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I know it's crooked, but it's the only game in town.
—Canada Bill Jones
After a three-year prison term following an assault conviction, a man known only as Shadow is ready to be released back into society. He is not a bad man and wants little more than to go back to his beloved wife Laura, get a job at his friend's gym and live a quiet, simple life. Unfortunately, things are not that simple: Shortly before being released, Shadow discovers that Laura was killed in a car accident and gets out early. At loose ends in the world, Shadow finds himself sharing a flight with a seedy old con man who asks to be called Mr. Wednesday. Wednesday is strangely interested in Shadow, and offers to hire him on as a bodyguard and accomplice; Shadow, with nothing left of his old life and nothing better to do, agrees.
Shadow runs errands for Wednesday and travels into the very heart of America, visiting its small towns and meeting its people and its old, forgotten gods, struggling to stay relevant in the modern era. But unbeknownst to him, he has a much larger role in the oncoming conflict than he thinks...
A novel by Neil Gaiman, interesting for its examination of the intersection between myth and Americana. It is interspersed at various points with stories of immigrants who brought their gods and their beliefs to America with them, and the gods themselves have integrated just as well as their former worshipers. The novel elevates the ordinary and the everyday to mythic status, finding significance in the smallest of things. This quality is exemplified by its protagonist, Shadow, who is both the eternal everyman and something more, something special.
The novel directly inspired White Wolf's tabletop roleplaying game Scion.
- Arc Words: "Storm's on the way" and "I know it's crooked, but it's the only game in town."
- All Myths Are True: No, seriously, all of them (except Paul Bunyan).
- Alone with the Psycho
- Ambiguously Brown: Shadow is asked on several occasions what his ethnicity is, with other characters guessing him to be Hispanic, Native American, or part African American. Shadow himself has very little knowledge of his heritage, but his mother died of sickle-cell anemia and is described as dark, so she is almost certainly African-American; his father is a Norse god. His skin colour is described as 'coffee and cream.' Neil Gaiman sees him as The Rock.
- American Title
- Anthropomorphic Personification: Lots of 'em. For example, all the new gods, and the buffalo man (who seems to be the Anthropomorphic Personification of America itself).
- Basement Dweller: Technical Boy, the personification of the internet, is a fat, sweaty, smelly, rich kid with no social skills. The other characters all treat him like an Internet Tough Guy. Take That!
- Battle-Interrupting Shout: Although he doesn't shout, this is how Shadow defuses the impending war between the gods.
- Batman Gambit
- Bavarian Fire Drill: Mr. Wednesday robs a bank (or, rather the people who are trying to make deposits at the bank). His con was based on a real-life con that Frank Abagnale Jr. claimed to have once pulled off. Some people attempted to pull off the same trick after reading the book.
- Beware the Nice Ones:
- Shadow is normally gentle and friendly, but he is a very big man. It is not a good idea to piss him off. The aftermath of his rage is one of the reasons he was sent to prison.
- To a much more sinister extent, Hinzelmann.
- Big Bad: Mr. Wednesday, with Mr. World/Loki as his Dragon.
- Big Bad Friend: Low-Key Lyesmith is Mr World/Loki.
- Bi the Way: Sam.
- Black Helicopters: The Valkyries.
- Broken Bird: Marguerite Olsen.
- Came Back Wrong: Laura's a zombie. She could speak normally and still had her human memories and intelligence, and she never tried eating anyone, but she was a zombie nevertheless. She had already been embalmed when she was raised, so she rotted slowly over many months.
- The Cameo: A blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance by Delirium from The Sandman. The girl with the talking dog.
- Casanova: Mr. Wednesday, in addition to conning men, loves the art of seducing females (especially virgins) via something as simple as asking for Christmas gifts. He uses spells to seal the deal once his natural charms have the subject warmed up to him.
- Catch Phrase: "Is good" from Czernobog and the three Zorya.
- Catgirl: Bast. Does not have cat ears, sure, but a rough tongue and feline eyes.
- Chekhov's Gun: The apparently throwaway line about a few hitchhikers and kids going missing and never coming back in regards to the small town Shadow stays in. As well as the Notes from Lakeside City Council book that Shadow buys at a Library sale.
- Chekhov's Gunman:
- Low-Key Lyesmith, who is both the God Loki and Mr. World.
- Easter, goddess of fertility and rebirth. She resurrects Shadow after he dies on the World Tree.
- Chess with Death: Checkers, actually.
- Cool Old Guy: Hinzelmann.
- Clap Your Hands If You Believe: It is the fact that people believed in the gods that gave them purchase in America, and now that the belief is lessening they are fading away.
- Cluster F-Bomb: Czernobog.
"Fuck you. Fuck you and fuck your mother and fuck the fucking horse you fucking rode in on. You will not even die in battle. No warrior will taste your blood. No one alive will take your life. You will die a soft, poor death. You will die with a kiss in your lips and a lie in your heart."
- Crossover Cosmology: Most Gods and Goddesses are there, with figures hailing from most continents and the majority of known religions. Jesus is mentioned, but is not a character encountered in the story. In the Author's Preferred Text, a man appears in a scene cut from wide release (prior to the 10th Anniversary Edition) that has Shadow talking with a man in a villa mentioned to have something like Moorish or Moroccan influences; he makes wears a baseball cap, a suit, jokes about turning water into wine, and is indubitably American Jesus.
- Day of the Week Name: Mr. Wednesday. The day name is derived from "Wotan's Day," which was another name for "Odin" in early Germanic Paganism. He goes so far as to point out during his introduction that "seeing as today certainly is my day..."
- Deal with the Devil: One of them, anyway. The truth about the town of Lakeside.
- Death of the Old Gods: All of the ancient deities who were forgotten completely by mankind.
