Review of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
There are no spoilers in this review.
I'd heard of Neil Gaiman before but had never read anything by him before. What I'd heard was fairly limited; he did something along the lines of dark fantasy, and the people I had talked to about him seemed to either love him or not really care for him. I also knew that he'd recently been on the TV show Big Bang Theory, which elevated my expectations for this book a bit since that show generally gets pretty big-name nerds, er, guest stars. But for the most part I went into listening to the Audible version of this book largely not knowing what to expect.
What I got was one of the best books I've ever read.
The writing in this book was simply fantastic. The bar for the kind of writing I admire had previously come from people like Hugh Howey (Wool) and Justin Cronin (The Passage). Now, however, another tier has been revealed, courtesy of Mr. Gaiman.
The plot, while not the page-turner that another recent favorite of mine (Mistborn) was, was still very engaging. A mysterious character named Shadow gets out of prison after three years, only to find the life he expected to resume with his wife on the outside completely turned upside down. He falls in with a strange man named Wednesday, who seems to know as much or more about Shadow as Shadow knows about himself. Shadow goes on a series of adventures with Wednesday, and encounters a number of strange and interesting characters.
Gaiman excels at character development. Several of the ones in this book appeared in vignettes that were only tangentially related to the main story, but which did a wonderful job of establishing the overall tone of the book. In fact, a few of the vignettes had some of the most compelling, memorable writing in the book. I'll definitely be referring back to American Gods when I tackle writing my first short story (which I plan on doing soon). Within two or three pages I found myself caring deeply about the characters and what was going to happen to them next. The pacing was just right, unhurried but never too slow.
What I found most amazing about this book was how deftly Mr. Gaiman captured the essence of the things that go into making up the miasmic concoction that is America. The breadth and depth of the knowledge he demonstrated regarding all things "Americana," from its roadside attractions in the middle of nowhere to its idyllic small towns with a much darker history than its inhabitants care to acknowledge, were profound and moving. It's all the more impressive given he's a British national who'd been living in the U.S. only a few years before American Gods was published in 2001. Apparently, Mr. Gaiman took a rather circuitous route to finding success as a novelist. He started out first as a reporter and then, after discovering Alan Moore's work, dove head-first into graphic novels. He authored the very successful Sandman series, which won him the World Fantasy award, so apparently there are not too genre fiction awards left for him to win at this point.
I do have one caveat, namely that people who don't care for what I'll call "kinky sex" should probably pass on this book. Calling it kinky isn't quite right, however. A word like "phantasmagorical" would probably be more apt. In fact, there was a scene near the beginning that was so weird and off-putting for me that I almost gave up on the book. Fortunately, I persevered, and that particular scene turned out to be by far the weirdest one. It also came to make more sense later on once some additional context had been added.
The only negative I have to mention, and it is a mild one, was with the ending, which for me was a bit of a letdown. For some reason, I expected a slam-bam big action finale, but that turned out not to be the case. But it was still a satisfying conclusion, and far better than most books I've read with writing this good.
I learned after the fact that American Gods, which came out in 2001, won not only the Hugo and Nebula science fiction awards, but also the Locus award for fantasy and the Bram Stoker award for horror. This cross-genre acclaim reflects what I felt while listening to it, namely that it was a textbook example of why the term "speculative fiction" was developed. It's a book that goes outside the bounds of reality but doesn't fit cleanly into any of the standard genres for books of that type. So it makes perfect sense that it won a whole mess of different awards. It should have been considered for whatever the big award for historical fiction is, if it wasn't, because several of the vignettes had fascinating and what seemed to me to be accurate portrayals of life at various points in history, from the dawn of agriculture to modern-day America.
Another big part of what made this book so enjoyable was the spectacular narration by George Guidall. I have only two other audiobooks to compare it against, but even from this tiny sample size I'd have no trouble believing it—his work blew the other two away. It was like being thrown without warning into a show on Broadway when all you'd heard up until that moment were high school musicals. After I finished it, I felt sad and empty for the next week on my morning commute, and I realized how much I'd looked forward to hearing the next quarter-chapter each time I got in the car.
When I read up about him afterward, I learned Mr. Guidall is considered by some to be the king of audiobooks, having narrated over 1,300 of them! I went ahead and ordered Mr. Guidall's version of Don Quixote for my dad's birthday; we'll see if he thinks as much of Mr. Guidall's work as I did.
I'll definitely be reading some more of Mr. Gaiman's novels in the future, with Neverwhere sounding the most interesting at the moment. In the meantime, I highly recommend this story.
Science fiction writer