Book Review: American Gods

Image: Goodreads

Image: Goodreads

Rating 3.5 out of 5

After hearing so many great things about Neil Gaiman, I finally made time to read the fantasy classic American Gods. I even made extra time for the tenth-anniversary edition, which is considered the author’s preferred text with an additional 12,000 words, clocking in at 500+ pages total.

However, as much as I wanted to rave about how amazing this novel was and how those pages flew by, this was not the case. In fact, according to Goodreads, it took me three whole months to finish it, because I either couldn’t motivate myself to keep reading or kept getting sidetracked by other books that interested me more.

I went into American Gods believing that it would be an epic battle story, but it’s more accurate to call it an epic road trip story. The protagonist, mysteriously known as Shadow, has just been released from prison only to find that his wife has died in a car accident while partaking in some—ahem—extramarital activities with his best friend.

With no job, spouse, or sense of purpose in life, it’s not surprising that Shadow gets roped into doing the bidding of Mr. Wednesday, an intriguing figure with a penchant for trickery. As they tour the United States getting into various levels of trouble, Shadow eventually learns that Wednesday is none other than Odin, the Norse god of the gallows, and his friends are all ancient deities struggling to survive in a world that no longer believes in them.

The entire novel builds to a point where the old gods must take on the new ones—Media, Technology, and the like—but it’s my opinion that I held Gaiman in too high of esteem that I was bound to be disappointed. Even fans of the novel reassured me that the ending would make the meandering middle of the book worth it, but I have to disagree.

Don’t get me wrong, this story is wonderfully written. Gaiman is a master of characterization and symbolism, and lovers of mythology will delight in reading between the lines. The “coming to America” snippets were especially interesting, because the reader learns about how these immortals immigrated to the New World, both physically and in the minds of their worshippers.

I realize that I may be in the minority, but I felt that American Gods did not reach its potential. There was simply too much humanity and not enough fantasy for my liking. I’m certainly no Christian, but the fact that Jesus doesn’t even make an appearance seems outrageously misguided. A story with such a unique premise deserves more blasphemy to truly drive home the point that gods are only as powerful as their ability to influence mankind.

I respect Gaiman creatively and am certainly interested in reading more of his work, but I can’t say that this was a knockout read for me. I didn’t love it, but I like it enough to recommend it, and I will definitely check out the STARZ television adaptation coming next year. I have a feeling that HBO’s success with Game of Thrones will inspire a more thrilling and controversial retelling of Gaiman’s bestseller, and I look forward to watching the true battle between the gods begin.

Note: It’s that time of year again! NaNoWriMo season is upon us, and this will be my fourth year participating. Unlike previous efforts, I’m only interested in writing for writing’s sake this time and won’t be competing to win. That said, to focus on my own novel, I’ll be taking a month-long blogging hiatus. I wish my fellow Americans a happy Turkey Day, and I’ll see you all in December!

Masterpiece Monday: Iliad

Achilles kills Hector. Detail from an Athenian red-figure clay vase, about 500-450 BCE. Rome, Museo Gregoriano Etrusco Vaticano H545 © Museo Gregoriano Etrusco Vaticano

Rating: 4 out of 5

Now that my comprehensive exam process is over, I’ve been busy grading papers and reading my first guest recommendation. I won’t spoil the surprise, but I will tell you what I’m going to read next: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

I was intrigued by the story because it’s written by a woman with a BA and MA in Classics who now teaches the subject to high school students. This is her first novel, and it’s an adaptation of Homer’s Iliad in Patroclus’ perspective. It has gotten rave reviews, so I’m excited!

But if you haven’t read the original tale of the Trojan War, pick up an English translation pronto! (I recommend Lombardo or Fagles). Nothing beats the ancient Greek poetry, but the best translators succeed in balancing the descriptions and the poetic form.

Originally sung by Greek poets and attributed to Homer in the 9th c. BCE, it’s an epic about the war between Greece and Troy (an empire allegedly located in modern-day Turkey). Now this story has an extensive character list, so bear with me through this summary!

Trojan prince Paris has stolen Spartan king Menelaus’ wife Helen–yes, the cliche that launched a thousand ships. Menelaus’ brother Agamemnon has brought along Achilles, the strongest warrior in all of Greece. Achilles, thanks to his mother, is practically immortal, save for his famous tendon. However, his mother knows that Achilles will die in the war, and when she tells him of his doom, he goes to Troy anyway to seek glory.

Just thought I'd add this damn, what was I talking about again? Oh yes, Achilles (as played by the sexy Brad Pitt in 2004's "Troy")

However, Achilles becomes a reluctant soldier after Agamemnon steals his slave-girl Briseis. Because he refuses to fight, his cousin/closest friend/implied lover Patroclus takes Achilles’ armor and pretends to be him in battle. Not until Patroclus is murdered by Paris’ brother Hector does Achilles seek revenge and become emotionally invested in the war. Cue the bloodbath!

I absolutely love the Iliad, because it’s the ultimate war story–gritty, violent, brutal, oozing testosterone. I mean, just read this excerpt from Lombardo’s translation:

Next came Demoleon, Antenor’s son, a good soldier. Achilles pierced his temple through his helmet’s bronze cheek pieces. The spear’s business end sheared right through bronze and bone, scrambling the skull’s contents and stopping him cold. (20.405-410)

And there’s tons more extremely graphic death scenes where that came from! But unfortunately, the Iliad does not cover the whole story of the Trojan War; in fact, it fails to include the crucial before and after scenes: The Judgment of Paris, in which the prince wins Helen in a goddess girl fight, and the Trojan Horse, which inspired an entire class of computer viruses thousands of years later.

The literary holes are due to the gaps in the oral tradition, but luckily other ancient Greek tales fill in the blanks. And speaking of blanks, I’ll probably review the movie “Troy” sometime soon, as well as other ancient Greek adaptations since  I could talk for days on those films (especially those that suck–that’s right, I’m referring to you, “Clash of the Titans” and “Immortals!”)

So anyone else obsessed with all things Greek? What other tales or myths would you love to see reviewed?