If you take Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods and combine it with Scott Snyder’s American Vampire, Vol. 1, you’d have a pretty close approximation of what this book is about. Given that this book has been out since 2001, I’m not going to bother with marking spoilers. I’ll say here at the top that I really enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone who enjoys mythology. Also, not for the faint of heart – lots of profanity, violence, and explicit sex.
I’m glad that, earlier this year, I read Don’t Know Much About Mythology: Everything You Need to Know About the Greatest Stories in Human History but Never Learned because the gods in this book are not the Greco-Roman gods that everyone knows. What I found most interesting about the book is that the title’s actually quite misleading. Then again – now that I think about it, given the plot, that works QUITE WELL. In short, the book’s about the gods that were brought over to America through migration vs our new gods – TV, money, Internet, etc. But the focus is on the old-world gods. In a way it’s not THAT misleading because the gods here are a duplicate of the old world gods – there’s an American Odin and a Norse Odin. Given that American Odin is a grifter, the slightly misleading title works.
I see that American Gods is being made into a TV show and that’s quite wonderful because I think it would make a horrible movie. Gaiman wanders around with the plot – sometimes taking a break to show us how the gods came – including (my favorite one) the first humans to cross the Bering Strait. There are also a few sections where the plot isn’t advanced but we learn more about the gods in America and Shadow grows and evolves as a person. Given that the book was about 450 pages on my ereader, nearly all of that would have to get cut even if they did a three hour movie. I think a TV show’s 20 hour season will give it a lot more breathing room. Wikipedia says it will be on Starz which hopefully means they won’t remove too much of the Rated R-ness of the story.
As I mentioned at the start, this book shares the central conceit of Small Gods (and I’m sure other fiction I haven’t read) in that a god’s power is relative to belief in him or her. I’d always loved this plot idea because it’s not too far from the truth whether or not you believe that gods actually exist, they do have power over people that’s directly proportional to the amount of people that believe. In a way, Nationalism had to rise out of the Enlightenment because without religion, how else could you rally people to do things they don’t want to do – like wage war on others. Where Gaiman diverged from Pratchett and made things quite interesting is that the gods with little belief don’t fade away, they just have to become mostly normal humans. They hold jobs, they collect pension, and those around them don’t realize they are interacting with gods.
I think it’s rather interesting that Gaiman feeds us Shadow’s past in slow drips that constantly change the reader’s opinion of him and Laura. In fact, Laura’s treachery magnifies as you find out it’s her fault he’s even in jail. So it’s not as though the “you were in jail and I needed a lay” excuse even makes sense. Also, at times I thought Shadow seemed a bit out of character until it was revealed that he was a nerd until he had a growth spurt and then just played into the jock character that others seemed to impose on him.
There are so many themes to tackle in this book and I just don’t have the energy to tackle them, but I’ll be busy for too long and won’t have time to write more when I have the energy. I have to say that the many layers of deception – right through to the final mystery of the missing kids – were quite mentally stimulating and added an extra dimension to the god vs god conflict.
There’s a reason people often mention this as a Neil Gaiman book that must be read. Do it.