Did the three norns, spinning our fates at the foot of Yggdrasil, ordain that I finally got around to reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods mere weeks before the television adaptation premiered? It had languished on my to-read list for years, but an unusual confluence of events–remembering the title after spotting another Gaiman novel on sale, a bout of bronchitis that left me listless on the couch in need of a good book, finding Gods in my Laddie’s now-shared Kindle library–led me to turn its pages. As it happened, I turned them obsessively. As with Neverwhere, Gaiman somehow manages to make an engrossing tale out of a relatively sparse plot. His imagination is so delightful and immersive, I can forgive the story’s lack of conventional structure and pacing.
American Gods follows an ex-con called Shadow who finds himself chauffeuring ancient pagan deities as they prepare for a final battle against the modern forces driving them to extinction. Re-imagining of ancient gods as contemporary characters is a brilliant notion. As a longtime student of mythology (my parents read me ancient myths as bedtime stories when I was a child, and they’ve fascinated me ever since) I appreciated that Gaiman included some lesser-known figures, such as a dualistic Slavic god and a Germanic fertility goddess. His inventive interpretations of such characters made me want to meet more of them, but only a few get more than a cameo appearance. I also enjoyed the personifications of today’s objects of worship–gadgets, media, and the like–and would have appreciated further exploration of that idea.
Meanwhile, the protagonist Shadow is amiable but a little blank. He doesn’t exhibit the strong personality traits and drives that usually make for an interesting character. In mitigation, Gaiman attempts to spin this as part of the hero’s journey to self-discovery, but it didn’t quite satisfy me. Shadow functions more as a game piece, moving readers through the world of the story without doing much to influence events. For the most part, this works: the modernized gods are by far the most interesting aspect of the tale.
The narrative itself reflects a road trip approach to storytelling, not so much a plot as a sequence of scenes meandering in a general direction. When we arrive, the destination turns out to be rather anticlimactic. A cross-pantheon battle for the soul of America should be mind-blowingly epic. But the promised “storm” turns out to be a passing rain shower, and Shadow is barely involved. Several minor points were never fully resolved–such as the extent of Shadow’s own powers or the nature of the “men in black”-style antagonists–even though the story continues past its logical endpoint in an effort to tie up loose ends.
Despite these criticisms, I barely put down the book until I finished it. Gaiman’s imagination is marvelous, even if his storycraft leaves me a little unsatisfied. Like many road trips, the joy of American Gods lies in the journey rather than the destination.