American Gods, by Neil Gaiman–Book Review

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I’ve been working on this review for a while, always unconfident to touch what I consider to be so fantastic a book. I’m still not happy with this, but I never will be, and so with the TV show and comic with their first few chapters released, I thought I’d finally write up a review of one of my all-time favorite books. Honestly, after Lord of the Rings, this might be my favorite book. It’s hard to stay decided on one single book, as I love so many, but this book has continued to impress me more and more upon each reread. So, of course I have to ramble about my love for it—and I’d highly, highly recommend reading the book before watching the show or reading the comic.

This will not be a great review. I say that upfront because I could never do this masterpiece justice. I don’t know enough about mythology to go into long detail about it or talk about how well Gaiman infused various myths, etc. I can’t objectively analyze it to the extent I want because I’m incredibly too attached and biased. I can never be fully happy with my review of this, no matter how long I spend. All I can do is gush about how much I loved it—as a fan of fantasy and mythology and Gaiman and literature and genre-bending and great characters and everything that this novel contains. So I can’t properly review this, but I’m still going to try. Especially because I recently reread this book for the third time and I really have to talk about it, as I liked it somehow even more than the first two times.

As I said, I’ve read this book two times previously, and my love just continues to grow. The first time, it was easily a five-star read, but those for me sort of come in two categories: books that are incredible achievements and that I also do honestly enjoy; and my personal favorite books, that may or may not be incredible literary achievements or anything, but mean a lot to me or are simply ones that I love (and then there’s books that03 are both, and those are my all-time favorite books). My ratings are sort of always combinations of both of those, as a four star read might be a two or three star read in terms of my enjoyment but I appreciate it and thereby gets a bump, or a four star read could be a book that I loved but isn’t very great from a literary standpoint.

So the first time I read it, it was more of the former—I was incredibly impressed, I knew this was something special, but it wasn’t quite one of my all-time favorite reads, in the way that basically every other Gaiman book was for me the first time around, probably partially because I read them later, as I think this was my first Gaiman novel and so didn’t quite know what to expect (which is why I always suggest starting with Ocean at the End of the Lane, as it doesn’t get crazy until about half-way through and just sort of gives a taste of everything Gaiman does). It’s also definitely his slowest book, which I wasn’t expecting. So it was a 5-star read that I really enjoyed and thought was incredible, but wasn’t completely a favorite.

Upon rereading it, though, it easily became one of my all-time favorite novels. I just loved the experience of going through it again, no longer caring about the story as much but just immersing myself in the mythology-rich world. And it was a really great experience. I couldn’t put it down, and it became a 5-star read that I truly loved rather than simply one that I greatly admired and enjoyed.

Since then, I’ve definitely remembered it very fondly, always wishing to go back again and again—which is basically the best way I can label it, as because it’s so immersive and detailed, I always want to immediately read it again. Because of all the details, all the little moments, all the rich minutiae—it never gets boring nor seems repetitive, as there’s just such a limitless quality to it that I can never wait to reread it again. Each time I’ve reread it, the book feels new because of all the new details I notice. And so with the show and the comic adaptation coming out, I needed to read it again.

So that’s what I finally did. The first weekday of my spring break I started it for the 3rd time in the morning. After the first chapter I knew I couldn’t put it down, and ended up actually finishing it about 13 hours later (I was planning to take my time over the whole week). This is definitely the longest book I’ve read in a single day, as the version I read (illustrated by Daniel Egneus) was nearly 700 pages. My next goal is to read Lord of the Rings in a day, haha!

But it was such an incredible experience. Because it’s such a long book, it’s always taken me a little while to read in the past, even though it’s also always been hard to put down, and I feel like something can be lost in that. By no fault of Gaiman, of course, but any long book is going to usually take a while to read, and unfortunately I don’t have a perfect memory.

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At least in the 10th Anniversary Text, the novel opens with this caveat that I absolutely love. It begins with the usual legalese of how it’s a work of fiction et cetera et cetera, though here Gaiman pays particular attention to the attractions and real places mentioned in the novel, which also goes to highlight their importance. And then the last sentence, “Only the gods are real” resonates perfectly for me, all at once summarizing the entire novel, preparing the reader for what’s to come by showing the specific emphasis on the gods and mythology of the novel, and how the gods are treated.

It’s fantastic, and I would argue certainly necessary to read, because of how it sets up the entire tone of the novel masked with the usual legal jargon. It’s brilliant.

The main storyline I think is the reason this wasn’t immediately one of my favorite books, as if you read the blurb or what it’s promoted as (i.e. “a war brewing between the old gods and the new”), you might be a little disappointed. Now, granted, technically that’s completely true—a war’s brewing. But that implies that war is going to come into play when in reality it doesn’t, not really. It kinda just brews the entire book.

Which isn’t a criticism, because after knowing that, I loved it so much more on the second read, as I was able to enjoy it for what it was, not what I was expecting it to be. So be warned—the Battle of Helm’s Deep between gods this does not contain. At the same time, though, that climax is never needed, as that’s not what the book is ultimately about, regardless of the marketing or the technical summary of the plot.

This whole book is exactly what Gaiman’s so good at—creating compelling, fascinating characters that represent more underneath the surface, and who have incredible weight to them even when minor; creating interesting, interwoven plots that are incredibly complex but still not the focus of the story; creating fascinating villains; creating beautiful prose that fools you into thinking the story is fast-paced when it’s not and shouldn’t be; weaving different genres together in a way that doesn’t stand out.

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To speak (semi-)briefly on each, I like the way Gaiman builds the tension throughout—this was something I noticed again recently in Norse Mythology, as he kept building to Ragnorok. The entire book really is just a buildup, but done in such a fantastic way. There’s quite literally layers and layers to the novel, and each one is absolutely necessary and adds to the overall world, even if one of those layers is a short, self-contained interlude.

And speaking of the interludes, the vignettes are where this dynamic storytelling is seen most—while sometimes they can seem unnecessary to the plot as a whole, I’d argue that they definitely are necessary specifically because of how they add to the world, how they help build the tension.

The Bilquis scenes in particular do this incredibly well.

[Slight spoilers:]

I think Bilquis perfectly represents the entire novel in her own way. Her first scene is terrifying, powerful, incredibly graphic—yet never gratuitously so. And it sort of lets you know what can happen in this book, in terms of the explicitness, while also perfectly displaying the power involved with the character. But more than that she summarizes the conflict perfectly: her first scene you see her power—how it’s waning, yes, but also because of the nature of her power how much power she still has. She feels 100% like a god, and that duality of her seeming powerful and terrifying to me perfectly shows how the gods are and ought to be thought of.

A further duality comes in with her scene later in the book. To not to go too much into spoilers, I just want to say how I think that later scene so perfectly shows the duality of the gods in the modern world, and why the tension/buildup is so important.

[Spoilers over]

I would absolutely love an entire book on each minor character/god. In just the few pages some of them get, Gaiman still manages to create a rich mythology and presence to each one. I know a lot about the Greek/Roman gods, and I’m learning more and more about the Norse, but I’m not nearly as familiar as I’d like to be with any of the others. A book about just Mr. Ibis would be amazing, or just Bilquis or just Anansi (even though we got some of him in Anansi Boys), or just Czernobog, or just Mad Sweeny. Gaiman writes each character so well I’d gladly read a book twice the size of American Gods on each of them. Yet at the same time, this book never feels overstuffed. Each god gets his or her moment, feels like a fully-rounded character, yet also stands as just a background character, someone simply adding to the world as a whole.

It’s why Anansi Boys works so well as it’s own standalone novel, why there’s two novellas in the American Gods universe and they’re still not enough. Maybe I’ll get around to reviewing all four American Gods stories some day, but I’ll just leave them here briefly by saying that they are amazing, and just how the vignettes of the novel simply add to the overall enjoyment and power, so too do these “side stories.”

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The main characters, too, are of course well-done. Shadow’s a fascinating character to me, and what I love is there’s some times I hate him and some times I love him, yet I always love reading from his perspective. And actually, the point of view is one of the things I love most, because it creates a further sense of mystery to the entire novel because of the question of Shadow’s reliability as a narrator. One could easily argue that this all takes place in Shadow’s head, especially because he himself questions his sanity throughout the novel, etc. (though I don’t personally agree with that—but still, I like how it’s a possibility). And that’s what I love about him.

