He heard a voice, the voice of the buffalo man, calling to him on the wind, telling him who the skulls belonged to…

The tower began to tumble, and the biggest bird, its eyes the blinding blue-white of forked lightning, plummeted down toward him in a rush of thunder, and Shadow was falling, tumbling down the tower of skulls…

I’d wanted to read this for such a long time. Neil Gaiman has garnered a lot of praise for being macabre, funny and truly unique. And American Gods, as my particular Gaiman choice, is a fantasy steeped in mythology but still grounded in the real world. It sounded like a combination of everything that I love. And I wasn’t disappointed. Gaiman has created a soulful, ferocious novel that fans of fantasy will love.

The premise of American Gods is that gods (and piskies and jinn, among other supernatural creatures) exist in physical form all over America. They’ve been brought into being by immigrants who believed in their old world gods so much that when they came to America they brought the gods with them. Thor, Loki, Anubis, Thoth and more are all alive, living off people’s belief in them. But people don’t believe like they used to. Now they worship new gods; gods of television, media, and technology. There is a war brewing between the old gods and the new. The old are fighting for relevance in an age largely devoid of belief; no one makes sacrifices in their names or maintains altars to them anymore. While the new gods know they lack any history or culture. As easily as they outstripped the old gods in power their power could be usurped by something newer, something more exciting.

Against that background ex-convict Shadow is offered the job of bodyguard to the mysterious Mr Wednesday. Shadow follows Wednesday as he gathers together the ancient gods of America to recruit them for the coming war with the new gods. Wednesday believes war is inevitable and in order to gain the advantage the ancients must strike first. The gods are larger than life, and grand ideas like the American dream and mortality are tackled, but the focus is on Shadow’s journey, from the ordinary world to a world populated by gods and folkloric inventions. It’s Shadow’s perspective as a human amongst gods that lends poignancy and believability to Gaiman’s outlandish tale.

American Gods is a literally mythic novel. Gaiman has mined Norse, Native American, ancient Egyptian, West African and Slavic myths. The main storyline is intersected with vignettes that recount stories of gods; some in their homeland, some of their present lives in America, and others of how they found their way to America. Many stories have seemingly nothing to do with the larger plot, but the mythology enriches American Gods with gorgeous layers of meaning. Every time a new name was mentioned I felt like running to find out exactly which god they were in case their myths would expand on the character in the book. It’s the kind of book that rewards looking deeper, a book that you can reread and find something new, a book that stays with you.

As I read the start I thought, this is so wondrously imaginative but very weird. Where is this all going? But I became hypnotised by the stories and characters and the writing. And then it came together for me. The vignettes, asides and dreams are all very bizarre and tortuous but when taken as a whole American Gods has its own internal logic and a plot that really does make sense. Parts that seem to completely diverge from the central story appear again later, it all connects. I was distracted by the strangeness at first but despite first impressions it’s very tightly plotted in addition to being a terrifyingly beautiful chimera of a book.

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