Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

american gods_gaiman

Title: American Gods

Author: Neil Gaiman

Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Sci-Fi

First Published: 2001

Pages: 588

**Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards**

For some reason, I have long associated Neil Gaiman with the masterful storytellers of old. Not necessarily Shakespeare, though Gaiman does have a unique writing voice that basks quite comfortably between poetry and prose. Maybe dead-center between Dickinson’s nebulous metaphors and Palahniuk’s gut-churning and pulse-racing straightforwardness. In my head, Gaiman joins the ranks of the literary colossi that aspiring fantasy writers look up to.

Gaiman is among those rare breed of writers who can gather existing ideas and create something uniquely their own. In American Gods, Gaiman plucks out his characters from the pool of forgotten deities, breathing new life into each one to partake in this fast-paced and epic novel.

The story commences the way most novels today begin, with an empty-handed protagonist with seemingly nothing to live for. Shadow, our unlikely hero, is a 30-something convict, who patiently counts the days to his release from prison. He promises himself, no more shenanigans. All he wants, after all, is to spend the rest of his life in quiet anonymity with his pretty wife, Laura. A day or two before he gets out, he receives news that his beloved wife has been killed in a car accident, alongside his best friend, who had promised him a steady job after Shadow’s stint in jail.

His release date is pushed forward to allow Shadow to attend his wife’s funeral. En route to Laura’s burial, he meets a strange and pushy conman, who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. He offers Shadow a job, which our protagonist tries to turn down. A series of unsettling events that culminate in drunken fisticuffs with an odd fellow, who calls himself Mad Sweeney, has Shadow finally agreeing to become Wednesday’s bodyguard.

Shadow soon learns that there’s much more to his employer than he lets on. As they travel across America, he discovers that Wednesday is no mere mortal. The odd and ageless conman is apparently a manifestation of Odin, the Old Norse All-Father. Wednesday had employed Shadow to help him recruit American incarnations of the almost-forgotten gods of ancient mythologies, to help him fight a war against the continent’s “new gods.” Like Wednesday/Odin, many of these “old gods” appear to be fading in existence as the people’s belief in them wanes over time. Shadow meets many of these antiquated idols, including Czernobog, Mad Sweeney (Suibhne), Mr. Nancy (Anansi), the Zorya Sisters, Mr. Jaquel (Anubis), and Mr. Ibis (Thoth).

Although these deities recognize the danger posed by the “New American Gods” – Media, The Technical Boy (Technology), The Black Hats (Men in Black), and the Intangibles—most of them are reluctant to partake in Wednesday’s risky war. They would rather fend for their existence by gaining worship from mortals by any means possible.

Wednesday, who appears to be always one step ahead of every situation, wrangles Shadow into an agreement that should he perish, Shadow would be the one to hold his vigil—which includes a reenactment of Odin’s time hanging from a “World Tree.” To avoid further bloodshed, Wednesday agrees to meet with the “new gods,” but is murdered in the process. This act of Wednesday’s ‘sacrifice’ is enough to rally the rest of the “old gods” to participate in one final, epic battle against the “new gods.” As Shadow holds vigil for Wednesday/Odin, he discovers that he was a mere pawn in Wednesday’s pursuit of power. It is now up to him to put a stop to the carnage that lies ahead for all the deities participating in the war.

A Reader’s Reaction

There’s a special place on my bookshelf for all things Neil Gaiman. Because, save for a few shorts, which I found to be so-so, I generally enjoy everything that Gaiman releases. Like Nick Hornby and Chuck Palahniuk (except for Pygmy), Gaiman is a go-to when I find myself yearning to devour stellar fiction. Though not my favorite work from the author, American Gods provided a very satisfying reading experience. I don’t think I need to gush about the book’s tone and research, as the author is very adept in both.

Perhaps the minor grievance, (for I assure you, reader, it is very minor), that I have about the work has to do with its characters. In terms of character development, I’ve found Shadow, Wednesday, Mr. Nancy, Laura, and even Loki, to be very well-written, very fleshed out. But I also thought the piece to be a bit too convoluted, visibly crammed with deities I didn’t have time to fully appreciate. At times, the novel read like a who’s-who of ancient mythology.

Now, I know, I know. The truncated story lines and character breeze-throughs were necessary, because at 588 pages long, American Gods is pushing Stephen King and GRR Martin territory. I know, I know, that Gaiman couldn’t possibly flesh out every character, as he runs the risk of running out of pages and ruining the main course. But still licking my chops, tasting the vestiges of Joe Hill’s eminently filling, N0S4A2, I can’t help but wonder if a bit of restraint could have made American Gods a little more fluid. Would it improve flow if we had less characters to contend with? Or perhaps a glossary at the end? (My copy doesn’t have one, but feel free to correct me if later editions do.)

