It should come as no surprise that Neil Gaiman's new novel, American Gods, deals with dead mythologies and fading belief systems. Gaiman has made a career out of breathing new life into old myths, from the many old DC comics characters he resurrected for his award-winning Sandman series to the revamped fairies who inhabited his first solo novel, Neverwhere. It should also come as no surprise that American Gods is a quirky, involving story that mixes the best qualities of a fairy tale with the most compelling aspects of a classic road novel. The journey begins when the protagonist, a quiet, stolid man nicknamed Shadow, is released from jail a few days early, due to his wife's accidental death. Given the book's title—and Gaiman's career-long obsession with old gods and old traditions—anyone grounded in Norse legends should have a good idea what's going on when a craggy, one-eyed man who calls himself "Wednesday" enters Shadow's life on the plane ride home. But Gaiman is more than willing to spell things out for the uninitiated. Before long, Shadow has, like Neverwhere's protagonist, fallen into a hidden world that exists in and around the familiar visible one. As he and Wednesday travel the country, they meet a growing handful of fading gods whose cultures and worshippers mostly died long ago, leaving them to eke out minor existences working mundane jobs. Wednesday's mission is to unite these weak and aging deities against the shiny new regime of technological and media-oriented gods; Shadow's goal is mostly to serve and survive, as it becomes clear that Wednesday faces brutal opposition. Gaiman exhibits his usual deft characterization and keen ear for dialogue and wordplay, but the book also represents a step forward for his prose. Where Neverwhere sometimes felt forced or excessively familiar, American Gods is assured and ambitious, resembling nothing except Gaiman's Sandman stories. Shadow's solid, believable grounding in the minute trivia of the real world rivals the book's grounding in the fantastic and arcane world of ancient theologies; those two aspects meet and merge to form a cohesive, compelling whole that approaches Gaiman's finest work. Like most road-trip novels, American Gods can be disjointed and episodic, but, like the best of them, it's still worth the trip.
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