American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

Eight stars

Always willing to try something new, I turned to this cult classic by Neil Gaiman. I chose to read what is called the ‘author preferred’ edition, actually going so far as to take the audio route, which offers a full cast of narrators. Gaiman explains in an introduction that this edition is the longer and more detailed version that mixes the first published draft with one that he felt was best before the editorial cuttings required by the publisher. What’s left is surely an epic ride that takes readers on an adventure like no other. While I may not have picked it up on my own, I am pleased that I agreed to read it. I have my book club of three to thank for it.

Shadow Moon is a convicted felon who has almost served his time. The warden calls him to his office to explain that there’s been a car accident. Shadow’s wife and best friend have both died and he’s being released a few days early so that he can travel to put the affairs in order. While Shadow is thankful, he cannot yet process the news and departs in a quasi-haze.

After a series of odd events, Shadow finds himself sitting in first-class on an airplane next to a man who seems to know a lot about him. That man calls himself Mr, Wednesday, but admits it’s not his real name. After a little bantering, Shadow is offered work by Wednesday. He declines and hopes that when they part in Chicago, this will be the last they see of one another.

Shadow finds himself travelling along a dusty road, unsure what to do next. He stops in at a roadside tavern and sees Wednesday is there with some friends. After much convincing and losing a coin toss, Shadow agrees to work for Mr. Wednesday. To celebrate, Shadow’s offered an odd drink that is apparently something usually reserved for the gods. While it does not taste good at all, it seems to seal the deal with Wednesday and makes everyone happy.

Shadow soon learns that he is to be a jack of all trades for Wednesday, doing whatever needs doing and asking no questions. Wednesday makes it clear that he will ensure everyone is safe and no laws are broken, but Shadow must follow the path laid out for him. Shadow is not one for vagueness, but does not see the harm and agrees to the terms. It soon becomes apparent that Wednesday runs cons and gets people to do what he wants, His style is such that no one is the wiser and this seems to work well for Wednesday. Shadow takes some mental notes, unsure how long the partnership will last, but still intrigued.

A chance encounter with an odd Irishman leaves Shadow feeling slightly perplexed. The man, Mad Sweeney, purports to be a friend of Wednesday’s but is also quite independent minded. Shadow receives a gold coin and is shown an odd trick that appears almost magical. Sweeney offers the coin to Shadow, who thanks him. At the grave, Shadow offers it up and tosses the coin alongside his wife, hoping it will bring her some luck in the afterlife. If he only knew!

Shadow is visited by his wife that night, somehow risen from the dead through the power of that coin. It is then that Shadow realises that Wednesday is actually the reincarnation of the Norse god, Odin, which leads to the appearance of other ‘washed up’ gods. They all bemoan the same thing, that the world has turned its eyes from the true gods, choosing instead to focus on technology and shiny baubles. This symbolism reappears throughout the story, as things take more turns for Shadow and those he encounters.

Shadow is soon kidnapped by two men acting on behalf of these New Gods. He’s rescued by his wife, who murders them as they sleep. Shadow is sure to be blamed for the killings, though he is careful not to leave any evidence that could be tied to him. Still, things are getting more and more complicated for Shadow, forcing him to wonder if this is all a dream or some altered state of reality. Shadow continues to follow the path laid out for him by Wednesday, settling for a time in Michigan, but always ready to be sent out on missions at the drop of a hat. The New Gods try numerous times again to lure Shadow to their side, promising him riches and excitement. Shadow continues to refuse, but does appear curious as to what might wait for him on the other side.

Through a series of events and happenings, Shadow learns that there is to be a battle between the New and Old Gods, the winner of which will be able to claim control over humanity. Shadow is to be a bystander, but has strong visions about what is to come and how he fits into everything. Shadow sees his place in the world and tries to ensure he does not tip the scale, while the War of the Gods takes place before him. The end result is sure to baffle many, but it will require the reader to take the plunge for themselves.

This was certainly not the type of book I would usually see myself reading, though I can admit that I thoroughly enjoyed it. There was a great deal going on throughout, which left me needing to pace myself, but the end result proved to be a well-crafted piece that opened my mind to many aspects of life I had not previously considered. With a handful of vignettes sandwiched between the chapters, the reader is treated to some additional subplots about America and how those who came saw it through their own eyes.

Shadow Moon would be the presumptive protagonist of this piece. He proves to do a stellar job at this, always evolving and developing as he makes his way through the piece. There is a great deal for the reader to learn about Shadow, from his compassionate ways through to his love of coin tricks. A man with little to call his own, Shadow comes into his own while trying to reveal his place in the world. Much of what he says and does makes him appear docile, but there is certainly a mean streak within him, one that makes itself known on occasion.

There are so many wonderful supporting charadfcters throughout this piece, it is hard to name a favourite. I thoroughly enjoyed some of the darker depictions that Gaiman creates, offering up villains when they were needed, but constrasting them with some light-hearted and more innocent folks at other times in the story. I felt a connection to many of them, on one level or another, but also enjoyed wartching them develop on their own. Each brought something impoirtant to the story without distracting from some of the larger themes or plots. I was eager to see how many of them blended together, keeping the story moving and on point.

Neil Gaiman’s writing style is quite unique. It cobbles together a mixture of many forms, keeping the reader on their toes and never knowing what is to come. I enjoyed the meandering style of writing, as the story progressed, which left the door open for a great deal of interpretation. The banter and character dialogue was quite well done and left me wanting more as I never knew what was about to happen or how the interactions would influence the larger story. Long and detailed chapters left the story trudging along, while forcing the reader to stick it out and see how things would resolve themselves. Oddly enough, I did not want things to end, preferring to see where things were headed next and trying to guess what to expect in the next plot twist. I’d read another Gaiman novel for sure, though I may need some time to get myself ready for such an epic journey!

Kudos, Mr. Gaiman, for such a wonderful piece of writing. There was so much in here about which I need to reflect!

This book fulfils the November 2020 requirement of the Mind the Bookshelf Gap Reading Challenge.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: