Based on the quotes lining the first few pages of 'American Gods', a reviewer would be tempted to give it a 10 without having even read the novel. It's not just the quantity of praise, it's also the source. Aside from several reputable newspapers, there's glowing praise from the likes of William Gibson, Chris Carter, and even George R. R. Martin. They would have you believe that 'American Gods' is an unforgettable book, and that Neil Gaiman has changed the face of fiction. Unfortunately, the book doesn't quite live up to the monstrous expectations of the reader. Not that 'American Gods' is a bad book, not by any stretch of the imagination. It's a good book, but it isn't a great book.
Gaiman's story is set around an intrigiuing and unique presence. What if gods, and all mythical creatures, were actually real? What if figures such as Odin, leprechauns, and djinn actually lived, and fed off the power of their worshippers? 'American Gods' takes this a step further, and assumes these gods and beings followed their people when they left the old world centuries ago for a new land.
Modern America though, is a place devoid of mythology and imagination. The powers of belief have shrivelled up, and the american counterparts of gods are feeble and weak. Their powers are insubstantial - they work as cab drivers and prostitutes. The new gods of Media and Technology rule supreme, and there's no place in America for the old. Odin however, refuses to just give in as so many of his brethren have. He is determined to fight, and depose the usurpers. Recriting the help of man known only as Shadow, he works to convince the dying gods of America that war is the only option.
Shadow has just recently been released from prison. A day early in fact, as he's given news that his wife has passed away. Distraught, he nevertheless begins the journey home. On the way, he meets a mysterious man named 'Wednesday', who seems posessed of supernatural powers. Soon, Shadow is drafted as Odin's wary lieutenant, and he's drawn into a hidden world of mythology and belief.
The greatest lure of 'American Gods' is its vibrant imagery. Gaiman, a graphic artist, is just as comfortable with words as he is with colours. He paints heart-wrenching pictures of fallen gods, reduced to poverty and helplessness. A memorable scene is a passing mention of Thor in the seventies. Unable to adapt to the changing world, Gaiman shows us Thor sitting in a dilapidated apartment with a gun to his head, before he pulls the trigger.
Gaiman reaches deep into mythology to bring us not only beings we are familiar with, but more exotic ones as well. At times the depth of these unusual secondary characterizations aren't appreciated as fully as they could have been. Without a background in mythology, readers are unlikely to fully appreciate the more obscure characters, and Gaiman does little to familiarize his audience with them. He also takes pains to carefully choose the settings where these characters interact. Many of his scenes take place in some of the oddest places in America, such as the 'House on the Rock'. As he explains in a foreward, these places are real. In his writing, they come across as more surreal than anything. He creates the perfect picture of an America desperate to create its own myth.
Although the secondary characters are strong, Shadow himself is badly written throughout. His grief for his dead wife seems real, but few of his actions are really believable. He acts more as a device for plot progression, rather than anything else. Opportunities to expand Shadow's character, such as a stay in picturesque little town, aren't used to their full potential. Scenes which could have developed Shadow seem truncated. It's sad really, and as a regular human, Shadow doesn't have any of the allure and mystery of the other characters.
Although Gaiman's done an excellent job creating imagery, and builds on an intriguing presence, the novel itself isn't as capable. The actual plot elements seem weak, with important events failing to truly captivate the reader. It seems the underlying threads of the novel serve to showcase Gaimans fantastic vision, and little else. This isn't a book based on a sequence of compelling events, it's more of a setting for character interactions, and Gaiman's thinly veiled commentary on american life.
'American Gods' greatest failing is it's inability to provide a significant narrative. The reader progresses through the book in an effort to uncover more of Gaiman's world, rather than for any need for resolution on behalf of the characters. This doesn't mean it's not a good read - every discovery is a beautiful addition to the novel. It just means that 'American Gods' could have been a truly memorable book, if only it was gifted with a more cohesive storyline.