[BOOK REVIEW]Legendary winners and Thor losers

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[BOOK REVIEW]Legendary winners and Thor losers

Neil Gaiman first came to widespread attention for his smart, literate comic book series "The Sandman," praised by writers as diverse as Roger Zelazny and Norman Mailer.

Since then, Gaiman has mostly written pictureless books, some light and fanciful, others dark and psychological. At his best, Gaiman combines an immense knowledge of world folklore with a great ear for dialogue to create fantastic yet wholly believable worlds.

"American Gods" is not Gaiman at his best. But its creative storyline and ample use of mythologies are a winning and most engrossing combination -- successful enough that the book just won the 2002 Hugo award for best science fiction novel. Indeed, one of the highlights of the novel is playing "guess the god," as so many diverse deities drift in and out of the story.

The tale begins with a big guy who calls himself Shadow just getting out of prison. He discovers that his wife is dead and his life is in tatters. In the chaos, Shadow is offered a dubious job by a stranger named Wednesday. In a book about gods, you only get three guesses who Wednesday is, and the first two don't count.

Soon Shadow finds himself caught in a supernatural battle between America's old gods -- the religious ones who came over with America's immigrants, from Native Americans 20,000 years ago to the eastern Europeans and Asians of the 20th century -- and America's new gods -- televisions, cars, computers and the like.

It is easy to be seduced into looking at "American Gods" as an action-heavy, conflict-driven bit of airport reading. However, it is important to remember that in most mythologies around the world, it is the trickster characters -- the coyote, the fox or, in Korea, the rabbit -- that often drive the stories. "American Gods" is no different.

by Mark Russell

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