Review: AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman

⭐ ⭐

This is the second Neil Gaiman book I’ve read now and honestly, at this point I’m starting to wonder what all the fuss is about.

Don’t get me wrong, AMERICAN GODS is fine. It had enough of the stuff I like to keep me reading and Gaiman is a good enough writer as far as prose is concerned; it just didn’t excite me or have me clamouring for more.

So AMERICAN GODS tells the story of Shadow, an ex-convict whose wife dies in a car crash just days before his release from prison. He meets the mysterious Mr Wednesday on the plane home and agrees to work for him doing some pretty shady shit, travelling across America while Wednesday attempts to rally some intriguing characters to support him in a looming war between the Old Gods and the New Gods.

Sounds exciting! A celestial Battle Royale? Sign me up!

And yeah, the first 50 pages had me convinced I was in for a treat. It set up an intriguing premise and compelling, conflict-ridden relationships that promised to deliver a punch. Unfortunately that’s where the consistency of the narrative ended. The rest of the story just didn’t quite live up to the expectations set by the beginning.

My biggest gripe is the inconsistency of the characterisation. After a promising start, Shadow turns out be to be a lacklustre protagonist. He’s passive, he’s incurious and I feel like Gaiman was more interested in developing the personalities of the gods (or some of them at least), so ended up grafting a mediocre talent for coin tricks onto his main character and hoping it passed for a personality. Frankly, I just found him a bit dull.

Some of the Old Gods are interesting. I thought Wednesday was a compelling character. He has goals, he pursues them, he complicates things and makes plot happen through his actions. He’s distasteful at times, but at least that makes him interesting. Czernobog too has a personal magnetism that jumps off the page, as do a few others we meet along the way. Others however, are just woefully undeveloped. I’m thinking mainly of the New Gods. We get a few kick-the-cat types of scenes with some of them and from that point on we’re expected to characterise them as villains with little more character development. They mostly felt a bit two dimensional and I was never convinced by them.

In the intro to the 10th anniversary edition, Gaiman says he persuaded the publisher to reinstate about 12,000 extra words that they trimmed from the original version.

And it really shows.

There’s plenty of long books that justify their word count but AMERICAN GODS isn’t one of them. There were several occasions where my mind wandered while Shadow plodded around not doing very much. It’s just too long.

That’s partly due to the numerous sidetracks and vignettes that take us away from the main plot every few chapters. These bothered me a bit because most of the time we’re reading in a pretty personal third person perspective with Shadow as the POV and then BAM! we’re hurled somewhere totally unrelated being introduced to new characters and situations.

It never quite landed for me but I gave these scenes the benefit of the doubt, expecting they would all tie together eventually…except they never did. I got to the end of the book and was left wondering what purpose they served. Which is a shame because some of these vignettes were actually very good and seem like they’d have worked well as standalone shorts, but in this context they needed to be incorporated into the narrative in a way that wasn’t so jarring.

Clearly your mileage may vary given how beloved Gaiman is among his legions of adoring fans, but this book just didn’t do it for me. The prose was generally good and there were enough interesting scenes and ideas for me to come away thinking it wasn’t a total waste of time, but I’m not sure I’ll be reading any more Gaiman.

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