Friday, April 28, 2017

American Gods

On Sunday, Starz will premiere American Gods, based on the fantasy bestseller by Neil Gaiman. From the trailers, the show looks amazing. But it will be pretty damn hard to exceed the novel. Here’s why.


By the time I finished American Gods, I felt the same way I did when I finished Stephen King’s The Stand. I had just read the magnum opus of one of a genre’s finest authors, and the story will stick with me for a lifetime.

The premise behind American Gods is so perfect it’s a wonder I waited so long to read this book. The idea is that when various people immigrated to America, they brought with them the gods and myths from their homelands. Those gods live on in the new world, but the problem is: America is a bad place for gods.

Shadow Moon - American Gods on Starz
The story takes place in modern times, where the old gods have faded into the shadows, carrying on as conmen, cabbies, and hookers, just trying to survive. Meanwhile, new gods have risen in America. Gods of technology and the media – the things people in the U.S. tend to actually “worship” today. One old god, Odin the Allfather, sees what’s happening and wants to put an end to it, even if it results in a war between the old gods and the new, Ragnarok style. 

Into this war, Odin – known as Mr. Wednesday in our world (“Wednesday” being derived from the word Wodin’s Day) – recruits Shadow Moon, the story’s main character. Shadow, a good-hearted man released from prison early after his wife dies in a car accident, follows Mr. Wednesday on a journey across the American heartland. Along the way, he encounters the old gods from a myriad of myths: Norse, Egyptian, Slavic, Native American, you name it. It’s as if Gaiman opened an old copy of Deities & Demigods and plucked out the most colorful immortals and monsters to create his cast of characters.

American Gods is epic in scope, wondrous in style, and tremendously fun. It’s also filled with engaging subplots that weave together seamlessly with the main story, including one involving Shadow’s wife Laura, who has come back from the dead, and a murder mystery in sleepy lakeside town. Even more, vignettes scattered throughout the novel show how people over the centuries came to America and brought their old gods with them. I hesitate to give away any more, but suffice it to say, American Gods is a classic. It’s an equal to The Stand – one of the great books by one of the great authors. And a must read, if there ever was one.

* Photo courtesy of Starz

Saturday, April 15, 2017

“The Ocean at The End of the Lane” – A Haunting Fairy Tale by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has been one of the most famous fantasy writers for a while now, though I’ll admit it’s taken me an overly long time to actually read one of his books. That ended recently, however, when I tore through The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Here’s my review.


This book has one of the most haunting covers, and I’ll confess it is the reason I was drawn to the novel. Nonetheless, it took me a good while to actually start reading it. I’m sorry I waited so long.

After a brief preface that hints of an old country that sank into the ocean, and an even older country that met a worse fate, we’re introduced to the narrator: an unnamed man who visits his hometown in England and begins to have vivid recollections of his childhood. He was seven years old then, with no friends except the books he’d read, a full set of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels being among his favorite. 

Neil Gaiman has written about how Lewis’ Narnia stories helped inspire his writing, and I think this novel may have been an homage to those books. For much like young Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the young narrator soon finds himself in a magical – and dangerous – fairy tale.

Narnia helped inspire Gaiman's writing.
The story takes off when the boy encounters eleven-year-old Lettie Hempstock. She lives on a quaint farmstead at the end of the lane with her mother and grandmother, and behind the house is a duck pond that Lettie refers to as her “ocean.” From the moment he meets Lettie and her family, we realize there’s something different about them. For one, they’re able to perceive events before they happen, and there are hints all three of them may be very old. “How long have you been eleven for?’ the boy asks. Lettie just smiles at him.

Bordering the farmland are woods that Lettie claims were brought back from the old country where she and her family came from, like the farm and the “ocean.” It turns out they also brought back something wicked in those woods, and when Lettie and the boy venture there to discover what it might be, they are forced to deal with the nightmare they may have unleashed. To explain any more would spoil the plot, but from the moment they enter the woods, Gaiman builds up suspense and maintains it to the very end. 

Like Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Gaiman leaves the reader to wonder about how much of the story was actually real, and what Lettie and her family actually were. Though he provides ample evidence to keep us thinking about it long after the book is done. That’s a hallmark of a good story, and after Ocean, I look forward to reading a lot more of Gaiman’s tales.

You can preview the book here.

Monday, April 3, 2017

“Treasure Island” Never Happened on “Black Sails”

All the while we were led to believe Black Sails was a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Turns out, that wasn’t exactly true.


One of the more fascinating aspects of Black Sails is that the series wove together historical characters from the Pirates’ Republic of Nassau with the iconic, fictional characters of Stevenson’s Treasure Island. For a long time now, I suspected the series would end with Billy Bones limping up to the Admiral Benbow with the map to the Urca gold tucked away in his sea chest. That didn’t happen, and in the world of Black Sails it likely never will. 


The series ended in way I had not imagined, and few of the characters wound up as one would expect based on Treasure Island. And the reason, it turns out, due to the clever and brilliant writing on the show, is that Treasure Island was but a fable. One that cast its characters in a light that proved untrue. As proof, consider Jack Rackham’s speech near the end of the show:
“A story is true,” Jack said. “A story is untrue. As time extends, it matters less and less. The stories we want to believe, those are the ones that survive, despite upheaval and transition and progress. Those are the stories that shape history. And then, what does it matter if it was true when it was born. It’s found truth in its maturity …
“Long John Silver’s story, it’s a hard one to know. The men who believed most deeply in it were ultimately destroyed by it. And those who stood to benefit most from it, were the most eager to leave it all behind. Until all that remains of any of it are stories bearing only a passable resemblance to the world the rest of us lived in. A world we survived.”
In the world of Black Sails, the story of Treasure Island was never true. It merely became the story that lived on. In retrospect, I suppose, this is not surprising. After all, the Long John Silver of Black Sails was too intelligent, too articulate, and too heroic to become the villainous sea cook of Stevenson’s tale. And while the Flint of Treasure Island was a fearsome monster, the real Flint turned out to be somewhat of a tragic antihero. The finale did get him to Savannah, although I doubt the he will die there by drinking too much rum. (Which simply proves why odds-making is bad business.)

The Long John Silver of Treasure Island was nothing like the hero of Black Sails.
The only character that ended up as we would expect in Treasure Island is Billy Bones. He’s a broken man after betraying his shipmates, and I have no doubt he’ll lead a sad life. But I cannot imagine how he’ll ever come by the map to the Urca gold. Which means young Jim Hawkins will never venture to Skeleton Island with Dr. Livsey and Squire Trelawney. But maybe that story, like most fiction, was born untrue, and only became otherwise in its maturity, when Treasure Island became a classic.

* Photo courtesy of Starz.