In some sense, American Gods is Neil Gaiman’s equivalent of The Stand. But I generally like Gaiman better than King, so the book works. It really works.
Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Rating (of 5): ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Year published: 2001
The book begins with the main character — known as Shadow — anticipating his release from prison. Days before the big date, though, he finds out his wife has died and the prison releases him early to attend her funeral. En route, he meets a strange man in a suit who introduces himself as Wednesday and offers Shadow a job.
While the readers soon realize that Wednesday is a god, it takes Shadow a little while to catch on. He, understandably, has a hard time figuring out whether he himself is delusional or whether Wednesday is bat-shit crazy. It soon becomes clear, though, that Wednesday, while possibly crazy, is truly a god and he is gearing up for a war. On one side are the Old Gods — gods like Odin and Thoth and Anansi and even Johnny Appleseed — who settled in the New World when immigrants came to America, bringing their beliefs with them in their minds. The beliefs weren’t just beliefs, though; they manifested themselves in a corporeal form becoming a strange bunch of misfits with a smattering of godly powers. Now, though, the Old Gods are losing ground to the New Gods — Media, Technology, and their black hat minions. Shadow, you see, has been released from prison just in time to witness a showdown between the gods. Will it be Armageddon? Will the non-believers of modern America simply fail to notice anything amiss? Or is this great war not quite what it seems?
Perhaps the most amusing and fascinating aspect of the book is the characters themselves. Almost every god you’ve ever heard of is personified somewhere in the vast pantheon of this novel’s cast. Here are descriptions of some of the key players:
Czernobog — a chain-smoking old man who likes playing checkers where the stakes are life or death. He also happens to be the Slavic god of death and darkness.
Horus — A semi-insane man who can shapeshift between human and hawk form. In mythology, Horus was an Egyptian hawk god. Because the character Horus spends most of his time in hawk form eating road kill, the other gods consider him a little batty — a belief which seems somewhat supported by his oddly hawk-like mannerisms when appearing in human form.
Mad Sweeney — a hard-drinking Irish man with a foul mouth and proclivity for fighting as well as for producing coins from thin air. Not surprisingly, he’s a leprechaun.
Mr. Jacquel — Mr. Jacquel is actually Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead. Fittingly, he works at a funeral home. Disturbingly, he contemplatively chews on slices of internal organs while preparing recently deceased for wakes. Because Mr. Jacquel’s true form is as a jackal, though, he’d be understandably prone to eating carrion.
Laura — Shadow’s wife who won’t die. She not a deity, but — probably because Shadow gave her a special coin from a leprechaun — she won’t die properly. After what is ostensibly her death, her body continues decaying as if she is dead like anyone else … but she keeps walking around and conducting life as normal. She even gets a minimum wage job at one point (but is ultimately fired because her “condition” unnerves the customers).
Mr. Nancy — A likeable but painfully blunt man often described as wearing yellow gloves. His chosen human name hints at the fact that he is the god Anansi, an African spider-god.
Technical boy — a chunky, pimpled kid who is one of the new gods — the god of the internet.
Unknown god — There is one character who everyone forgets as soon as they see him. They forget everything he says and can’t describe his appearance even when looking at him. The author never reveals who this god is meant to be, but we know that he’s one of the old gods.
Wednesday — A trickster with one glass eye and reddish-gray hair, usually found wearing a suit of some kind and always wearing a silver tree-shaped tie-pin. Wednesday is the Norse god Odin; his chosen name comes from the fact that the word Wednesday — or Woden’s Day — is named in honor of Odin.
Zorya sisters — three mysterious and strange sisters who are fortune tellers. The fact that they each have bizarre out-of-sync sleep schedules is somewhat explained when we discover that they are Slavic goddesses of the morning, evening, and midnight stars.
The characters are simply magical, but for some reason it took me a surprisingly long time to get into this book. The stand-off between good and evil is somewhat reminiscent of a Gaimain-esque version of The Stand. For some time, there have been rumors about the possibility of a TV series. At one point, word was that HBO was developing a 6-season series, although in November 2013 Gaiman said the series would no longer be with HBO. I’d love to see this on TV. Even with some pretty significant changes, I’d still be intrigued to watch it. I’d really love to see the characters come to life.