American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was always sort of on my to be read list. I am not sure why. I picked it up sort of by osmosis, it was just in the air as a book that should be read. Of course, like millions of other books – including those in my own home – I never got around to reading it. But when Gaiman came out with his latest work, Anansi Boys, I thought it was high time I got up to date. Keep in mind that I came to this book without any preconceived notions about it and not having read any of his previous work.

American Gods is not an easy book to categorize. Gaiman weaves in aspects of fantasy, road-trip, epic quest, romance and mystery. There is an overarching plot line, with multiple twists and turns, and there are offshoots and side stories only tangentially related to the main plot.

For those of you who need it here is a brief recap. BTW, Warning Spoilers Ahead! American Gods tells the story of Shadow an ex-con who is let out of prison a few days early because his wife and best friend died in a car accident. In shock and adrift, he runs into a man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday but who is in fact the Norse god Odin. Mr. Wednesday hires Shadow to be a sort of bouncer/gofer. Shadow isn’t interested at first but finally succumbs and pledges his assistance. This entails a convoluted road trip across the country. It seems there is a storm brewing among the gods. Gods seem to have been brought here over the centuries by all of the immigrants and travelers. These gods then get stranded and weakened when these same people die out or quite believing in the gods and myths of their native people. Shadow helps Odin raise funds and prepare for an epic battle between the ancient gods and the new gods that are taking over America (things like the media, money, Internet, etc.)


For the most part this messy, convoluted, meandering story is entertaining and imaginative. It is a challenge to try to decipher all of the mythological gods that show up and fun to follow along as the road trip takes them around America. At times Gaiman is witty and playful at others he is artfully retelling the stories of ancient people; parts of the story explore America in all its weird and wacky glory while others look at the darker side of life. Sure it is big and messy, but that makes it interesting to explore.

That said, it didn’t really blow me away. It was as if the journey was interesting but I am not sure I would want to take the same trip again. Here are a few reasons why:

– I thought the book was too long and to unfocused in parts. All of the little vignettes about native beliefs and customs and how they found their way to America were interesting to a degree but distracting and pace killing. They were like well done commercial interruptions – enjoyable but something I could do without.

-Relatedly, the plot really drags in spots as Gaiman tries to weave all the threads together. Probably the most interesting thread, the Lakeside aspect, could have been a great book in itself but it gets bogged down in all the battle of the gods lead-up.

– While the main idea – that old gods get trapped here when faith in them dies – was somewhat thought provoking there were too many loose end. It just didn’t hold together for me. Why would these powerful creatures end up as lame American con men or drifters? And why America? Is the rest of the world bereft of forgotten gods? How can inanimate object or concepts like the internet or the media be gods in the same way that ancient mythological creatures can? Why would these things be in competition with gods that know one even believes in anymore? Why is there a clash? (Of course it turns out there isn’t a clash because the whole thing is a con, but still)

– As many of reviewers have pointed out, why is Shadow so passive? He just seems to get caught up in the sweep of things without ever really questioning what is happening or doing anything about it? Plus, next thing you know he is the cosmological hero with very little explanation. The whole hanging on a tree thing made little sense to me.

-Plus, what is with his dead wife chasing him around? That really doesn’t fit very well with the plot. What exactly was the coin Shadow tossed into her grave and what powers did it have? What is the point of her following him around? To point out that he is too passive so he will suddenly become the hero to resolve the conflict? It seems a little forced.

Okay, enough whining. I don’t want to make it sound like I hated it. Let’s face it, if you like quirky and tongue in cheek fantasy stories with a mythological element you will enjoy American Gods. It is enjoyable entertainment; good for a plan ride or for when you have large chunks of time on your hands. But ultimately its convoluted nature and lack of focus weighs it down. For me it was more of a “hmm that was interesting” than a “wow, that was a wild ride!”

