Although I’ve read most of the rest of his work, Neil Gaiman’s 2001 masterwork American Gods eluded me until now. When my library picked up the audiobook, with the excellent George Guidall providing narration, I figured it was time to give it a try. I’ve not been disappointed.
Gaiman is a great choice for readers who don’t normally tackle fantasy fiction. He generally writes standalone works, so a series commitment isn’t implied by picking up his books. He uses contemporary characters whose humor and relationship struggles will resonate even if the fantasy trappings don’t.
American Gods may be the best of his books, and that’s saying something. The book follows Shadow, a man beginning parole for his botched role in a crime. His return to the regular world is rocked by the sudden death of his wife and best friend and the entrance of the larger-than-life Mr. Wednesday, a strange man who persuades Shadow to take on work as a kind of bodyguard.
As often happens in Gaiman novels, Shadow soon finds himself plunged into a world of magic of which he wasn’t previously aware. He’s caught in the middle of a battle between old gods and new gods (the god of the Internet, the god of television, etc.) without a clear idea of which side, if any, is in the right.
The book takes readers on a tour around America, with some diversions as Gaiman stops to tell stories of how some of the old gods came to America with historical travelers. The funhouse humor that pervades the book makes each chapter a twisty joy. In some ways, the internecine squabbling of gods and competition for believers makes a surprisingly plausible explanation for the state of our modern world.
American Gods makes a great choice for book groups as the featured book, as part of an evening of reading Gaiman, or as part of a mythology theme. If you take on American Gods, ask each of your readers to research one or two of the gods or mythological figures who appear in the story. These include Odin, Loki, Balder, Czernobog, the Zorya, Anansi, Thoth, Anubis, Horus, Eostre, Kali, Ganesha, Wisakedjak, and Johnny Appleseed. For a full list, try this site.
If you enjoy American Gods, try Anansi Boys (which continues the story of one of the book’s characters, albeit with a different tone), Neverwhere, Stardust, The Graveyard Book, the Sandman graphic novels, or Gaiman’s hilarious collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens.