American gods by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s books are generally light and fun and whimsical. There are elements of that here. His lead character, Shadow, is released from jail and quickly finds a job as the bodyguard of a confidence trickster called Mr Wednesday. Wednesday, initially at least, provides some of the wittiness I associate with this author’s works. The tone shifts darker toward the end of the novel and, strangely for a story that has a war between gods as its background, the pace of the plot slows down, and down, until it seizes up almost entirely. Indeed, it technically stops, at a false bottom in the story. This is deliberate on the authors part, and is an interesting pacing choice, and one that works, provided that you are in the right mindset when experiencing the novel.

The trick here is that American gods is not a fantasy novel about the good side triumphing over the evil side. It’s not a war novel: it’s about Shadow’s personal journey. If you go into the novel expecting Shadow to do what the average bruiser in a fantasy novel does, which is basically to pick a race of green-skinned people, declare them evil and go genocidal on them, well, this train doesn’t even go along that line, let alone arrive at that station. War between the almost forgotten gods and the coming gods of highway and fibre optic cable seems like a great setting, and we spend a tremendous amount of time meeting various old gods, and seeing Shadow beaten down or lured into service by new gods, so it seems the novel is winding up to a massive battle of lights and colour and CGI. It isn’t though, the author is getting the pieces in place for a folkloristic journey, not for a battle. As the reader, it’s good for you to know this, because for the first third or so of this mighty brick of a book, it looks like it could go either way.

I really hate those sorts of reviewers who say “Oh, this is good enough for most people, but I’m so steeped in culture that I saw everything the author was going to do.” So, I’m hesitant to write this next bit, but if you are a great fan of folklore, then the crucial bits of the story, where Shadow undergoes his greatest trial, will be very familiar to you.  There are some very clever beats in it, concerning a glass of water, the weight of a feather, and an elephant’s mouse (you’ll see what I mean when you get there), but the way the novel’s action is slowing at this point, creaking to what feels like a premature stop, the story might be more captivating, for someone who really likes their folklore, if the author played this less straight.

It’s a good novel, in the sense that it’s entertaining, the mysteries all have fair play clues, and the plot holds together. Perhaps because of the sheer length I’m not going charging into the sequel, but I’m sure I’ll read it later in the year.