Love American Gods? Here’s 6 Books (plus TV) To Try
American Gods by Neil Gaiman, was published in 2001, and quickly achieved cult status, winning the Hugo, Nebula, Locus Award and Bram Stoker Awards. For a fantasy writer, this is like winning the Grand Slam – actually, it’s harder!
American Gods was so popular that a remake was published in 2011 in an edition called ‘the author’s preferred text edition’. Kind of like a director’s cut version, perhaps?
There have also been audiobook editions, collector’s editions and most recently a TV production. So American Gods is one of those rarities among novels: it’s both good and popular!
Yet despite American Gods’ incredible pedigree, I only managed to read it last year. I couldn’t put it down, and so, to my husband’s irritation, I insisted on taking a book the size of a brick on holiday.
For those of you who haven’t read American Gods (and please, do read it), here’s a brief summary:
Summary of American Gods
Shadow, a small-time criminal, has just reached the end of his prison sentence. He’s about to be released when his wife, Laura, whom he loves dearly, is killed in a car crash, and his world collapses. There follows a job offer from the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, an encounter with Mad Sweeney, and the semi-resurrection of Laura. Oh, and a cascade of gods, both ancient and modern: Egyptian, Russian, Norse, media, celebrity and technology.
American Gods is a bleakly humorous tale, sliding between fantasy, horror and social commentary, and the writing is Gaiman at his best; the tone changes effortlessly from dark to light and is both erudite and (when necessary) foolish. Gaiman is truly a master of the craft.
And when I reached the end, and let out a great sigh of regret, for reaching the end of a book you truly love is both satisfying and sad, I thought: you know, there’s something about this story that is terribly familiar.
And then I read the afterword.
So here’s 5 books that I’m almost positive Gaiman was influenced by when writing his masterpiece, and if he wasn’t, he should have been.
The Eight Days of Luke – by Diana Wynne Jones
In the afterword to American Gods, Gaiman reveals that Wynne Jones helped him with a plot issue. The Eight Days of Luke is a tale of Loki, the mischief-maker Norse god. Gaiman himself credits this as having an influence ‘like first cousins or something.’ However, I think there’s another of Wynne Jones’ books that’s also made its way into American Gods …
The Homeward Bounders – by Diana Wynne Jones
This is possibly the bleakest of Wynne Jones books, and its tone is similar to American Gods, in that although the ending is satisfying, it’s not happy. It’s happy-ish. The Homeward Bounders is the story of Jamie, an inquisitive London urchin who accidentally spies on Them, demonic creatures that war-game with worlds. Them throw him out onto the bounds, where, like the Wandering Jew and the Flying Dutchman, he’s doomed to travel ever onwards. Unless he can find Home, where he can return to play. Wandering the boundaries of the worlds, Jamie meets other bounders, and together, they learn they may be able to change the rules of play. Although this is a book for kids aged 9+, it’s a great read even for adults, and if you’re wanting to introduce your own kids to fantasy, The Homeward Bounders is a great place to start.
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul – by Douglas Adams
This is the second in the Dirk Gently series. Written by the creator of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the story follows the eccentric Dirk Gently, a holistic detective who believes that everything is interconnected – even a potato, a scythe-wielding monster, an explosion at Heathrow Airport, the contents of his fridge and Thor, God of Thunder. Unhappily for Gently, it turns out he’s absolutely right. This is a funny, funny read and like American Gods, considers what happens to gods when they have no more followers.
Small Gods – by Terry Pratchett
Pratchett and Gaiman collaborated to write the fantastic Good Omens, and Gaiman acknowledges Pratchett’s help out of a plot hole in American Gods, so I think it’s quite likely Small Gods (first published in 1992) made a contribution to American Gods. Plus, of course, there’s the titles! In Small Gods, the Great God Om unexpectedly manifests as a tortoise, and being a tortoise, has no godly powers. Worse still, only one boy, Brutha, can hear his voice, and Brutha does not believe he can be Om. Like many discworld adventures, Small Gods deals lightly with big topics: religion, freedom of belief and religious institutions.
Midnight’s Children – by Salman Rushdie
This stunning novel won the Booker Prize in 1981, and really marked the beginning of Rushdie’s pre-fatwa career. To be honest, inserting this novel into this list is a long stretch. However, I wanted to mention Rushdie because apart from Gaiman, I’ve not read any other writer with such facility for language. Rushdie is able to transform from starkly energetic horror to contemplative calm, and although his stories are bleak, they are cathartic. Unlike Gaiman, Rushdie isn’t seen as a fantasy writer, but Midnight’s Children is definitely a fantastical tale. (Personally, I don’t find Midnight’s Children as engaging as American Gods, but it’s still a worthwhile read.)
In Midnight’s Children, Saleem, a telepathic with an extraordinarily large nose, is born at midnight on the day of India’s independence with unique gifts, and believes he has unique responsibilities to the new-born state.
Full disclosure: I’ve not read this graphic novel series, but I’m really keen to. I’ll withhold my comments until that time, but just to note that Wikipedia indicates that many side characters in American Gods, such as Bast, were first born in The Sandman.
Post Script: Television Shows
If you’re keen on stories about Norse Gods living in modern times, try The Almighty Johnsons. In The Almighty Johnsons, the Norse pantheon have relocated to New Zealand, but don’t have their full powers, so Axl, a student (and also a reincarnation of Odin), needs to find his mate, Frigg. But unfortunately, Frigg doesn’t want to be found.
This TV show was written after American Gods, so probably owes something to Gaiman, but the tone is quite different; The Almighty Johnsons contains a whole lot more sex, and is a great deal funnier. It’s less fantastical in tone, too, but has been picked up by Syfy for release in the US.