An American Gods Reading List: 9 Stories of Deities & Men Mingling in the World
From Greek to Egyptian deities, from Old Testament angels to half-human-half-ibex heroines — the gods can’t get enough of this world, and if you thought American Gods was the end, think again.
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Fictional riffs on characters from mythology have an impressive staying power. Given the source, that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, now a Starz show that looks all but guaranteed to achieve hit status, takes on this classic premise, with a few strange and poignant twists: the setup of a conflict between the gods of bygone years and a host of new gods inspired by aspects of modern life; the skewering of certain genre tropes; and a winding plot in which allegiances shift and the nature of belief is challenged.
It seems like gods are just about everywhere you look in the pop culture firmament these days, including the host of deities that have worked their way into the DC and Marvel universes. (Are you ready for the divinities of Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok?) It isn’t hard to see why these stories resonate. These are characters and ideas that have already endured for millennia — they tap into primal questions, desires, and debates that we’ve had over the course of generations. And more specifically, we want to know what happens when gods (or other mythological beings) meet in our world. It’s one of the central questions of American Gods, one that’s been explored not just by Gaiman but numerous authors over the years. Here’s a look at a 9 works that take that question head-on and, like American Gods, provide novel spins on how to bridge millennia-old concepts with modern concerns.
1. Elizabeth Hand, Waking the Moon
Elizabeth Hand’s sprawling novel begins in the mid-1970s. A group of college students become close on the campus of a university in Washington, DC, but other forces are gathering as well: a male-dominated secret society of occultists, and an archaeologist obsessed with discovering evidence of an ancient goddess now forgotten to time. Throughout the novel, Hand poses hard questions about worship, sacrifice, control, and secrecy, leading to a powerful conclusion.
2. Octavia E. Butler, Wild Seed
In Octavia E. Butler’s fiction, expectations exist to be upended and deconstructed. Her novel Wild Seed is (chronologically) the first in a series of books exploring evolution and the rise of humans with paranormal abilities. Given their long lifespans and complex relationships with normal people around them, the story reads a lot like a science fictional take on the time-honored meeting of immortals with everyday people.
3. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, The Wicked + The Divine Vol.1: The Faust Act
Frequent collaborators Gillen and McKelvie tackle the question of gods and mortals with their ongoing comic book The Wicked + The Divine, in which a host of gods are reincarnated every eighty years, where they live brief lives and then die. The juxtaposition of mythological traditions and knowing riffs on pop culture and celebrities makes this a thematically rich work; it’s also frequently gripping, and haunting in unexpected ways.
4. Kiini Ibura Salaam, When the World Wounds
Not all of the stories in Kiini Ibura Salaam’s recent collection of short fiction examine the paths of deities and humans converging, but two of the longest do–and juxtapose those meetings with wrenching moments in history. In “Hemmie’s Calenture,” a woman escaping slavery during the War of 1812 is pulled into the conflict between two ageless supernatural beings, while “Because of the Bone Man” features personifications of aspects of New Orleans navigating their city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
5. Pamela Dean, Tam Lin
At first, Pamela Dean’s novel Tam Lin appears to be a nuanced portrait of campus life at a college in Minnesota. Slowly, however, strange and surreal aspects begin to creep in at the edges; there’s a sense of ritual to the proceedings, and evidence of a wider understanding among some of its characters. Questions of mortality and immortality arise, and the border between our world and that of the supernatural becomes thinner. The resulting novel is one that balances heady concepts and emotional veracity.
6. Randa Jarrar, Him, Me, Muhammad Ali
The stories in Randa Jarrar’s award-winning collection span a number of tones, from jarring realism to the surreal and fantastical. For instance, the protagonist of “The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Zelwa the Halfie” seems to have emerged from a myth–she’s half-human and half-ibex–but her concerns and anxieties feel decidedly modern.
7. Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates
Sometimes, the interaction of gods and humans can lead to other boundaries breaking down. Take Tim Powers’s novel The Anubis Gates, in which a nineteenth-century effort to bring back the gods of ancient Egypt ends up encompassing mythology, time travel, and a host of fantastical creatures. Powers isn’t a writer to shy away from big ideas, and this novel features them in abundance.
8. Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Time For Everything
While Knausgaard is best known to Anglophone readers for his acclaimed multi-volume work, My Struggle, he shows off a very different side in this strange, obsessive work tracking the conflicted relationship between humanity and angels from the time of the Old Testament through the present day. It’s a compellingly unhinged book, and one that brings the familiar together with the disquieting.
9. Jo Walton, The Just City
In Jo Walton’s The Just City–the first book of a trilogy that heads into a host of unpredictable directions along the way–the Greek pantheon of gods transports a host of people from across numerous centuries to a city in ancient Greece, using Plato’s Republic as the model for their society. Also, there are robots. Walton uses these disparate elements to ask bold questions about mortality, society, and the nature of consciousness, taking a host of risks that pay off along the way.