Modern Myth for Grown-Ups: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

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Review by Rachel Mann

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is an evocatively written novel from a virtuosic writer with a huge imagination. It’s also a low-brow, action-hero, read-it-on-an-airplane page-turner.

Shadow, the protagonist, is a man of mysterious origins who is released from a stint in jail to find that his whole world has blown apart. He makes a deal he can’t refuse with the inexorably convincing con-man Wednesday, who turns out to be the Norse god Odin. The premise of the book is that gods of all nationalities and stripes are alive, though not necessarily well, across the USA. The gods were brought to the new world by generations of immigrants who believed in them. Now down-on-their-luck, as people have come to worship the “new gods”—i.e. the lords of high tech: televisions, blackberries, and the internet—these old-world deities have become drifters, prostitutes, and thugs. Shadow finds himself at the apex of a burgeoning crisis, as a war between the old gods and the new threatens.

Gaiman colorfully draws the characters, and writes terrific dialogue. This is an action novel with magic in it, but it is also a folktale for adults. Today, outside of university classics departments, the ancient myths have become entertainment for school children, who devour stories of gods with magical powers. But many of the ancient gods had characteristics and compulsions unfit for young kids.  Though Gaiman is perhaps most known for his fantasy books for children, such as The Graveyard Book and Coraline, I found the adult-only aspects of this novel the most entertaining part. There is something supremely amusing about the gods engaging in bad behavior: imbibing, seducing, and destroying, with divine finesse.

Btw, the novel is being developed into a television series by HBO, which is sure to be exciting (ala “Game of Thrones”). Read it first!

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