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Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Published June, 2001
Publisher William Morrow

Released June 19, 2001. Picked up my copy on the 24th and read straight through it in a day.

"American Gods" reminds me a great deal of Douglas Adams' "Long Dark Teatime of the Soul," not in terms of absurdity or humor, but rather in that the story is very complete and believable, and concerns the gods, such as they are.

Anybody who tells you that the book is about old and new gods, or about a man named Shadow, or about coin tricks, or about having one's head smashed in for losing a game of checkers, is selling you a line, because those are just details, not the story itself.

Much like any Neil Gaiman story, the devil is in the details, and you just have to resolve yourself to coming along for the ride or you'll miss it. It's not one story, or two, it's many, and it's all complete...and you have to just read it, and enjoy it, and accept it. Or just don't bother.

I might as well sell you a violin as sell this book to you, or pluck a synopsis of it from behind your ear and then deposit it in my hand, only to have it turn into a critical review while your attention is elsewhere. But I won't, you'll just have to find the magic yourself.

Let's talk about genre fiction prizes. The Hugo Award is science fiction's gold standard... Every year, along comes The World Convention and the attendees (dedicated fans) vote for the best SF since the last time. As a fiction fan, I will usually disregard a Booker, or Nobel author, but The Hugo will make me take note. SF's silver standard is The Nebula Award, given out by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Of America. This is the big peer award; and while it has tarnished a little in recent decades (the SFWA is becoming a bit of a joke), it's still significant enough to make it on to the front of a novel.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman managed to take home both of these awards in 2001, and further to knock back the Bram Stoker horror and Locus Fantasy awards... It even got a nomination for the BSFA award. To gain one is an achievement, to win both marks you down in the SF hall of fame (Le Guin managed this feat with The Left Hand Of Darkness, Niven pulled it off with Ringworld, Card delivered it with Speaker For The Dead, and each book is now canon), and to get both plus others is the genre fiction equivalent of Tiger Woods. Suffice to say I picked up American Gods with pretty high expectations.

It didn't merit them.

I cannot, on any level, understand the praise lavished on this humongous heap of horse shit. The conceit of the novel is a simple one: in modern America, the distant mythical gods of the past - from Norse to Egyptian - are co-existing with us while trying to get on with the long habit of immortality. It's a conceit that fans of Gaiman's work should be familiar with, since it is shared with almost everything else he's ever done. Sandman, the epic graphic novel series on which his reputation was built, is based around this central conceit. Good Omens, co-written with Terry Pratchett, is based on this central conceit... So, with this much experience, at least he should be good at it by now. To justify this epic sweep we have the prospect of a war among the gods as the central crisis, and the story is structured as a cross-America road novel.

So, why did I hate it so? Well, firstly lets look at the book itself, Gaiman has allowed his publishers to pad this extended edition with a massive epilogue/appendix and introduction. This contained interviews, background and context on the story, clearly Gaiman is rather proud of this one. I read this first, and in this section he repeatedly hammers home that this is supposed to be an "American Road Novel", the man is bordering on hubris with the conviction that he is an English writer attempting the Great American Novel. Thus, despite all this sales pitching, it was surprising that the novel more than anything else reminded me of The Long, Dark, Tea-Time Of The Soul by Douglas Adams and Small Gods by his former collaborator Terry Pratchett (and his best work). Both of these share an almost identical tone, conceit and plot structure, both of these are written by quintessentially English writers, and both of these are satire. American Gods is satire without the laughs.

Add to that the unbelievable length (600 pages of nothing happening?), the central character who is farcically poorly developed (at the beginning he is a loner with no family or prospects, at the end he is a loner with no family or prospects), and the hideously poorly executed denouement, a wet fart instead of an orgasm. I wasn't impressed... The structural flaws of the novel are clear throughout. A key example is that for the first half of the book there are short stories of background interwoven every other chapter, while in the second half these are stripped out with no explanation. This is just one of the threads he's left fraying in the fabric of this kilogram heavy tome. Yes, there are a lot of things wrong with this Great American Novel.

I'm not saying it's meritless, Gaiman has a lot of good ideas that he manages to pack this book with. Each individual scene contains enough meat that he keeps your interest. He tries, with intermittent success, to paint America as the grand outsider's canvas Leone does in his Dollars Trilogy. But a novel isn't visual the way a spaghetti western is, and there is no art to this one. The central conceit has been done before, better, by an author called Neil Gaiman, and his collaborator, and his collaborator's inspiration.

So much for the most heavily awarded speculative fiction novel of the naughts.

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