by Neil Gaiman
As the tale within admits, the title on the cover of this book is a contradiction. Gods, this present-day quest-myth tells us, do not grow robustly in American soil. The beliefs indigenous to this continent may have had more-or-less impersonal creators lurking behind the scenery, but folklore heroes and the nymphlike spirits of animals and plants sufficed for most day-to-day purposes. So when people started to arrive from Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia, the gods they brought with them had to get by in a pluralistic landscape, crowded with other transplanted deities, all jostling to nourish themselves on the meager faith of a dwindling number of believers. Inhospitable soil indeed!
And now it is the present day, and a new pantheon has at last begun to push out the old gods. Media, technology, and similar idols are on the way up as gods from ancient Egypt, Africa, India, and China come down. And as if that isn't happening fast enough on its own, a war is brewing between the old gods and the new. Stuck in the middle of it all, by virtue of his job as the Norse god Odin's personal assistant, is a gentle giant named Shadow. Hired fresh out of prison as he travels to his wife's funeral, Shadow grows from being a complete skeptic to playing a pivotal role in the fate of beings as old as they are strange. He makes friends with an ill-fated leprechaun, wagers his life on a game of checkers, solves a serial killer case that has been going on for over a century, encounters the walking dead, fools around with a shape-changing goddess, works for a spell in the oldest continually-operating independent mortuary in world history, teaches himself some really awesome coin tricks, and rises from the dead. And he goes through it all with a wonderful attitude of not being surprised by anything, because after the first thing he experiences in this story, nothing is impossible.
This is one of the most serious and mature-themed books I have seen under Neil Gaiman's authorship. And I only partly mean that in the sense of the "adult content advisory" which it most definitely deserves. There are some extremely graphic, even disturbing sex scenes in this book, of a nature in keeping with its overall theme of America as a melting pot of gods of all nationalities, shapes, sizes, and character-types, stirred up together in a crazy, numinous potpourri. But there are is also a lot of death and dismemberment, torture, slavery, decomposing bodies, arcs of arterial blood squirting all over the place, and other gruesome manifestations of fate, sacrifice, and polymythic conflict. There are wonderful fantasyscapes depicting dimensions too weird to imagine, mixed in among scenes of desperate normalcy in a small, sheltered Wisconsin town.
Partly because it is longer than most of Gaiman's books, and partly because his writing style does not sparkle with quite its usual consistency of endlessly effervescent wit, American Gods seems to sit heavier on one's hands, heart, and mind. But as a well-researched traveler's guide to the faiths imported to the U.S., combined with a brilliantly imaginative thriller about war games with cosmic stakes, the tone might be just about right.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 16+
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