Tue
Mar 1 2011 12:00pm

Best SFF Novels of the Decade: An Appreciation of American Gods

American Gods by Neil GaimanIt’s hard to say exactly why I like American Gods so much.

Most of the time, if I like a book, it’s easy for me to point at the specific thing that makes it shine. Usually a book has one thing that stands out: the characters, the world, the language….

But Gaiman doesn’t lean too heavily on any single element of the writer’s craft. And as a result, I’m having trouble putting into words exactly why I’m so fond of American Gods.

To be fair, I have to admit that my attachment to American Gods is not entirely a rational one. Then again, love is very rarely a rational thing.

I first read American Gods when I was in grad school. It was a rough time in my life. I was weary, overworked, and slowly realizing that I did not fit well into modern academia. In a word, I was miserable.

What’s more, I was 2000 miles away from home. I grew up in Wisconsin, and after nearly two years in Washington State, I was terribly homesick.

At that time, in that place, reading American Gods kept me sane. Not only was it a book by one of my favorite authors. Not only was it a cornucopia of folklore and mythology. But it brought me a little taste of home when I really needed it.

Since then, I’ve reread it and listened to it on audio at least three times. I know the book pretty well. Despite this, even after thinking about it for days, I still can’t point at a specific reason why I love it.

I have to admit, it’s probably a combination of things. First and foremost, Gaiman is clever. I like cleverness in my books. I like being exposed to new information. I like unfamiliar ideas. I like it when a novel is realistic but still wonderful, and sensible while still being surprising.

The language shouldn’t be ignored either. Gaiman doesn’t flaunt his prose. He doesn’t rub your nose in lyricism. He keeps it subtle, always in service to the story. But you can’t deny that he has a brilliant turn of phrase. “He grinned like a fox eating shit from a barbed wire fence” is probably the single best piece of character description ever.

The heart of the matter is this: Gaiman understands the shape of stories. I’m not talking about plot here. Story is more than plot, more than character, more than event and tension and revelation. It’s an ephemeral thing. It is the dancer and the dance. It is the intangible something that moves us beyond like and into love.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I like American Gods kinda a whole lot. Whatever it is I want from a book, American Gods has it in spades. If you’ve never read it, you should. And if you have read it, you might want to think about reading it again….


Patrick Rothfuss always wanted to be fantasy author when he grew up. Now that his first (and now second) novel is published it’s generally agreed that he has achieved his dream. However, there is some debate as to whether or not he has, in fact, grown up.

31 comments
E M
1. herewiss13
'American Gods' is one of the few works from which I've deliberately tried to memorize a quote:

"...for the joy's gone out of me now, like the pee from a small boy in a swimming pool on a hot day."
Leon Trout
2. Leon Trout
Mr. Rothfuss, you are a beautiful bastard.
Gilmoure Gylbard
3. Gilmoure
I guess I'm not the only one having trouble pinning down this novel. I've never been able to come up with a good description/reason why friends should read this book, other than "It's really, really güt!".
A.J. Bobo
4. Daedylus
American Gods is one of the few books I've read more than once. The first time through, I was struck by the fact that, just like Shadow, I had NO idea what was going on until the end. But I had to keep reading. And, just like Shadow (still), I was caught up in everything and had to see it through to the end. Then, after I finished the book, it kept kicking around my head for days. I just couldn't quit thinking about it. That's the sure sign of a really good book.
Rikka Cordin
5. Rikka
I have done dramatic monologues from American Gods. It blew me away the first time I read it and just kept fucking with my head every time I went back. I haven't read it in a few years but I love it still. I especially love the mythology aspect of it. Forgotten gods are the best gods.
Leon Trout
6. lin123
I once tried to explain my love of this book to my friends. We were drunk at the time and the conversation's still one we all laugh about, but I don't think I'd have done any better sober.
Ciel F.
7. Shadaras
Yes. American Gods doesn't have any one thing that sticks out, but it's an amazing book, and one of the few I'll reread even knowing the story very well, because of the mythology, the story being told, the way the story's told... mostly that last one, really. The way Gaiman uses words is amazing, and American Gods puts it all together so that the story becomes a gorgeous true-dreaming.
Samuel Montgomery-Blinn
8. montsamu
(Nit pick: "Gaiman understand the shape". Gaiman are not a plural. Though that would explain some things.)
Pamela Adams
9. Pam Adams
I just know that American Gods gives me the kick-in-the-teeth feeling that I think of as 'sensawunda.'
Chuk Goodin
10. Chuk
I do not get the American Gods love. Do you have to live in the US to get it?

I like Gaiman's work but AG just never really grabbed me. Actually, I liked the short story with Shadow in it better than I like the novel. (And The Graveyard Book was just hugely better than either.)
rob mcCathy
11. roblewmac
I don't REALLY like it. It feels like one of superhero comics where "somthing is wrong with the universe" but SOMTHING IS not explained.
Soon Lee
12. SoonLee
Like Gilmoure @3, I also think "American Gods" is really good.

I am curious about one thing: given that Gaiman's "Sandman" comics explored very similar territory, does prior knowledge of "Sandman" lessen appreciation of "American Gods"?

My familiarity with the "Sandman" meant there were fewer surprises in "American Gods" than if I had read it with no awareness of "Sandman". Comments?
David Betz
13. RDBetz
@SoonLee: Interesting thought. For myself, I never -- at least consciously -- made any connection between American Gods and Sandman.
C C
14. Hatgirl
The first time I read American Gods, I thought it was... fine. Nothing spectacular. The second time I read it, I loved it. It's one of those stories that's very, very different when you know how it ends.

