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Friday, May 4, 2012

If you liked... American Gods

My goal is to recommend books for fans of a larger book franchise. For example, if you liked The Wheel of Time, you might also really like Raymond Feist's Riftwar Saga. Easy enough, right? Except I'm going to try to be less obvious than that. I fully expect half of the people reading this post to say, 'no shit dude I read that like 10 years ago!' To you I say, you're right. Most of this stuff will be widely read, but I hope not all of it. I also hope to recommend things outside of genre that will appeal to fans. We'll have to wait and see. Hopefully, this post, and others like it, will turn people on to things they've never heard of, or never considered reading.


Before I get into the post, I should probably talk about American Gods first. I've not reviewed it myself, but my friends over at The Ranting Dragon have and I like how they put it:
American Gods is at times disturbing, strange and mysterious as we follow Shadow and his employer, Mr. Wednesday, as they travel the country, interacting with mythological and modern gods. This book examines [America] in a way few have attempted. American spirituality, obsessions and heritage are gathered together into a single novel that comments not only on the country we have become, but the nation we once were.
If someone is reading this post without having read American Gods, well... I want you to read it this anyway. It might not be terribly cogent, but I hope it will give you something to think about and encourage you to read Gaiman's novel and the five listed below.

With that said, if you liked American Gods by the great Neil Gaiman, you might also like:

The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett

Like American Gods, Bennett's novel has a protagonist trying to find his way, and a gruff elder showing him the ropes. The Troupe follows sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole as he joins vaudeville to find Heironomo Silenus, the man he suspects to be his father. Chasing down Silenus's troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are unique even for vaudeville. It's not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe isn't simply touring and larger existential crises are at hand.

While George has almost nothing in common with Gaiman's Shadow, there are many similarities between Silenius and Mr. Wednesday. A withholding of knowledge and a larger understanding of the workings of the world, create a mystery that enfolds the entire narrative, unraveling a page at a time. In both novels there exists a palpable alternate reality beyond the pale of the average human experience. They are also steeped in myth, more obviously in American Gods, but also in The Troupe, with appearances by elemental forces, fairies, and primordial chaos. Beyond the superficial similarities, there's a very Gaiman tone -- dark tones and moments of tenderness all the more poignant for there scarcity.

One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

On the surface, there's not much to One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms that would recommend it to fans of American Gods. Jemisin's novel is told in the first person, employs a narrator of dubious reliability, and isn't remotely grounded in myth (it's second world fantasy). Beneath that though is a novel fundamentally about a divine family's struggles against the human condition. Itempas, father of the sky, has banished his children to the human world to live among them and at their command. They plot to return to 'Mt. Olympus' (so to speak), using whatever tools they can to further their end, including an innocent girl named Yeine.

Such a conceit should ring familiar to fans of Gaiman's novel. Like Yeine, Shadow is much more than he appears. Used by Mr. Wednesday and his compatriots to fight the rising tide of the new American gods, Shadow finds himself in a similar struggle. Unlike much of the fantasy genre, the gods in both novels are not only knowable, but they have faces and weaknesses of character. Interacting and confronting them, Yeine and Shadow try to recognize not only their place in the world, but the justification for faith in anything larger than themselves.

It should also bear noting that both novels contain one disturbing and all together odd sex scene.

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

Warbreaker is the story of two princesses, the God King one of them has to marry, the lesser god, Lightsong, who doesn’t like his job, and the immortal who’s still trying to undo the mistakes he made hundreds of years ago (I totally stole that from the dust jacket). Among the five novels on this list, Sanderson's is the worst fit stylistically. His prose is far more straight forward, including more light hearted humor that lends the work a brighter tone throughout. However, the notions of belief sustaining the divine and the complex relationship between the worshiped and worshiper are well done in a way not dissimilar from American Gods.

