Monday, August 13, 2012

Book Review: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

I've only read a little of Gaiman's work (American Gods and Neverwhere) and while I enjoyed it, I wasn't blown away like everyone else seems to be. When I found Anansi Boys on special, I figured: why not? Let's find out how good this is.

By the way, as you may have noticed I'm now breaking up my posts with a 'jump break'. You'll have to click through to see the full article. That should make the main page far less cluttered and you can scroll through to find what you want to read. It also facilitates the RSS feed.

Overall Impression
My first impression of the characters was fairly negative and the plot didn't seem particularly inspired, yet for some reason I just couldn't put the book down (or more accurately: turn the Kindle off)! Gaiman manages to evoke a really interesting world despite telling what is at first a pretty ordinary story with unremarkable characters. My opinion of Gaiman has gone up by witnessing this first hand. In addition to the engaging tale, it's also quite funny! By the end of the book I was ready to praise it. The characters really evolve before your eyes and the story takes off. I'm glad I read it despite my initial hesitation.

The story starts out fairly simple with a young man learning of his father's death. Things turn a little more interesting when he learns his father was a god and that he has a missing brother. For a long time the main story is veiled and it just looks like a story of siblings and their rivalry. Despite such an ordinary tale, I found it to be very engaging particularly since there are gods and magic involved. It's a very clever idea that Gaiman has taken advantage of: take a simple family reunion, but now have one member be a god. And let chaos ensue. Things get worse and worse as the one or the other brother try to help (or get rid of) the other.

In addition to the brotherly tale, there's also a detective story involving murder and embezzlement. It never feels truly disconnected, though, given that the characters are tightly involved with each other and the threads connecting them are clear. When everything draws to a close we are not surprised to see that things have converged so well and all the characters know each other:
It is a small world. You do not have to live in it particularly long to learn that for yourself. There is a theory that, in the whole world, there are only five hundred real people (the cast, as it were; all the rest of the people in the world, the theory suggests, are extras) and what is more, they all know each other. And it’s true, or true as far as it goes.

As previously mentioned, I did not immediately like the main character. Fat Charlie is just an average guy that is content (not necessarily happy) to remain that way. It felt very much like Richard from Neverwhere. He is so boring you just don't want to hear about him. Many times we read books to hear about amazing characters and their incredible adventures. This is not one of those books. However, the author has an amazing skill of turning this ordinary, boring character into someone you care about and you want him to win or succeed at what he's doing. The author does it so subtly that at first you have no idea why you are so engaged in the story. At the end, you see the work of art Gaiman has created and you cheer for the good guys. Definitely a "zero to hero" type story.

In addition to Fat Charlie, we also see his brother Spider and father Anansi. These two are cool because they are actually gods. They turn the story from a simple story about some brothers to something fantastical. We also see a few other gods like Tiger and Bird Woman that act as antagonists. Human characters like Rosie and her mom, Daisy, and Graham Coats serve to drive up the action and intrigue.

Setting/World Building
Anansi Boys is set in the same universe as American Gods, but it is a completely different style of story. The only things these two books share is the way gods, magic, and spirits are portrayed, and the character Mr. A. Nancy, also known as Anansi. The main premise is, quite simply, that gods are real and hanging out on the Earth. They have great powers or miracles that they can use to change things according to their nature. These gods are generally secret with respect to most of the world, but certain cultures or groups of people are more sensitive to their spiritual natures and know about the gods and magic. Unlike American Gods, these gods are not in a struggle to survive in a inhospitable world. The trickster god Anansi, the Spider, is perfectly happy as he is and does his own thing.

Other than the gods hanging around, there is nothing else of note in the world building. It's set in the real Earth, but with some liberties. Florida and England are real, but the Caribbean island of St. Andrews is fictional. At first, I didn't catch this and thought it was real. There are plenty of islands in the Caribbean, after all, and I don't know them all. I figured the only "made up" thing was the gods, but no: there is no such island. The closest name I could find on the map (of course I looked it up) was the island of San Andrés, which is part of Colombia. However, it's clear that this is not Gaiman's St. Andrews. Of course, you shouldn't expect stories to be 100% true (or 100% false). It's the clever interplay between the real and the fantastical that makes stories like these so fun.

Can you find St. Andrews island? Hint: no.

Final Thoughts
This book, as well as the two others I've read, have convinced me that Neil Gaiman is an excellent writer and one to keep reading. I personally found the book to be more accessible than American Gods and would recommend it over that one. Despite the initial hesitation given the main character, things quickly sped up and became very enjoyable.

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