I was first introduced to Neil Gaiman years ago through The Sandman comic books. I was never a big comic book reader (being a girl and all), but Sandman was different: compelling, dark, creepy, with fully developed stories and characters. They read less like comic books and more like beautifully illustrated novels; at the time, I was not familiar with the term graphic novel.
I didn’t become a fan of Gaiman, though, until he moved from the comics to writing novels. His first novel, Good Omens (1990), co-written with Terry Pratchett, became an instant favorite (5 stars!). Good Omens is a laugh-out-loud rendition of the End Times, starring a demon and an angel who are best friends, the 11-year-old Antichrist, the last witch and the four motorcyclists of the apocaplypse, among others.
My absolute favorite Gaiman novel is American Gods (2001) — five stars! It’s pretty rare that I read a novel that gels so neatly with what I think and feel about the world. This is such a novel. It’s about gods — gods who are brought to life by people’s belief in them, brought to America via the faiths of immigrants, and then grow old and waste away once those beliefs fade. These gods come from all over the world: from Norway and Eastern Europe, from Africa and India. But in America, they find themselves competing with new objects of worship — the Internet, automobiles, the media — which have themselves been transformed into gods by humans’ adoration of them. Caught in the middle, the stooge of the god Odin (called Wednesday), is a recently released convict named Shadow, a non-person who lets life and all the amazing things he sees roll right past him without affecting him, who is, in the words of his dead wife, “not really alive.” Until he hangs on Odin’s tree, and dies. This brief summary only scratches the surface of this multilevel novel. Every page is a discovery, and the gods that populate them all seem familiar, like old friends.
Honorable mentions have to go to more recent publications Anansi Boys (2005) and Fragile Things (2006). Anansi Boys picks up the themes of American Gods. While entertaining, it is not in the same league, although some of the scenes depicting the end of the earth where the gods reside are truly haunting. Unfortunately, the plot is too neat and too similar to other comic fantasy novels I’ve read. You can’t expect an epic on the order of American Gods every time, though, and this between-meal snack was good enough to tide me over.
Fragile Things is a collection of “short fictions and wonders,” including stories, poems and other short pieces, as well as a novella featuring Shadow, the main character from American Gods. For the most part, the stories are weird, creepy, fun horror and dark fantasy. Gaiman includes a lengthy introduction with notes on each piece. I found it interesting that he only wrote a story or poem when specifically commissioned to do so—none of these pieces was written on impulse.