In the realm of movies, it’s not uncommon to encounter directors (and writers) whose absolute love for their medium shines through in every frame of their films. Quentin Tarantino’s near encyclopedic knowledge of cinema is evident in every second of his glorious odes to the genre films he knows and loves. While simultaneously deconstructing the entire medium of film, much of David Lynch’s most famous works, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive specifically, are full to the brim of subtle nods and references to the 1950’s and film noir classics he so clearly adores. The way in which his characters spend large swaths of his films discussing in pain-staking detail the most irrelevant sections of classic science fiction and fantasy films, it’s impossible to deny Kevin Smith’s passion for his field. British author Neil Gaiman (the classic Sandman graphic novel series as well as the novels Stardust and Good Omens with Terry Pratchett) is the literary equivalent of a genre enthusiast. With a rich and indelible knowledge of mythology and fantasy, Gaiman has spent the last two decades weaving rich historical and fantastical narrative tapestries around the myths and fairy tales that form the core of the fantasy experience, and in his 2001 novel American Gods, Neil Gaiman hones his craft to near perfection.

Weaving the grandly mythical with the everyday, American Gods is a tale quite unlike anything you’ve encountered before. Shadow is a gym trainer who has spent the last three years in prison for aggravated assault. Just as he is being released on parole for good behavior, Shadow is shocked to discover that his wife Laura (the light of hope that got him through his prison years) has died in a car accident.  On the plane ride back to his hometown for his wife’s funeral, Shadow meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, who seems to know more about Shadow than is humanly possible. Wednesday offers Shadow a job as his driver, protector, and errand boy, and after witnessing Wednesday’s seemingly impossible powers first hand, Shadow accepts. What follows is a Jack Kerouac reminiscent road trip across the United States as man meets myth in a world where all of the gods that have ever lived still walk the Earth, as long as there is someone left to remember them. It is a world where the old gods and creatures of Norse and Irish and Egyptian and countless other mythologies face extinction at the hands of the new gods of technology and big business. At the core of the novel remains Shadow, the man with much more than meets the eye who finds himself enmeshed in this ever-growing conspiracy.

For those who have read Gaiman’s Sandman series (and if you haven’t, you simply must right now), it should come as no shock that this novel falls firmly in the realm of urban fantasy, which is to say fantasy tales set in the Earth we currently occupy. Using a seemingly limitless number of real places as the continuing setting of his road trip into the heart of America, Gaiman keeps readers on their toes by seamlessly integrating more gods, cultural icons, and mythical creatures into the story than you may even notice (if you aren’t intricately familiar with mythology). What makes this feat so impressive is the way he accomplishes all of this while still maintaining a well defined and comprehensible set of rules and logic to this mythical universe he creates. Gaiman’s abilty to deftly weave a riveting and engaging fantasy epic alongside asides on the nature of myth and belief with existentialist undertones on the nature of god’s relationship to man all wrapped in a tale that is pure Americana (told by a Brit no less) simply makes this one of the most unique and rewarding tales I have encountered in a long time.

For those concerned that my sales pitch for the book makes it seem inaccessible and overly intellectual, let me assuage those worries. At no point in this tale does Gaiman sacrifice readability or entertainment value for long-winded pretension. His prose is simple and clear and is as thoroughly readable as anything written by Stephen King. One of the many things that makes Gaiman so special is the puts this deeply accessible prose to the service of a grandly complex tale which can be enjoyed on a surface level as a fantasy adventure, but for those who wish to dig deeper into Gaiman’s words and themes, there is a whole world of mythology and Americana to dissect. Over the course of a 6 hour shift at work, when customers would regularly interrupt my reading, I still managed to devour 300 pages of American Gods in one sitting, and I could only think of how much more I wanted to read. American Gods is a page-turner in every sense of the word, and once it gets its claws in you, you won’t be able to put it down.

Stephen King famously declared Neil Gaiman to be one of the most talented storytellers we have working today, and I would have to confer. His Sandman graphic novel series is not only my favorite comic book series of all time but also my favorite book series, period. Compared to the dark, deconstructionist bent of George R. R. Martin (which I appreciate as well), Gaiman represents as intellectual and ambitious a force in the fantasy market, but he puts forth his love of fantasy and mythology without leaving the genre in tattered ruins in his wake. For everyone who grew up devouring classical mythology as a child and never out grew their sense of wonder and discovery, American Gods is a guaranteed catalyst to your mythological pleasure principle. Fans of the great urban fantasy tales of our generation (such as Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels or the works of Joss Whedon) will find the true master of the genre in Gaiman. There are few things I am willing to whole-heartedly recommend to every subset of my audience, but as long as you have even the most remote interest in fantasy storytelling (and even if you don’t but still love intellectual mind games), this book is for you.

Final Score: A

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