Fiction Review: "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman

"Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end."

- Voice in Shadow's Dream, American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I've been on a bit of a superhero kick over the past few weeks. While that's certainly one of the things I wanted this blog to be about, it seems an appropriate time to segue back towards fantasy. A good way to do that would seem to be with a writer who has made that very journey. Initially known as a comic book writer, most notably for his landmark Sandman series, published by DC Comics from 1989 to 1996. I'll likely cover that series at some point in this blog. Around the time of the death of Superman stories I had begun tiring of superhero comics - it was around that time I discovered Sandman. Though the series had already begun it was one of the first series which regularly collected its previous stories into paperback and hardcover volumes. The Sandman comic wasn't a superhero book but rather a fantasy one.

American Gods was published in June of 2001. One thing which amazes me is how long ago 2001 seems. Back then I was on my first cell phone, a monochrome Nokia with a pull-out antenna. No email.  We had high-speed internet at home but not everyone did - lots of people still had dial-up or no internet access.  I mention this because this is probably one of the last times when a novel set in modern times in a 1st world country doesn't need to explain why someone isn't always connected.

On to the story itself. I can usually give away a bit more plot without big spoilers but given a large part of this story is wheels within wheels within wheels I'm going to err on the side of caution. On the surface, American Gods is the story of Shadow, a man who begins the story near the end of a term in prison for armed robbery. He's the sort of guy that tends to just go along with things. He's a tough guy, not an idiot, but pretty content to go along with the plans of others. Not a really bad guy but far from a saint. In many ways he doesn't seem to stand out.

After his release his plans for resuming his life before incarceration almost immediately go awry. He falls into the employ of a man named Wednesday. Though man is perhaps not the right word, as we learn that Wednesday is a god. (And those familiar with mythology might well be able to piece together who he is - it's certainly not something Gaiman hides from the reader.) We learn that gods are dependent on belief and worship. As a result the old gods are not what they used to be. But there are new gods, gods of technology, money, the internet, pop culture, etc. And they do not seem to care for the old ones.

Wednesday takes Shadow with him as he tries to gather the old gods to his side. We see Wednesday is quite the con-artist in his fundraising preparations.

A large part of the novel has Shadow away from Wednesday, being held in reserve. He spends time working in a funeral parlor with some former gods of death and a subplot takes place in what appears to be a perfect midwestern American town.

Much more would give away too much. But let's talk about what the book feels like. America often gets discarded with its lack of "history" compared with Europe. American Gods takes that idea head-on. It features Native American deities who would disagree with America's lack of history. Moreover, we see it as a place where people from all over the world take their cultures to and in turn are shaped by the American culture. Similarly gods from all over the world, from India to Scandinavia to China find their way to America. America is a place where people and gods can be reborn and find new identities.

We also find mystic and holy places in America. They are not the shrines one might find in Greece. Rather they are tourist stops like the House on the Rock and Rock City.

One of the themes I find in this novel is the need for Shadow to start taking actions, to make choices. He needs to break away from his "just going along" personality and become his own person.

A common theme I find in Gaiman's work is the idea that just under the surface of what appears to be the normal world is a fantastic one. You can wind up drinking coffee with Odin. Anubis can find a place for himself in the United States. There are sacred spots in America.

These are concepts which could work well in some urban fantasy roleplaying games, with players taking on roles ranging from near-forgotten gods to their mortal agents. I've seen games like Nobilis touch on themes like this. Though at first glance this doesn't seem to lend itself well to "old-school" play I can see ways where it might be done - giving the players a chance to determine what gods they serve, how they best serve them, how they react to their opposition, and what goals they pursue. It's not a "dungeon-crawl" sandbox but that's not the only type of open campaign. And of course in more "modern" games it is easy to see players taking on the role of these gods.

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