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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3 Comments

  • I realize this is an old post AND my comment here isn’t in response to the review at all, save for the part where you mention the book isn’t easy to categorize. This was one of those random novels that, when I went to pick it up from the library, was not located where I thought it should be. I went to the science fiction/fantasy section – all the libraries in my area group them together – and it wasn’t there. I figured it was checked out, consulted the e-catalog so I could reserve a hold, and instead found that it was available but shelved in the standard fiction section. This struck me as odd, all his other novels were shelved in the science fiction/fantasy section. As you mentioned it contains many elements such as romance, mystery, and road trip… but it clearly contains a dark fantasy element that encompasses all those other elements. So why was it shelved as fiction, away from every other book he’s written? At the time I checked some of my other local libraries, thinking maybe it was just an error on their part, but most of them had shelved it the same way. One had it shelved in both sections which is somewhat legitimate, but I still found it pointlessly confusing, and this brings me to the point I’ve meaning to make. That is, this isn’t the first time I’ve run across something like this. Declare by Tim Powers was shelved as fiction. Sure it combines fantasy and alternate history in equal measure, so one might assume that since it had equal parts of multiple sub-genres it would be best to not put it in any, but there are dozens of other novels that focus more heavily (if not entirely) on alternate histories and they’re all shelved in science fiction/fantasy. Neal Stephenson (Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver, etc), Philip K. Dick (Man in the High Castle), Cherie Priest (Clockwork Century novels). Vonnegut is always found in general fiction as well. It seems that at some point authors whose novels clearly fall into the science fiction/fantasy sub-genre reach some level of esteem which grants them permission to grace the shelves of general fiction, and I can’t seem to see any clear rules on how that esteem is determined. It also seems like a slight on the sub-genre of science fiction/fantasy; only “legitimate” literature deserves the honorable classification of general fiction. I’ve been trying to figure out if maybe I’m missing a good reason these novels belong strictly in general fiction. Since most of these odd-balls received high critical acclaim I want to know why they aren’t shelved were they belong in my favorite sub-genre. There are other novels of high critical acclaim that don’t seem to get this prestigious generalization. So any comments or opinions you might have would be welcome, and since I can’t seem to locate any discussions or information regarding this I’d also appreciate links if you know any. Thanks in advance.

  • I realize this is an old post AND my comment here isn’t in response to the review at all, save for the part where you mention the book isn’t easy to categorize. This was one of those random novels that, when I went to pick it up from the library, was not located where I thought it should be. I went to the science fiction/fantasy section – all the libraries in my area group them together – and it wasn’t there. I figured it was checked out, consulted the e-catalog so I could reserve a hold, and instead found that it was available but shelved in the standard fiction section. This struck me as odd, all his other novels were shelved in the science fiction/fantasy section. As you mentioned it contains many elements such as romance, mystery, and road trip… but it clearly contains a dark fantasy element that encompasses all those other elements. So why was it shelved as fiction, away from every other book he’s written? At the time I checked some of my other local libraries, thinking maybe it was just an error on their part, but most of them had shelved it the same way. One had it shelved in both sections which is somewhat legitimate, but I still found it pointlessly confusing, and this brings me to the point I’ve meaning to make. That is, this isn’t the first time I’ve run across something like this. Declare by Tim Powers was shelved as fiction. Sure it combines fantasy and alternate history in equal measure, so one might assume that since it had equal parts of multiple sub-genres it would be best to not put it in any, but there are dozens of other novels that focus more heavily (if not entirely) on alternate histories and they’re all shelved in science fiction/fantasy. Neal Stephenson (Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver, etc), Philip K. Dick (Man in the High Castle), Cherie Priest (Clockwork Century novels). Vonnegut is always found in general fiction as well. It seems that at some point authors whose novels clearly fall into the science fiction/fantasy sub-genre reach some level of esteem which grants them permission to grace the shelves of general fiction, and I can’t seem to see any clear rules on how that esteem is determined. It also seems like a slight on the sub-genre of science fiction/fantasy; only “legitimate” literature deserves the honorable classification of general fiction. I’ve been trying to figure out if maybe I’m missing a good reason these novels belong strictly in general fiction. Since most of these odd-balls received high critical acclaim I want to know why they aren’t shelved were they belong in my favorite sub-genre. There are other novels of high critical acclaim that don’t seem to get this prestigious generalization. So any comments or opinions you might have would be welcome, and since I can’t seem to locate any discussions or information regarding this I’d also appreciate links if you know any. Thanks in advance.

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