Rating: 3.5 stars.
This book was recommended to me while I was at work this summer by a philosopher. His description of it as a book with old gods, like Egyptian and Norse, interacting with new gods in a sort of war in America sounded interesting, and I started it two days later.
The premise is just as the philosopher described, except it revolves around the life of one man, Shadow, when he’s released from prison and taken into the employ of a mysterious Mr. Wednesday. He slowly, but also quickly, finds himself caught up in the war between the gods while trying to cope with his new life. There are gods from all over, from the Egyptian and Norse I already mentioned to Indian ones to ones I’ve never heard of.
The book itself is decent and based on a good premise. I like the idea of the gods of the internet, money, and media facing off against tricky gods that miss sacrifices, a good metaphor for the battle between the old and the new that is so common in many cultures today: tradition VS technology and changing ideals. The writing is high quality, which is unsurprising because it’s Neil Gaiman, and although I did find the book to be slow to develop sometimes, I was never truly bored.
Then why the low-ish review? Let me explain.
The gods in this book are physical manifestation of the collective imagination and worship of groups of people. For that reason, many of them are two-dimensional, and I could not truly bring myself to care about them. I mostly kept reading for Shadow, and because there was something that didn’t feel right about Wednesday.
The gods had too many rules to follow that were never explained, too many things going on behind the scenes. Shadow was often left to sit around and let the gods do their thing, even though he was more caught up in the middle than most of them. It was all almost pointless, because I got to the end, and I kept thinking “so what was the point?”
But I think there isn’t supposed to be a point, not truly. The point is whatever you want it to be. The point can be taken from a frozen over lake or a string of missing children or a carousel or the musings about humanity from Shadow, from Wednesday, from Ibis. It can be taken from how the gods interact, or how they react, or from the things they enjoy.
I don’t think the book was meant to be a profound story to rush you along and throw you into the action of a magical war.
I think it was supposed to be melancholy, hopeful, subdued, teasing, and thought-provoking. I think everyone who reads it is supposed to get something different out of it, something they need or want.
The book averages over a 4 star rating on Goodreads, but from what I’ve read, some people adore it and some people hate it and many people simply don’t know what to do with it. And the answer is: do whatever you want and think whatever you want.
There isn’t a particular moral to the story, but I think that’s fitting because there isn’t a particular moral to a life, or a year, or even a day.
If you’re a serious reader and can get through a book more than 500 pages long, feel free to pick this one up and decide what you think for yourself.
And now for the good part: the thing that makes this book relevant to this blog.
It includes Celtic gods/mythological figures. There is a leprechaun, from Irish mythology, and there is Gwydion, from Welsh mythology, and it was fascinating to see how Gaiman chose to portray these figures.
The Leprechaun: Mad Sweeney
Mad Sweeney might be my favorite character in this book. Whenever he’s around, I smile or laugh, even if something bad is happening. His personality, which is snarky, straight-forward, and earnest, is lovely. One quote from page 32 lets his personality shine:
“I’m a leprechaun,” he said. Shadow did not smile.
“Really?” he said. “Shouldn’t you be drinking Guinness?”
“Stereotypes. You have to learn to think outside the box,” said the bearded man. “There’s a lot more to Ireland than Guinness.”
“You don’t have an Irish accent.”
“I’ve been over here too fucken long.”
“So you are originally from Ireland?”
“I told you. I’m a leprechaun. We don’t come from fucken Moscow.”
At a later point, Mad Sweeney is described, and it goes a little something like this:
Mad Sweeney had started his life as the guardian of a sacred rock in a small Irish glade, over three thousand years ago. Mr. Ibis told them of Mad Sweeney’s love affairs, his enmities, the madness that gave him his power (“ a later version of the tale is still told, although the sacred nature, and the antiquity, of much of the verse has long been forgotten”), the worship and adoration in his own land that slowly transmuted into a guarded respect and then, finally, into amusement…
What I like about that passage is how it shows a gradual shift in the views of society until it reaches the current impressions of leprechauns as little men in green that like to try to find gold at the end of a rainbow. The same idea of shifting views and beliefs is shown in another bit a little later, which will be the last quote about him:
Sweeney was trying, with both hands, to explain the history of the gods in Ireland, wave after wave of them as they came in from Gaul and from Spain and from every damn place, each wave of them transforming the last gods into trolls and fairies and every damn creature until Holy Mother Church herself arrived and every god in Ireland was transformed into a fairy or a saint or a dead king without so much as a by-your-leave….
I know Gwydion from The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, in which he’s not a very good person. Manipulative and selfish is an easy way to describe him. Or a spoiled teenager with no regard to his own safety or anyone else’s, with a sense of honor that leaves no room for hesitation, which is basically how he’s described in the book.
There was a young fair-haired man, little more than a boy, restocking the breakfast cereal shelves.
“Hey,” said Mr. Nancy.
“Hey,” said the young man. “It’s true, isn’t it? They killed him?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Nancy. “They killed him.”
The young man banged several boxes of Cap’n Crunch down on the shelf. “They think they can crush us like cockroaches,” he said. He had an eruption of acne across one cheek and over his forehead. He had a silver bracelet high on one forearm. “We don’t crush that easy, do we?”
“No,” said Mr. Nancy. “We don’t.”
“I’ll be there, sir,” said the young man, his pale blue eyes blazing.
“I know you will, Gwydion,” said Mr. Nancy.
Mr. Nancy later says,
He’s a good boy. Came over in the seventh century. Welsh.
It’s touches like the Gwydion’s bracelet that were one thing I liked about this book. Although I couldn’t pick up the same sort of detail about the gods from other places, I feel that Gaiman put the same sort of thought into the other characters as he did Mad Sweeney and Gwydion.
That’s all I have to say about this one, folks. If you have any thoughts about the book or disagree with me somewhere, feel free to let me know in the comments!
Have you read it? Did you like it? Do you think it does have a point? Or did you hate it? Why?
Your Bonnie Celtophile,