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, I suppose. As I do love American Gods. And I do recommend it to every literature hound that’s come across this post.

Grade: A+

Welcome, 2015! Ramblings on Writing, Recaps, and Resolutions.

 

One of the highlights of 2014: Boracay.
One of the highlights of 2014: August 2014 Boracay trip

The last couple of years, I wasn’t so much tested by fire as thrown into a furnace and tempered by flames. But soldiering on is second nature when there really is no other option in the horizon other than survival. Being a strong believer in metanoia and tabula rasa, both of which offer the sweet promise of a fresh start, I have decided that this year will be my year of writing, my year of focus and change.

I’ve taken a rather long sabbatical from writing—at least in the public domain. In the last few months, I’ve started a business with good friends, begun practicing my calligraphy, taken up crocheting (for the nth time), and started on my first novel.

For the novel, it’s a constantly evolving creature that recreates itself each time I take out the original file.

I have always believed that in writing, nothing is static; you can draft all the outlines you want, but the end result has more to do with how the work wants to be written. I hold on to the philosophy that writers are merely conduits shaping and delivering what already exists—if not in this realm, then in the world of ideas. But the execution is a pain. The story won’t stay still long enough for me to write it. The characters reject each other with startling regularity—so much so that I’m convinced there’s no other way but to write and write quickly, lest the idea makes its hasty exit as so many better ones have done before.

A few weeks ago, I welcomed my 29th birthday with a list of traits that I wished to improve on this coming year. I have always been a strong advocate for self-improvement but had often lacked the follow-through when it came to these changes. So this year, I will stick to my list and work on being more disciplined, dedicated, persistent, and patient. And while I will not bore anyone else with my lengthy list of goals and plans, I will be more present from this point on. Hopefully, that will be a good thing.

So, that said, let me end this lengthy rambling with my New Year’s wish for all of you. To borrow from Neil Gaiman:

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.”

Happy 2015, everyone! See you all soon!

Book Review: Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

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Title: Smoke and Mirrors

Author: Neil Gaiman

First Published: 1998

Genre: Fiction, Short Story Collection

Smoke and Mirrors is, summarily, an interesting collection of short stories and poems from Neil Gaiman. Though most of the works in the collection have been published in magazines and anthologies, a handful of these gems have never appeared in print. I suppose this ‘unveiling’ of ‘never-before-seen’ works, this illusion of exclusivity, is all part of this book’s allure.

But to me, what really makes Smoke and Mirrors an irresistible piece of fiction is how it shows the development of Gaiman’s writing. In creating a pastiche of past works, the author creates a roadmap to his success—success being defined within the confines of this paragraph as finding one’s voice and reaching a specific caliber of writing.

Gaiman makes the reader’s journey easier by writing a lengthy introduction that discusses the origins of each work. I say lengthy, because there are about 30 works in Smoke and Mirrors, and a summary of each one’s backstory is carefully typed out by the author himself. Though these works aren’t arranged chronologically, you can find each story’s original publication date on the notes section of the book. By going back and forth between the notes section of the book and the actual story, one gains perspective when it comes to the shifts, improvements, and general changes in Gaiman’s writing style.

Another thing I loved about this book is the variety it offers. To be honest, I’m not particularly keen on Gaiman’s tech-centered works or his brand of erotica (which isn’t bad, really… just unexpected),            but I do love his fantasy and detective stories. As for his poetry, I found his sestina to be absolutely superb. The rest, I felt, would’ve been better fleshed-out as shorts rather than poems.

All in all, I found Smoke and Mirrors an interesting and exciting read worth recommending to all Gaiman fans and lovers of the Strange.

 

Grade: A-

Book #2: The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK

Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Fiction; Horror/Fantasy
First Published: 2008
Status: Read
Pages: 312
Price: PHP 419.00/$9.86

The Graveyard Book is a wistful, witty, and deliciously creepy offering from the master storyteller, Neil Gaiman. It reads like a children’s book tailor-made for adults.

Opening with arguably one of the best first lines in fiction—“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”—The Graveyard Book reels you in with its macabre start and keeps you hooked until its bittersweet end. Unlike a standard horror story, which starts out with a steady beat and builds its way to a staggering crescendo, this witty and whimsical treat from Gaiman starts at the scariest point of the piece. This book starts with bloody murder.

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