American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Illustrations by Dave McKean
Published in 2001; 2017 Edition by The Folio Society
Genre: Fantasy, mythology
Disclaimer: This review will be different from the norm in that it is split into two parts: a standard, albeit shorter, book review and a specific review of this Folio Society edition. I am endorsing this product through my own volition and belief in its high quality.
Part I: The Story
“Shadow had done three years in prison.”
American Gods has been in the spotlight quite a bit lately with the recent television adaptation on the Starz network. This review, however, covers the book written by Neil Gaiman, upon which the show is based. American Gods follows the life of ex-convict Shadow Moon after he is released from prison, learns his wife died in a car crash, and meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday. What follows is a meandering road trip across not only the geography of America, but the cultures and beliefs that came across the sea in the hearts and minds of immigrants.
The premise of American Gods was inspired by the idea that immigrants brought their gods and beliefs with them when they came to America. In the late 20th century, worship of these gods wains and they are forced to scrape a meager existence as taxi drivers, morticians, butchers, and prostitutes in order to keep themselves alive by taking micro-transactions of belief and individual worship from humans.
Times are tough not only because these old gods have lost followers, but they have lost them to the new gods of technology, money, and media. There is a war brewing and Shadow is pulled into the middle when he is recruited by Mr. Wednesday, a strange and powerful god, who offers Shadow a job when he leaves prison. This is a road story about Shadow traveling the United States of America with Mr. Wednesday in order to recruit gods for the coming war.
Throughout this tour of recruitment in the form of an elongated road trip, deities from Norse, Egyptian, Greek, Slavic, and African myths all make appearances as Mr. Wednesday seeks allies for the coming conflict. The references to the true identities of the gods are all oblique, allowing the reader to guess at who they are before being fully revealed. Many of these character’s names allude to their true names *Spoilers follow for those who want to read and guess*: Mr. Nancy (the African spider god, Anansi), Mr. Wednesday (the Norse god Odin), Mr. Ibis (Thoth) and Mr. Jacquel (Anubis), though some easier than others (looking at you, Low-Key Lyesmith).
Though the main story follows Shadow and his immersion into the world of myth and legends, the book is interspersed with stories of other gods and cultural creatures. Piskies and leprechauns from Europe, the ifrit and jinn of Arabia, and voodoo legends from the African tribes all have their tales told between the primary action. These asides and their evidence of the gradual loss of old world beliefs lend credibility to the idea of America being a place that’s was never intended for gods.
American Gods builds toward a final confrontation that could be considered anticlimactic by those not paying attention; seemingly disparate events and characters tie together well in the end and the questions posed in the novel are answered in such a way that is conducive to an appropriate conclusion to the story.
Part II: The Book Itself
This 2017 Folio Society Edition is an Author’s Preferred Text; what that means is this version has been combed through for typographical, story, spelling, and grammatical errors and has been personally vouched for by Neil Gaiman himself. This isn’t the story in its original published form, but it is the closest version to the author’s vision of what the book could be.
A standout aspect of this edition is the inclusion of illustrations by Dave McKean; a frequent collaborator with Gaiman since 1986, McKean’s eerie and surreal artwork lends itself to the strange and otherworldly tone of American Gods. It is easy to see why these two have worked together so long due to their complementary talents and skill within their respective forms of art.
As the story moves on, the illustrations become more spread out which keeps them from distracting from the narrative and allows them to showcase key scenes. There is a short, eye-opening introduction written by McKean where he describes the process of picking the scenes and how he went about translating Gaiman’s vivid words to represent them in the visual medium.
Here are some specifications taken from The Folio Society web page:
- Bound in cloth blocked with a design by the artist
- Set in Maxime with Wicked Grit display
- 560 pages
- Frontispiece and 11 colour illustrations, including 3 double-page spreads
- Printed slipcase
- 10˝ x 6¾˝
American Gods is one of my favorite books for many reasons. The story is intricate, the characters are complex, it focuses around mythology and beliefs, and it showcases some of Gaiman’s best prose writing. It was an easy decision to buy this version of the book when I first heard about it and was well worth the price tag. A lot of care went into the crafting of this Folio Society edition and it was because of this that I bought their edition of Casino Royale as a gift for my father’s birthday. If you are a fan of American Gods, Dave McKean’s art, and Neil Gaiman’s writing (and have the fiscal ability) then this is a must buy.
Verdict: 5 cloth-bound editions out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of Neil Gaiman, mythology enthusiasts, those who enjoy art that is as strange and beautiful as the story it accompanies, and bibliophiles.
Not recommended for: People who don’t like Neil Gaiman, people who aren’t willing to fork over more than $20 for a book (let alone $120), children (some adult language and content is present), or people who don’t like art that is as beautiful as it is strange.