American Gods is a novel unlike any other I’ve read. It represents the core of storytelling that has been mostly lost to the mass-media, serial novelists and popular culture. Author Neil Gaiman has been called the best storyteller of our time, and for good reason; his epic tale spans the entirety of the Midwest United States with over 20 locales and dozens of supporting characters. At the centre of the book is the premise that gods exist in a human form wherever there are believers, and the more people worship, the more powerful the god.
With the traditional, “old” gods come new gods of media, internet and drugs. However, the old gods and the new gods are in conflict for the beliefs and worship of the people, making American Gods a mythological battle royale set in the modern Midwest.
Shadow has all the makings of a classic hero: unaware of his lineage and befallen by tragedy, he undergoes an epic journey to save a society and to discover himself.
This may sound assuredly lackluster, but Gaiman’s creativity and genius premise captivates the reader far more than the traditional character profile can take away from it. In fact, it is a great testimony to Gaiman’s skill that he can take a classic hero and a classic travelogue and make it an engaging read with his original plot and premise.
In his journey, Shadow meets a multitude of gods, many of them harmed by the effects of being largely forgotten. Gaiman has included gods from a wide variety of pantheons as secondary characters, each with a personality similar to the original gods, but their glory corroded by the damage of American society. While these characters develop the plot, the reader does not require a great understanding of their corresponding myths to do so. However, knowledge in this area will lead to a better understanding and a consequently more engaging read.
Gaiman also employs shock and surprise in the text which attracts the readers attention. Often, these passages are found in short interludes titled “Somewhere in America” or “Coming to America,” and are of a sexual or violent nature. Though not directly related to the plot, these scenes offer respite and contribute to the understanding of the theme. Other instances of surprise come with major events in the plot. These instances of surprise are sometimes so unexpected that the reader may have to read the passage several times to absorb the information. However, such scenes are not the only things that keep the reader captivated.
What separates Gaiman’s tale from ordinary fantasy novels is how well the reader can relate to the events in the novel. American Gods is not set in some fictional land with hobbits and dragons, but in our modern worlds with the beliefs from the ancient pantheons of history. Gaiman’s theme is clear: the destruction of old belief systems in current society and the new fascination with mass media and technology. Gaiman argues that the new gods are slowly killed off by the new gods and allegory for the replacement of traditional values by modern trends.
Another element of Gaiman’s unique style of storytelling is his character development. Shadow is initially described as a “big, solid, man-shaped hole in the world,” which is an accurate description of his initial state. For the most part, the narration follows him, and his experiences have the most impact on the reader. The reader’s interest is first piqued after the death of Shadow’s wife, Laura, just days before his scheduled release from prison. The shock of this causes him to go numb, awkwardly following Wednesday after getting recruited. His role in the war between the gods seems almost irrelevant at the beginning of the story, but slowly, the reader realizes that Shadow will play a big part. The reader also sees aspects of Shadow’s character, notably his honorability, though Shadow’s actions, alone and with Wednesday. However, Gaiman drops subtle hints at a far more intimate relationship between Shadow and his employer revealed in Gaiman’s most ingenious plot twist of all.
Gaiman has not only come up with a brilliant plot, he has also executed it in a laudable manner. While other storytellers are overly blunt with describing key events and others are too vague, Gaiman strikes a balance between being engaging and having a plot the reader can comprehend. Being engaging is to let the reader figure things out, being comprehensible is to tell the reader key the details. Being both is imaginably difficult, but Gaiman manages to strike a balance. Gaiman includes various hints about important plot events throughout the book for readers to figure things out should they choose. However, these details are revealed more explicitly later for all readers to get a good idea of the plot. Particularly noteworthy is figuring out the identities of the god’s characters. Readers can choose to treat the secondary gods as simple characters, or they can figure out their true identities based on their often-changed names and personalities. Though this and his foreshadowing, Gaiman offers something to all types of readers, those simply interested in a good story, or those looking for a deeper experience.
All these characteristics of his work make Gaiman a master storyteller. His fundamentals of a good story are solid; he’s come up with a genius premise, and an unpredictable plot to go with it. Unlike some other fantasy novels, his characters are well developed and far from flat, and he’s adapted the genre to our modern world. While many novels of this genre are written only to provide an interesting story, American Gods does this but add far more. In a way, how Gaiman wrote the novel can be related to the theme of the novel itself. We as a society are so obsessed with quick entertainment that our books have become hollow plots designed to appeal to our raw senses of action and romance. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is very deliberate and offers the rich theme and character development lost by the serial novelists of the contemporary era. The value of the book lies here, and is the basis for recommendation.