Which on that point, I love Shadow and Laura’s relationship and interaction throughout the novel. It’s at once heartbreaking, fascinating, sweet, anxiety-inducing.

Shadow also represents a common “Gaimainism”—he’s the reader’s view into this alternate world, just how Richard Mayhew is in Neverwhere, how the boy is in Ocean at the End of the Lane, how Coraline is in her namesake novel, etc. There’s something very real and raw about Shadow that makes him instantly followable as the narrator.

And we do follow him, willingly or not, as in many ways this book’s also a road trip novel, and Shadow’s the driver both for the reader and for his boss, Wednesday. I love the way Gaiman introduces all of the gods. Not just in his interludes with Bilquis, etc., but also with the way Wednesday hooks himself into Shadow’s life, takes utter control of his destiny, becomes a powerful force in a very muted, subtle way—such as his06 various cons, etc.

Shadow’s relationship with Wednesday and other gods throughout goes further toward not only introducing the other characters and adding to Shadow’s character, but also to advancing the plot specifically through the characters and relationships. Each god feels like a god, but also a god in a world unaccepting of them as the new gods are slowly taking over.

And I’d remiss if I didn’t mention Samantha Black Crow. She’s one of the best parts of American Gods, and that’s because of how subtly important she is to the narrative. Gaiman has this way with characters who even if they aren’t “necessary” to the plot still become incredibly memorable and important and necessary characters in their own right. It may seem like removing her from the plot might not change much but ultimately it would. She affects Shadow (and thereby the plot, as we’re following Shadow) so deeply, and I love how she does that even though she barely appears in the novel. She makes herself essential because of her character and for what she adds to the story, just like all of the side characters. Gaiman shows his true ability as a character author specifically because of this—a lot of the characters may seem to be removable, but ultimately they add something incredibly necessary.

But to go back to the various gods of the novel, again, to avoid spoilers, I’ll just briefly say that the carousel scene is one of my absolute favorites, and just as the House on the Rock is an important landmark of the United States, the carousel is a staple scene of the novel. As the first big introduction to the gods, it’s done with the perfect American Gods touch—not a big, loud scene that screams at you it’s important, but a scene that just draws you in and shows it’s important by its language.

Similar to the “good” gods, the villains of the story are also built up incredibly well. I do suppose that if I had one small critique about the novel it would be that I want more of the villains, but even so I know why we do get so little, because the majority of the novel is following Shadow, and moving away from that narrative focus would also take away from how the novel is conceived. But that’s also just a variation of the critique I have about every book I love—I want more.

To speak quickly on this specific version of the book, the illustrated version by Daniel Egneus, it’s definitely the one I’d recommend. Not only is it Gaiman’s preferred 10th anniversary text, but the images complement the novel extremely well. I particularly love how abstract they are, because they don’t give a clear picture of what anyone looks like, but just shadow-filled ideas that resonate along with the words on the page. For example, Loki:

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The helm makes it clear it’s Loki, but otherwise there’s not really any defining features, and that allows you to still create your own vision of the characters in your head, accompanied by these fantastic images that capture the emotions of the novel well.

American Gods is nothing short of a masterpiece. Gaiman uses his usual writing arsenal—beautiful diction, fantastic characters, a seamless blending of genres, compelling narratives—and simply amplifies everything. His prose is completely unleashed here as he goes all-out in what truly may be his magnum opus (particularly the Author’s Preferred Text), and is able to fully utilize the novel-format’s potential. His characters are all made essential, no matter how little they appear or minor they may seem. American Gods defies any single genre classification, all at once being a literary, historical, fantasy, mystery, romance, mythology, thriller, horror, folklore, and roadtrip novel. And the main plot is interwoven so effectively with many side plots, all slowly building—with excellent control so as to never feel slow—to an ending that resonates and is fitting for the novel.

Read this book. 5/5 stars, if that wasn’t obvious enough. ^^

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