Monday, April 17, 2017

Peps' Reading List: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

There are a few titles that I can credit for my love of fantasyThe Belgariad Series by David Eddings was my intro to the genre or at least was the first reading material in the genre that made me realize that I liked it. I graduated to The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan after I borrowed the copy I actually gifted a friend who was already a fantasy fiction reader.

And it was American Gods by Neil Gaiman (incidentally also a gift I gave and ended up borrowing from the same friend) that introduced me to a different kind of fantasy storytelling, one that didn't involve made up lands and is instead set in the world we live in. 

I planned to re-read American Gods at some point (a project that I planned for The Wheel of Time series, but blogging about a fourteen volume epic fantasy series is making me sweat), and with the upcoming adaptation on Starz and Goodread's announcement that re-reads will be counted in your reading challenge, it was time to put that plan into action.

All Shadow Moon wants is to finish serving his time in prison and return home to his wife Laura. But plans have a way of screwing with you... like getting released a couple of days early because your wife dies in a car accident with your best friend. On his way back home to attend his wife's funeral, he meets the mysterious Wednesday, who offers him a job as a bodyguard. With little employment options and no wife to go home to, he accepts the job, which turned out to be the distraction he needed after finding out how his wife really died. But the job has its own challenges, such as constantly traveling, watching Wednesday con people, helping Wednesday convince people to join him in a 'war', and getting his life threatened by the conman's enemies.

I have to admit that it wasn't easy reading American Gods the first time. Nor was it easy this time around. I mean, it's been over a decade since I last read it... which wasn't helped by the fact that I had two copies which were never returned to me, thus the ebook format that I ended up getting recently. Also... it's long, there's a lot of characters and there are times when not much is really happening for pages on end. But much like my first reading, I found that I enjoyed it immensely and that it caused me to pause before moving on to the next title in my reading list. Though that doesn't change the fact that it's also not easy to write about.

There's nothing simple about American Gods, starting with its complex world building in the form of the behind the scenes war that old and new gods are waging against each other. Gods live in any place where there are people who worship them, and with America being the culture pot that it is and the varied nationalities that eventually became its population, it's no wonder that the godly population is high in the country. But with later generations forgetting the stories of their ancestors and turning to new obsessions, new gods are born and the old ones struggle to exist in the unforgiving land they now have to call home. 

Regardless of Neil Gaiman's nationality, the book is an Americana novel. Shadow spends a lot of time on the road with or without Wednesday, and he ends up staying or passing by places that depict different American landscapes. While he stays in cities, it's his stops at the smaller towns where he makes the most interaction with other people, when the setting doesn't allow you to just blend into the cityscape and not make a meaningful connection. Landmarks are discussed often, but not of the usual variety that attracts tourists. Shadow ends up visiting attractions and trivia-worthy locations that are strange or surreal in their significance to the gods. There are discussions of what makes a place important to the people who live in a land, but given the neglect to many of the places Shadow visits, it's also a reflection on how Americans tend to move on quickly to the next big thing and just leave behind something they've grown tired of. Which is exactly what the old gods experienced at those who were supposed to sustain them with rituals or worship.

Shadow is the book's central character and it's his journey that grounds us in the rather sprawling journey that makes up American Gods. It is his experiences we invest in and it's his ending, whether happy or otherwise depending on Neil Gaiman's grand plans, that we look forward to reading at its end. When his undead wife Laura (nope, not really a zombie, but still creepy nonetheless) mentions that he's not fully alive in his existence, it makes you pay attention to his subsequent thinking and decisions in the hopes that he does learn to live more fully in the world. Because if anybody deserved to be happy in this book, it's Shadow. But there's a reason why American Gods is long, and not just because there's a really long road trip and extended rest stops at an idyllic town for Shadow before the war.

American Gods is a book filled with stories. For all it's focus on Shadow, it isn't just about him. While Shadow and his upended life is at its core, it's also made up of many different stories. In between chapters are the stories of immigrants and the gods that they brought with them. There are stories about the gods themselves, who might seem strange with their powers but exhibit some very human qualities. These stories might seem random and might appear to disrupt the narrative flow focused on Shadow and his unlikely adventure, but they contributed to the overall picture of American mythology and how it is shaped. Because for all of its many centuries in existence, America has the feel of a new land, with its constant evolution, abandoned settlements and new fascinations. It's no wonder old gods struggle and the new gods nurse the fear that they might also suffer the same fate in their future.

In reading American Gods, especially midway and when it seems that Shadow is just engaging in mundane conversations, you're never sure where it would end up taking you. But somewhere near its end, all its different moving parts finally make sense in the bigger picture. There are some discussions online as to whether some of the characters or events are actually needed, which I had to ponder on after my reading. Sure, there were times when I felt that the book could have been shorter, but I found that all those different parts are essential, because while they might not all contribute to Shadow's journey, they do help in establishing the world that he is a part of. And if you really think about it, America is a character on its own in this fantastic story.

It might take me years to return to American Gods for another re-read, but I do know that when I do, it would still resonate with me and remind me of how much it influenced me to love fantasy.

Happy reading!!

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