Monday, August 20, 2012

Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

 Over the centuries, gods have come to America. From the Norse with Viking explorers, from West Africa with the Slave trade, from the British Isles with immigrants, from Eastern Europe and India and a thousand other places and – of course, from the Native Americans themselves. Gods have arisen, sustained by belief, worship and sacrifice, and they have fallen. Fallen as they lost belief and fallen still further as their very names are forgotten.

But Wednesday is not putting up with falling into obscurity, nor is he allowing the new gods of media and technology to easily brush him and his fellows aside. Employing Shadow, a newly released convict just trying to put his life together after serving his time, Wednesday is determined to rally the old gods lurking in the shadowy corners of the US into a force to fight back.

But it’s not all easy – the new gods are fighting against obsolescence themselves in a country that doesn’t welcome deities – and they’ll kill if they have to. And then there’s Shadow’s ex-wife. Ex because she’s dead, not because he divorced her, who is still hanging around. And, as Shadow plunges deeper into this world of gods and Ifrit and leprechauns, as he learns more about how the world really is, he also finds that Wednesday is far more cunning than he expected.

This is perhaps the most original concept I’ve come across in a long time. The different deities of all kinds, fighting for survival, fighting against new interlopers and even the way deities have had to learn and adapt over the years to integrate into human society. I loved the style of this book, the slow reveal as more and more elements are added to the whole, the slow revelation of what is happening and the powerful depth the world was given. At every turn new layers are added to the world, extra facets and extra depth. All the different ways the old gods reached the US, all the different ways they were worshipped and sacrificed to and how they ultimately ended up as gods in the US. It was a really well built, slowly developed world.

I also had – as a great lover of mythology – lots of fun picking out the gods and recognising them before it became clear who was what. It was fun – and it showed that a truly massive amount of research has gone into this book. The number of different traditions, the number of deities, including some pretty obscure ones, and the amount of knowledge of each one shows a massive amount of reading and familiarity which really impressed me. It gave the world a depth and a richness that far exceeded my expectations, which were already pretty high.

I’m torn here (and we’re torn over our opinions on the book). I generally hate books that are long winded, books that are slow, books that have poor pacing, books that have excessive distractions and lots of slow description. And this book had all of that. But, I didn’t hate it – I didn’t hate it because I loved the writing style. It was very descriptive, very dark, very gritty and provided a lot of extremely powerful world building and well maintained themes. I loved the style, I loved how the world was slowly put together, I loved how the plot was slowly revealed with new angels and new elements constantly being added. They weren’t new twists, per se, but new ways of looking at what is already there and a retelling of what we’d already seen in a different way

But I think this very much could be a case of your mileage may vary – and if I hadn’t enjoyed the style and the writing I would have found it irritating, slow and annoying. I think it didn’t help that this was the extended version of the book – because it could really have been a lot shorter and told the same story.

I’m conflicted about the ending. On one side, I loved the twist. I loved the double cross. I loved the long, convoluted plot when it was finally revealed – I loved how cunning it was, how crafty and how much it fitted the gods in question

But, at the same time, it was something of an anti-climax. We had the wonderful conclusion to all this foreshadowing of the war, of the building of forces, of the summoning of allies, the glorious, epic scenes and the massive build up – and, yes it was cunning and impressive but still something of a climb down. It felt a bit of a let down. I’m not sure of the epilogue nicely tied everything up (which it did wonderfully) or whether it further emphasised the lack of climactic finale.

There are a lot of marginalised characters in the book. Many POC (most of them deities, so there is a sense of using all of these POC to use their cultures and deities more than people – but most of them came over with POC and we saw those histories), and 2 GBLT couples mentioned in passing. They were side characters and back stories of how the various deities reached the US, but there was a lot of them, certainly more than most books we’ve read. Also, when looking at past depictions of people arriving in the US – including horrific elements like the slave trade, the book didn’t flinch at presenting these vile times as fully repellent and stark as they were.

But there were also some severely problematic elements – including some really gratuitous, unnecessary and unchallenged use of racial slurs. I don’t even understand why it’s even there – it adds nothing to the story, nothing to the development, nothing to the characterisation or the world or anything – it’s just dumped in there. Similarly, Sami mentions her Native American father – but only in the context that he’s an absent father but she managed to use it to get free tuition. It was unnecessary, added nothing to the plot or characterisation and made it sound like she was getting an illicit freebie – which fits very horribly with the ongoing narrative that Native Americans are getting undeserved advantages. Again, I don’t even know why this was in the book, what it added or what it achieved.

And I have no idea why Shadow was continually presented as being mixed race (attributed to his unknown father – so he wasn’t even sure which race) but, when we finally discover his parentage, it shows he’s pretty much of entirely white ancestry.

We could also have used some more consistent female characters - there were a lot of female characters, small roles for the most part, but something more developed and long term would have been nice, especially to counter the woman eating men with her vagina. In fact, there was a curious obsession with genitals in this book. I repeatedly wondered where in the scene it was relevant to mention an erect penis – to say nothing of the times I was confused as to why there was an erect penis – did someone spill some Viagra in the water?

As a book of the week, both of us read this book. One of us really liked this book and one of us didn’t, which is always difficult (and pretty rare). The style and the pacing are things you’re either going to love or hate and there are definitely problematic elements with the large, diverse cast. If you do like the style, if the writing can carry you through the pacing, you’ll love it. If not, then you won’t.