Monday, 18 February 2008

Review - American Gods

‘American Gods’ by Neil Gaiman is one of those quintessential Americana books in the same vein as anything Stephen King writes. Odd that such a vivid portrayal of the States could come from an Englishman. At times it seems that the purpose of the novel is to let you experience America complete with regional idiosyncrasies, road-side rest-stops, long stretching desert vistas and temperate forest suburbs, and all that ‘apple-pie and independence’ stuff we foreigners are told about the Colonies. As you can tell from the title it’s a story about America; the land, the people, the places. And whether you find the book’s conclusions good or bad, it’s worth the journey.

‘American Gods’ tells the story of the things people believe in and when conflict arises between dying factions; when the new gods of technology face the old gods of superstition and religion. The glorious thing about the book is the way it tells little stories in with the big stories: it’s a trick I love and only a few authors do it (‘Lost’ season one did it but that tendency has unfortunately waned as the show has progressed). Throughout the main narrative there are peppered short stories or vignettes, only tangentially related to the main plot. Characters will just burst into story sometimes like an old man around a campfire and generally they’re very rewarding. All that said, a little more elaboration on the new gods and their motivations would have been nice. However you can tell that Gaiman was really more interested in the ancient mythological elements.

The amount of research Neil Gaiman must have done for this is greatly apparent. It was only after I visited Wikipedia and looked down the list of mythological creatures included in the book that I began to realise how dense the story is and how perfectly well-formed with awe and respect for the original stories. Being a big fan of ancient mythological tales, I spent ages just reading the Wikipedia entries on some of the deities and monsters. The borrowing of mythological elements from Ancient Egyptian, Norse, Far Eastern, and European cultures is wonderfully subtle and brilliant for anyone who cares to check it all out.

The book won awards straddling all the genres of what George R. R. Martin calls ‘weird stuff’: the Bram Stoker award for horror, the Nebula, Hugo, and SFX awards for science-fiction, and the Locus award for fantasy. Rightly so because it is frankly brilliant. There’s a certain intangible qualia behind it making it one of those rare books that hums with literary life and narrative power. It’s like a tale you’ve been told a thousand times before that you’re hearing for the first time. It recognises its job as a story to convey, to entertain, to point the way, and to revel in the ancient art of story-telling. It’s fun, deep, dense, heart-wrenching, and wonderfully weird.

Coincidentally enough, ‘American Gods’ is soon to be made free on the internet for a limited time in honour of Gaiman’s blog’s 7th birthday. If you don’t mind reading off a screen that is a must to check out. If you’d rather get the full experience of holding printed page in your hands, that strikes me as the way the novel is meant to be read.

I also managed to dig a book out from my shelves which contained Gaiman’s sequel novella ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ which managed to convey the feel of Scotland as well as ‘American Gods’ gave the raw feeling of America.

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