And yeah, I reread books I don't like. What of it? :-D
john mullen
15. johntheirishmongol
All I read was rave reviews of this book, and frankly, I just thought it was slow and boring. The prose was pretty prosaic, the plot dull and the characters not particularly involving. Sorry, I thought it was a total waste of time.
Leon Trout
16. CarlosSkullsplitter
Oh, it's homesickness. Gaiman gets the Wisconsin thing better than that fellow from Colorado ever will. It's why I carry around my Lorine Niedecker and my Jerry Kramer.
Nancy Lebovitz
17. NancyLebovitz
I'm an American who isn't fond of the book. There are particular things that I didn't like about it (it would be nice to have a real god of programming rather than a parody, for example), but mostly, I just wasn't grabbed.
Steve Taylor
18. teapot7
Nancy wrote:
> it would be nice to have a real god of programming rather than a parody

It's been a while since I read it, so I could be wrong - but I though of him as more of a god of... well, the sort of people who really like Wired a lot and get all their news from BoingBoing. Taken as that he seemed ok.

But I may misremember.
Leon Trout
19. a-j
Didn't like it at all on first reading but a work colleague and Gaiman fan persuaded me to read it again and I loved it. Not my favourite Gaiman novel, Stardust is probably that, but one I have re-read a few times and still enjoy it. For the record, I am British and have never visited the US.
Leon Trout
20. bujfan2030
It's the only Novel of his I've read and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It was clever and ambitious. I do remember feeling let down by the last third of the book but can't for the life of me remember why.
A Re-read could be in order.
Michelle Morrell
21. Vylotte
I've often said that if I could pick a religion and have it be 100% true, I'd pick how it is in American Gods. Love this book.
Rikka Cordin
22. Rikka
An interesting tidbit I thought worth mentioning (oh the things I remember from the days of reading Gaiman's blog religiously). When American Gods was voted to be provided free online by Harper Books, Gaiman said about it:



It was really interesting. I don't think I would have put up American Gods as a first choice for free book myself -- mostly because a) it's really long and b) it divides people. As far as I can tell, for every five people who read it, one loves it utterly, two or three like it to varying degrees, and one hates it, cannot see the point to it and needs convincing that it's a novel at all. (Quite often the last person really likes some of the other books I've written, if they ever pick up anything else by me ever again.) But that's the fun of democracy, and American Gods has won more awards than any other single thing I've written.

http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2008/02/votes-are-in.html




Darren James
23. b8amack
AG is my favourite of Gaiman's books, and the only one of his novels I've ever re-read. I should pick up another copy of it. Mine has gone missing.
Soon Lee
24. SoonLee
RDBetz @13: Whereas for me, it was a very obvious connection. Sandman is filled with gods from different pantheons in a contemporary setting, trying to eke out an existance, their powers dwindling as as a direct consequence of the reduction in the number of believers. To me, American Gods is clearly based on further meditations of themes covered in Sandman.

There is also 'belief=power', 'identity', and the tension between obligations & freedom. Both Morpheus & Shadow struggle to escape obligations.
Leon Trout
25. AmalS
I recently finished reading American Gods. It was different and a refreshing change of pace. I don't know why I find Gaiman's style similar to Stephen King's; the everyman quality of the prose and excellent characterization.
The climax was a bit shaky and could have been done better, but this book deserves every accolade.
Leon Trout
26. Kenny Cross
Simple reason I love this novel: It seemed to me this was the first novel that he distilled everything that made his Sandman comic books so mind-blowing fantastic and translated it perfectly to novel form.
It's still my favorite Gaimam novel but THE GRAVEYARD BOOK in many ways packs a more personal emotional punch.
Leon Trout
27. moleman1976
Agree in large part with SoonLee@12. Knowing Gaiman's readings of old gods in general (from Sandman) lead me to predict a lot of American Gods' plot. It's probably my least favorite Gaiman novel (though I still very much enjoyed it - "least favorite Gaiman novel" is still heads above most of the dreck that comes out each year).

For my money, outside of the seminal Sandman series (about which no amount of praise is excessive) I loved Neverwhere and Good Omens (Neil's partnership with Terry Pratchett, also about whom no amount of praise is too excessive). Violent Cases and Books of Magik were also a joy to read.

Just my $0.02 on one of my favorite writers (in the comics or in the prose) ever.
Leon Trout
28. Jim Dumas
Odin and Loki, what's not to like?
Leon Trout
29. Jon243
I got about halfway through and stopped. I just found it kinda boring
and had a very hard time getting attached to any of the caracters in
particular.

Did anyone else have this issue?
Roland of Gilead
30. pKp
Utterly loved it, and I have never set foot in the US. I think the main reason I did was the huge, sprawling size of it . It's just so all over the place, with all these brilliant characters and places and bits of language, and it should be rambling and boring but it somehow manages to form a coherent, gripping whole.

(kind of like the country it describes, I guess. Neat trick, that).
Leon Trout
31. J. Doc
I just initiated the journey a few days ago and I have to say, tis overwhelming (in the positive and productive manner).

I blazed through Mr. Rothfuss' writings and felt a strange sadness shortly thereafter, as if I glanced the most majestic being for but a brief moment, and realized I would never see it again.. I convinced myself no other story could be enjoyed ..Ever.. And gratefully, I stumbled upon Gaiman.

****For the record, if you enjoy a supernaturally twisted ride all over the weird lands of literature, please refer to "THE HOLY" by Daniel Quinn. I suspect these two novel hold much in common.

But thank you Gaiman, I believe

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