Bookshelf (Starburst Reviews) Bookshelf compiled by Anthony Brown
• part of Starburst's monthly Reviews section
Selected from Starburst #277

Selected this month: Neil Gaiman's
American Gods

and Paul Cornell's Something More

Ratings given are now
out of five

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Published by Hodder Headline, 502pp
H/b or trade p/b • Reviewer: Anthony Brown

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‘It's very difficult to pin down why it's quite as good as it is'

One of the sure signs of genius is that it tends to defy analysis. Neil Gaiman's American Gods scores on that point, as it's very difficult to pin down why it's quite as good as it is. It's well-written of course, but then lots of books are well-written, and it's a bit of a failure on the publishers' parts that others aren't. It's got intriguing ideas, but as Neil Gaiman himself acknowledges in his afterword, they aren't exactly original ideas. Yet American Gods gives them new life in a new form - much as America itself has done to the gods themselves.

After waiting three years to return to his wife and a friend's offer of a steady job, ex-con Shadow finds his world falling apart just as he's released. His wife has been having an affair with his best friend, and now they've died together in a car crash everything he'd been expecting to return to is gone. Instead he's forced to accept a job as a legman to the one-eyed man he met on the plane home…

It says something for Neil Gaiman's abilities that I was surprised to realize Mr Wednesday might be Odin himself, despite the title rather giving it away. As he switches from depicting corruption beneath the surface of small-town America which would do David Lynch proud, to small vignettes about the waves of immigrants who've brought their own beliefs to the empty land of the New World, and finally to the larger matter of the war between the gods, he manages to draw you in to the point where you forget there's more to the book than this engrossing strand. The Human stories are touching and real, while Gaiman's gods are as much victims of circumstance as anyone else, playing tricks on mortals not for fun or power but for mere survival. Even the plot device which allows Shadow's love for his wife to continue beyond her betrayal and death leads in unexpected directions.

American Gods fills 500 Starburst Rating: 5/5pages and still seems too short, only touching on the canvas it had available. Like the best of everything, it leaves you wanting more.

Something More by Paul Cornell
Published by Gollancz, 411pp h/b
(Trade p/b also available)
Reviewer: Heather Worthy

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'There are ghosts, reincarnations, flashbacks, drugs and an acronym for a world-changing event'

Something More has been structured rather like an Impossipuzzle - no clues to get you started, or encourage you to keep going. You never get a chance to bond with the characters or watch them develop, because of the super-short chapters that bounce from location to location in Paul Cornell's world. To add to the confusion, some timelines run backwards, some forwards. There are ghosts, reincarnation, flashbacks, drugs and an acronym for a world-changing event, often referenced but never explained.

The main problem for me is that you need an eidetic memory to make sense of it all. Things always go wrong on one character's birthday, so every few chapters you get another, earlier, disastrous birthday party. The key to one event is usually explained when you get to the next party, but by then you have chalked it down as yet another baffling event in this apparently endless series of baffling events.

It's a shame, because if Cornell hadn't been so keen to show off his technical skills, he might well have had an interesting tale to tell.

Simplified, the story goes: at some point in the late 20th Century an ordinary man, Booth Hawtrey, is turned into an immortal. Apparently he is supposed to represent an alien civilization on Earth and help them learn about the planet. However, Booth is left to watch the world go to hell in a handbasket, because people have given up on progress.

As the world turns inward, everyone's worldview contracts to their continent, their county, their family. Britain ends up divided into various areas run under a vaguely feudal system, while the church gives up on salvation and starts mapping the electrical activities of ghosts.

The doomed post-apocalyptic feel you'd expect from these plot elements is lost and Starburst Rating: 3/5Cornell just ends up tacking a good and evil battle on at the very end of the book, solved by Time Travel and 'it was only a dream'. Boo hiss to that.

Reviews © Visual Imagination 2001. Not for reproduction