American Gods Review – Edmonton Journal

Wiersema, Robert J. . “American Gods .” Edmonton Journal 08-19-2001: E11.

Allow me to depart momentarily from review conventions and say right at the top that Neil Gaiman’s book American Gods is utterly, breathtakingly sublime.

It will cost you sleep, cause you sunburn and have your family sending out search parties to find you. To read it is to place yourself in the hands of a gifted storyteller, to abandon yourself to the power of timeless themes, to remind yourself of the sheer, dizzying thrill of the written word.

I wanted to make my opinion clear because there are some readers (you know who you are) who dismiss fantasy writing as not worthy of attention. But even strong defenders of the fantasy genre will have to admit that Gaiman has created something far greater than a standard fantasy novel.

With American Gods, he has created both a new mythology and a vivid, heartbreaking human story.

As American Gods opens, Shadow has spent three years in prison, quietly serving his sentence, learning coin tricks to pass the time.

On the eve of his release, he receives the news that his wife has died in a car accident.

En route to her funeral, he repeatedly meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, a complete stranger who nonetheless seems to know him.

Shadow accepts a job offer from Mr. Wednesday, sealing the deal not with a contract but with three drinks and an oath.

As Shadow and Wednesday embark on a surreal road trip across America, the job description remains unclear, but the truth soon emerges: Mr. Wednesday is a participant in a war between the gods.

You see, in Neil Gaiman’s America, gods walk the earth with people.

As a time of crisis approaches, they divide along tribal lines.

In one side are the old gods, with familiar names like Odin, Anubis and Loki.

Brought to America from their Old World pantheons by immigrants, they are reduced, by diminishing belief, to shadows of their former grandeur.

On the other side are the new gods, the American gods, manifestations of contemporary belief and energy. Gods of Media, Money, Technology and Credit, riding in limousines, driving SUVs and Humvees, they are rich and powerful, imbued with strength by the ardour of their followers’ worship.

Gaiman is a visionary talent with both a rich imagination and an open- hearted sensitivity. The British writer, winner of the World Fantasy Award, first came to attention with the prize-winning comic book series The Sandman, an epic that told, in 75 monthly instalments, the story of Morpheus, Lord of Dreams.

Now collected in 10 beautiful trade paperback editions, The Sandman is a triumph of storytelling.

I consider it one of the greatest works of creative genius of the 20th century. Gaiman is also the co-author, with Terry Pratchett, of the hilarious cult classic Good Omens.

Neverwhere and Stardust, his two previous novels, were somewhat worrying to some of his longtime fans. While both were well worth reading, Gaiman seemed to have taken a step back from the sweeping audacity of The Sandman into urban fantasy and the pastoral, respectively.

Thankfully, that retreat does not continue with American Gods, which is a sprawling, diverse and impressive work, drawing skilfully on dozens of mythological traditions, dancing through history and geography with abandon.

Gaiman has a tremendous visual sense and is able to set a scene with minimal effort. And what scenes he sets! From the House on the Rock (home to the World’s Largest Carousel) and the centre of America (marked by a grungy motel where the gods meet) to a battlefield that bridges two realities and a small town where children disappear, he pulls out all the stops.

In his America, anything can happen, and the tawdriest of roadside attractions may conceal magic at its heart.

This sense of giddy sprawl and possibility, however, belies the tightly controlled nature of Gaiman’s storytelling, and the intimate, personal story at the novel’s heart.

American Gods is very much Shadow’s story.

Although much of his past (including his parentage and the crime he was serving time for) are shrouded in mystery, Gaiman brings him to vivid life.

As he struggles to deal with his wife’s death and the mysterious job to which he has sworn himself, his life becomes more complex and puzzling.

Each answer seems to lead to a greater mystery — until Shadow’s life reaches a crucial turning point that brings the personal and the mythic strands resolutely together.

From that turning point, American Gods unfolds with startling surprises. As each piece slips into place, most readers will shake their heads in amazement at Gaiman’s skill and audacity.

By drawing on the strongest of archetypal forces and rescuing the stories of gods and heroes from their dusty schoolbook prisons, Gaiman has created a contemporary mythology that resonates with emotional and symbolic truth.