Not to be overshadowed is the notion of changing identities as time marches on, an unraveling of relevance that is part and parcel to American Gods. Sanderson expresses these ideas more clearly than Gaiman, using his two princesses whose roles shift as the novel moves along, eroding the person they thought they were to be replaced by the person they'll become, an experience anathema to Gaiman's gods. Even though fans of Gaiman may find themselves frustrated with Sanderson's novel, I firmly believe that the issues he's tackling make it well worth reading.

White Noise by Don DeLillo
Microserfs by Douglas Coupland

I'm putting these last two recommendations together because both are part of the post modernist literary tradition. I personally put DeLillo on the short list of best living writers and Coupland is someone whose work I've greatly enjoyed over the years (Miss Wyoming, jPod, Hey Nostradamus!, to name a few). They address what I view as one of the most important themes in Gaiman's American Gods, America's burgeoning relationship to technology (or progress). As Mr. Wednesday fights to preserve his existence, it's revealed that those 'gods' seeking to replace him in the pantheon are none other than the Personal Computer and the Internet. America's gods are no longer the same as their forefathers. They are replaced by new faiths.

In Microserfs, Coupland writes an epistolary novel that tells Microsoft's story through a somewhat derranged cast of "serfs" (i.e. - employees of the Lord of the manor, Bill Gates). In an interview, Coupland said:
"What surprised me about Microsoft is that no one has any conception of an afterlife. There is so little thought given to eternal issues that their very absence make them pointedly there. These people are so locked into the world, by default some sort of transcendence is located elsewhere, and obviously machines become the totem they imbue with sacred properties, wishes, hopes, goals, desires, dreams. That sounds like 1940s SF, but it's become the world." 
Similarly, DeLillo's White Noise speaks to something like 'American numbness'. The story is a year in the life of Jack Gladney, head of the department of Hitler studies at a Midwestern college. Exposed to a noxious black cloud of chemicals, Jack finds himself seeing his death in everything, an emotion that Mr. Wednesday certainly shares. His impending death is part of the march toward progress, a doom ensured by rampant consumerism and media saturation. As I thought about how to best describe these notions, I decided instead to let DeLillo tell it himself:
''Am I going to die? . . .'' 
''Not in so many words.'' 
''How many words does it take?'' 
''It's not a question of words. It's a question of years. We'll know in fifteen years. In the meantime we definitely have a situation. . . . I wouldn't worry. . . . I'd go ahead and live my life. . . .'' 
''But you said we have a situation.'' 
''I didn't say it. The computer did. . . .'' 
''. . . .Name one thing you could make. . . . We think we're so great and modern. . . . Could you rub flints together? Would you know a flint if you saw one? . . . What is a nucleotide? You don't know, do you? . . . What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer. . . . But nobody acutally knows anything.'' 



At May 4, 2012 at 2:39 PM , Anonymous Jared said...

Tim Power's LAST CALL. Like the actual tasty real sugar to Gaiman-splenda.

At May 4, 2012 at 2:41 PM , Blogger Justin said...

Come on! 10 minutes in and all ready I missed something?!

Have never read Powers. I'll look into it. Damn you Shurin.

At May 5, 2012 at 12:01 AM , Blogger banotti said...

This is very good post. Thumbs up!

At May 6, 2012 at 11:02 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

Tim Powers is a logical person to point Gaiman fans toward, its true. I second Jared's motion.

At May 29, 2012 at 9:04 AM , Blogger GunMetalBlue said...

Question/Nitpick: Are you recommending books that are like a book you actually haven't read? That seems...odd to me. Why not choose a book you have read and reccomend others you have read.

Sorry, as a big fan of AG I am not convinced that without having read it, you could pick out other books "like" it properly.

Not to bust your chops Justin. ;)

At May 29, 2012 at 9:05 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Of course, I've read it. I just haven't reviewed it.

At May 29, 2012 at 10:55 AM , Blogger GunMetalBlue said...

Ah, understood. I was confused as to how it was worded then. My mistake. :P


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