as well as your teenage self believed it would. It is not a good book. It has good *ideas*, but it undermines them all through poor execution and pretentiousness.

First, the plot is a bloody mess. You've got Shadow on a road trip to put together a Justice League of old gods to fight the new, only now he's in a small town that's just a little too perfect, only now his patron is dead and the plot twists are starting. These are all good ideas for stories, but they're flung together in a hap-hazard, slipshod fashion, and almost none of them are really as developed as they deserve.

The central cast are all flat and dull, with the sole exceptions of Anansi and Chernobog. Wednesday never develops beyond "vaguely slimy conman," Sam is every annoying college girl with a shallow sense of spirituality that she thinks makes her profound you've ever wanted to slap, and Shadow is the cypher-iest cypher who ever cyphered. I get that him being Weak-Willed and easily-led is part of the plot, but it doesn't make him any more compelling as a protagonist.

And the pretentious attempts to say profound things about America and religion are all hilariously wrong-headed. If America is "bad land for gods," why are they doing so much better here than in your native Europe, Gaiman? "No other country wonders what it is?" Spoken like a true colonialist who's never seen a frame of, say, Malian cinema, or even fucking Wagner. The reason the amusement park in the heart of America failed has no mystical answer, it's just out in the middle of nowhere with no easy access. And that speech Sam makes about "what she believes in" is one of the worst pieces of dialogue I've ever read.

Is it all bad? No. The idea of immigrant gods dealing with the same problems as their followers is genuinely inspired, and Shadow's modern-fantasy road trip through various bits of cool and weird Americana can be fun and informative. And I really like the last twist's reworking of the building "older stuff is better" message the book seemed to be building to. None of them quite save the book, but they at least make it readable.

I'll put a few recommendations in the comments, but this is still a novel that squanders its promise.

Apparently, Neil Gaiman can fail.

American Gods is a book. Whether it's good or bad is up to everyone who reads it, but I think it's thoroughly, inescapably mediocre. The books ideas, are, of course solid—so solid, in fact, that every disjointed one of them could and should have been it's own book. The plot meanders, trips, and stumbles across America, a land that apparently has no people who actually, genuinely worship the old gods. The ideas of Neo-Paganism are discussed once, with a ridiculous strawman character that serves to illustrate Wednesday's point.

Normally, I greatly enjoy reading Gaiman, but not now. His distinctive, somewhat whimsical style is not present for much of the narrative, or it's downplayed.

Really, my favorite part of this is the fact that Gaiman even fucking lampshaded just how much of a blank Shadow is. Which suggests that making him so generic and boring was a deliberate choice. For fuck's sake.
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