American Gods is Classic Urban Fantasy
I first read American Gods about seven years ago while living in a two bedroom apartment with David V. Stewart. It really appealed to me in the sort of Kerovacian style, small town travel story since at the time I was working three jobs and playing with a local band. The adventures that Mr. Wednesday and Shadow were undertaking seemed like the kind of ‘living on the fringes’ theme that I really enjoyed. Since then, American Gods has enjoyed a resurgence with a TV series on STARZ which I discussed at length with Big FAT Brian on his YouTube channel.
Shadow, an enigmatic ex con, is released from prison early due to the death of his wife and child (I think there was parole involved). With his family gone, he has no one to turn to after mourning their deaths.
Enter Mr. Wednesday.
A street wise con man who knows a con partner when he sees him and offers him a job. They meet a man that Mr. Wednesday describes as a leprechaun (to Shadow’s understandable skepticism) but when he wakes up with a gold coin in his hand things become interesting. Visiting the grave of his dead wife, Laura, Shadow tosses the coin onto her grave as an offering. When she shows up in his hotel room later that night, telling him that the gold coin brought her back (but left her body dead) we’re fully aware of the Fantasy word that we have been immersed in.
Three points so far:
- Urban Setting (Modern setting, really)
- Gods playing with mortals.
That pretty well establishes us in Urban Fantasy.
Gaiman explores a lot of cultures through the book by taking the view point of old gods who live in America now, brought over by the belief of the immigrants from across Europe, Asia, and Africa. While most of these interludes are not explicitly related to the main plot, each one of them is a part of the army that Mr. Wednesday is building to overthrow the gods of modern America: Electricity, Internet, Media, etc. These interludes are used as a character device to make the audience more sympathetic to the old gods who were, in most cases, quite nasty and blood thirsty.
I’ll stop my summary there as to avoid the bulk of the spoilers.
One of the things I loved about the book was the shattering of the Romance/Revenge trope. When I was explaining to my wife how the story begins, with Shadows wife and daughter being killed, she immediately asked if the story was about finding out who did it and get revenge. It’s a deeply ingrained trope and it’s good to see it broken from time to time. Instead, Laura’s zombie self comes back to play her own crucial part in the plot.
The theme here is what makes it different. The book is about Shadow accepting things that he doesn’t know and cannot comprehend – like the end of The Wizard of Oz, once he lifts back the curtain there’s no going back to his old life.
There is a tremendous amount of research that went into this novel when it comes to mythology. I love Norse Myth, which is why my Urban Fantasy novel Immortal Fear is so steeped in it, but Gaiman takes on ten or more different gods from different cultures and really develops these myths into characters all themselves. The ending has a great parallel to the main character and Odin (Did I forget to mention that Mr. Wednesday is actually Odin?).
I have mixed feelings about the TV series. On the one hand I love to see Urban Fantasy making its way onto the small screen – it’s good to build new readers and keep establishing a fantastic genre. On the other hand I’m just not sure how long they can make it last. I watched the first episode and there are some special effects issues that many viewers won’t be able to get past. Of course, the long established readers will watch because it’s something they already love. I’m going to get back with Big FAT Brian some time after the end of the first season to discuss it more.
If you haven’t read American Gods, I highly recommend it you can find it on Amazon here.
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