Saturday, 3 January 2009

Book Review: American Gods

[Warning: contains general descriptions, but hopefully no spoilers. Feel free to read.] As perhaps required in an urban fantasy, Neil Gaiman's American Gods is simultaneuously engaging and humourous, blending elements of epic fantasy and comedy in what is a self-consciously American novel. It is in many cases a road novel, as Gaiman claimed it would be in interviews, and as the genre of 'American novel' almost necessitates. However, it is far more than that, containing almost philosophical reminisces about life and love; the threat of epic battle and dispicable, surprising villians; hidden Harry Potter-esque magic in the modern world; enough sexy spirits and goddesses to amuse the imagination; and funny inside jokes and Munchausen references to keep it lively. Overall, I found it really enjoyable and engaging, though I was never sure what to expect.
The story revolves around a character named Shadow, who has recently been released from prison. All he wants to do is get back to his wife and live as quietly as possible from here on in, until he hears of her recent demise. On the plane to her funeral, he meets Mr. Wednesday, who seems to know far more about Shadow then is possible, and who offers Shadow employment. This begins a journey across the United States and human belief, as Shadow meets leprechauns, kobolds, dwarves, and the many gods and goddesses of old, and is drawn into the coming storm, into the war for the American heart.
There are, of course, drawbacks. As a friend of mine warned me before I read the book, there are some "what the f--- just happened?" sex scenes. The worst of them occurs right at the beginning of the book, but there are one or two odd ones following. There is also, for those of you who are concerned about this sort of thing, the obvious religious questions following the premises in this book. Put it another way, claiming that Jesus is real doesn't really placate the anti-Harry Potter/Da Vinci Code crowd too much when you also claim Odin is real and gods are created from human belief. As a religious studies major, I'm interested in the sorts of mechanisms Gaiman posits for the development of human religious belief, but that may not appeal too much to a less academically Christian (or Muslim, or Judaic) crowd. As I said, there are drawbacks. But if those two are the worst of them, it's not so bad.

My verdict: read it, if you have a taste for urban fantasy. It's funny but engaging, and if you're at all interested in mythology and religion, there's tons to keep you occupied. One of the best parts is trying to guess which characters are which mythological figures before the text makes it explicit.

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