American Gods is without doubt Gaiman's masterpiece so far, doing for the whole of the United States of America (or as much of it as will fit within 650-odd pages) what he did for London in Neverwhere. It is a big, sprawling, messy novel, as befits the nation whose story it tells, a country whose identity is made from bits of all other cultures, mixed together to create something unique and unlike any of them.
"This is the only country in the world," said Wednesday, into the stillness, "that worries about what it is.""What?""The rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are."But what exactly is American Gods? What kind of novel is it? It's a cocktail of mythologies combined to make a new mythology. It's a road novel. A journey of self-discovery. A history of a nation, if not a conventional one. There are elements of the thriller. It's not really a fantasy, though it is full of the fantastic. It's not a horror, though there are horrifying elements. It's a hodgepodge of story elements that can't be pigeonholed, don't always fit together and yet it would be a lesser piece of writing without any of the parts.
The basic premise is this: What happened to the gods, the folklore, the mythical heroes, when the people who brought them to America have died, or abandoned them, or stopped believing?
The protagonist is a man known only as Shadow, a huge, quiet man with a Past, released from prison three days early due to the death of his wife. He meets Mr Wednesday, a stranger who knows his name, and who gives him a job, so that he gets mixed up in the affairs of the old gods, who are preparing for a war with the new: Media, Technology, et al. Still grieving his wife - who doesn't let being dead keep her from him - and adjusting to life outside the prison walls, everything Shadow thought he knew about the world is turned upside down.
American Gods is very different in tone from Neverwhere, more challenging, darker and less comic. It is said that Gaiman fans either really like or really dislike this novel. This isn't quite true of me. I prefer Neverwhere, which is one of my favourite novels of all time. Still, I recognise that American Gods might be a better book, is certainly a bigger book (and I don't just mean in the number of pages) and is one to be savoured. It lingers in the mind long after you close the pages, and is one to be read more than once to get the most out of it. I've just finished reading number 2, and feel as though I've only just scratched the surface of what this book is about, or what it's trying to say. My review was never going to do the book justice, so I'll let Mr Ibis have the last word:
"One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless.
The tale is the map that is the territory.
You must remember this."