by Neil Gaiman
2002 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
2002 Nebula Winner for Best Novel
If there's three things that Neil Gaiman likes in his stories it's reworking old myths and legends, divine beings dealing with modern times, and the nature of stories. He keeps coming back to them over and over again and for his first original full length novel he hit all of them.
Shadow is released from prison just in time to attend his wife's funeral. On the trip home he meets a mysterious Mr. Wednesday who wishes to hire him to accompany Wednesday on a trip around America. On this trip Wednesday attempts to recruit various gods of old pantheons for a final showdown against the embodiments of what modern Americans revere (technology, the media, and so on). Conspiracies abound as Shadow works with Wednesday to locate these old gods and convince them to join the battle.
Gaiman attempts to build to some mystery and suspense around the characters though if you've read any of his major writings in the past or have a general knowledge of mythology then the plot becomes pretty transparent. One character is even given a name that is phonetically identical to his mythological name but is printed differently as part of this deception; an annoying intrusion of prose into the novel's reality.
On that prose I do enjoy Gaiman's style quite a bit. He portrays the mythical in a matter-of-fact way that is being imitated quite a bit with less success by other authors of the magical realist style. Gaiman's unexplained little touches are typically well rooted in real-world lore and at the same time fit smoothly into the narrative so when he throws out a passing mention of a minor detail of a religious practice it feels natural in the text rather than just the author showing off.
The novel falls into a pattern of Shadow goes somewhere and meets a mythological being dealing with modern life. They chat for a bit about their history and then Shadow goes on to the next one. Occasionally it is broken up with Shadow running into a quirky character in a small town. If you've ever seen a road trip movie all of it will seem very familiar to you except this time there's mythology thrown in.
And that's the biggest problem with American Gods: it's been done. Strip the mythology and it's a not very special road trip book. With the mythological themes, Gaiman's already done it in his first major work Sandman. It makes the whole thing rather predictable.
However, if you're not really familiar with those themes then American Gods can seem to be an impressive book. It is the only Hugo winner that my mother has read and she didn't even hear about the book from me. My mother approves of the book, and really do you need a better endorsement than that?