Details: (c) 2001 Neil Gaiman; Pub Harper Torch 2002; ISBN 0-380-78903-5
Verdict: American Gods is highly readable but somehow unsatisfying.
Reasons for reading it: I'd been meaning to read it for a while out of general Gaiman fannishness, and then darcydodo got really excited about it.
How it came into my hands: A fun second hand bookshop in Berkeley.
To a very great extent, American Gods is quintessential Gaiman. It displays a lot of Gaiman's strengths: dramatic storytelling, lots of amazing ideas and images, of course the way he works in all kinds of different mythologies and creates something new, but also a lot of Gaiman's weaknesses: it's rambly and convoluted, often exceedingly nasty, (though it's less bad without the pictures), and it has three successive endings which means all of them are weakened.
I certainly enjoyed reading it, the more so because I read it over two days of deeply dramatic electric storms which matched the mood of the book very well. And I could list all kinds of elements of it that delighted me, scenes, characters and so on. It's quite hard to put my finger on why it's not a completely successful book overall. The central conceit, that America is peopled by the gods of all the different immigrant cultures that have ever become part of the country, is absolutely gorgeous. And Shadow is truly exquisite as a protagonist.
I think my biggest specific criticism is that the novel presents a really amazing setup and then it rather fizzles out. The opening, with Shadow coming out of prison and gradually finding himself manoeuvred into working for Wednesday is really superlative. Such emotional intensity! And the moment when I realized Wednesday's real identity was absolutely spine-chilling.
After that, though, Shadow and some other people tenuously connected with him just have a bunch of fairly random adventures. The individual episodes are very well done, but they don't particularly hang together as a whole. In fact, it's reminiscent of Sandman in a way that doesn't really work for a novel.
The major plot twist seemed a bit of a cop-out, and the way Shadow resolves the situation is a little too smug. Especially since the book doesn't end at the obvious climax but rambles on to alternative endings. The tone tends to the preachy, slavery and racism bad, diversity and dialogue good. The one high point in part three is Shadow's vigil, which really does have mythological power.
That said, American Gods is far from being a bad book and I have no doubt that any Gaiman fans who haven't read it yet will adore it.