- Deus Sex Machina: Shadow's wet dream with Bast is another turning point for the protagonist.
- Divine Parentage: Shadow.
- Encyclopedia Exposita: From the book being written by Mr. Ibis.
- Eureka Moment:
- The greater your knowledge of Norse Mythology prior to reading the book, the sooner you'll get it.
Shadow: Jesus, Low-Key Lyesmith... Oh, Jesus. Loki. Loki Lie-Smith.
- The Lakeside killings.
- Fantasy Kitchen Sink
- Five-Bad Band: Oddly enough, this dynamic is only revealed towards the end of the novel.
- Flyover Country: For the most part, the main plot takes place on the Great Plains and Midwest.
- The Christmas conversation. (It's a two man con).
- In one of Shadow's dreams, the people who had been hung in sacrifice to Odin smelled of the alcohol they had drunk beforehand. Mr. Wednesday's corpse smelled of Jack Daniels, hinting that he was basically a sacrifice to himself - which is actually accurate to Norse Mythology.
- God Was My Co-Pilot
- Gods Need Prayer Badly: The reason why the old Gods are dying, and the new Gods have arisen. Wednesday is very disdainful of Neo-Pagans in general considering them pretenders, strongly implying their worship is inadequate. It hit Easter hard when Wednesday showed her a self-proclaimed Pagan that did not even know Easter was originally a Pagan holiday, labeling it as "Christian" instead. In their world, Pagans without traditional rituals and well-defined gods and goddesses might as well be Atheist or Agnostic.
- Government Conspiracy: Subverted. The Spookshow is not part of the US Government.
- Granola Girl
- The Heartless: Many of the gods
- Hell Hotel: The hotel at the center of the United States. Literally, for the Technical Boy, as it sits in a deadzone. In the night, Shadow hears him throwing himself against the walls as the unaccustomed isolation causes him to have a breakdown.
- Human Sacrifice
- I Am Who?
- I Don't Pay You to Think - Mr. Wednesday's answer to Shadow's questions about what's going on.
- Ignorance Is Bliss: A major plot point.
- I Have Boobs - You Must Obey!: Possibly attempted; see Distracted by the Sexy
- I Have Many Names: Mr. Wednesday explicitly says this; given the subject matter, it also applies to most of the major characters.
- Ironic Echo:
- "This must look so undignified."
- "Rigged games are the easiest ones to beat."
- Jekyll and Hyde: Czernobog and Bielebog
- Jerkass Gods: Considering the god's resemblances to humans in this book, it can be expected.
- Leprechaun: Mad Sweeney.
- Let's You and Him Fight: Trope Namer, although the paragraph from which the name comes is merely Foreshadowing for the real thing later on; Wednesday and Loki pitting the new American gods against the immigrant gods so they themselves can gain power.
- Living Forever Is Awesome: Maybe not as awesome when your followers are dwindling, but the gods we see are all determined to survive even though their lives have gotten far less glamorous over the centuries or millennia. Except for Thor, who is mentioned to have committed suicide.
- A Load of Bull: As well as several briefly-mentioned minotaurs, we have "the buffalo man," who seems to be an Anthropomorphic Personification of America itself.
- Luke, I Am Your Father: Shadow discovers he is Wednesday's son.
- The Man Behind the Man: Mr. World (aka Loki) to the New Gods, and Mr. Wednesday to Loki himself.
- Massive Multiplayer Scam: Wednesday and Loki's entire plan relies on misdirection and none of the Gods realizing they are being played.
- Meaningful Name:
- Shadow, as his role is to shadow Mr. Wednesday. Laura also states that he never really seemed alive or present.
- Mr. Wednesday has named himself after the day that is named after him.
- Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis? Anubis and Thoth.
- The Men in Black: The Spookshow, minions of the leader of the New Gods, Mr. World. They exist, like all the gods, because so many people assume that there must be a secret spy organization out there.
- Minnesota Nice: The community of Lakeside deconstructs this, taking inspiration from famous portrayals of Minnesota Nice such as Fargo (extremely friendly police) and A Prairie Home Companion (everyone being above average), before revealing itself to be a Town with a Dark Secret. Hinzelmann is a small god who sacrifices children in order to maintain the town's prosperity.
- My Death Is Just the Beginning: Mr. Wednesday
- Mythology Gag: At the World's Largest Carousel, Mr Nancy displays amusement at the prospect of riding a lion statue. This is a reference to Anansi's tendency to antagonize the god Tiger (the embodiment of all big cats) in traditional stories.
- Needle in a Stack of Needles
- Nerd in Evil's Helmet: The "technology kid" acts tough, but other characters see it as rehearsed and kind of pitiful. The book narration describes him as somebody trying too hard and performing actions that should be threatening, but fall short because of his execution.
- Never Heard That One Before:
Shadow: Hey, Huginn or Munin, or whoever you are. Say 'Nevermore'.
- New Weird
- No Name Given: Shadow, known only by his nickname, at least until the quasi-sequel "The Monarch of the Glen", where we learn his birth name is Balder.
- The Nondescript: The god whose name and appearance Shadow cannot remember.
- Not Distracted by the Sexy: Media tries to sway Shadow, as Lucy, with the offer of nudity. It doesn't work, to the point that it colors the rest of his encounters with her, and he goes so far as to avoid watching television wenever possible.
- The Nothing After Death: Chosen by Shadow.
- The Old Convict: Low Key.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Shadow.
- Our Zombies Are Different
- Place of Power: In the Old World people built temples on top of them, in America they built roadside attractions. Prominently featured examples include The House on the Rocks and Rock City.
- Playing Both Sides: Wednesday and Loki are manipulating both the old and new Gods so they can draw power from the inevitable battle.
- Physical God: All of them, at least part time (who knows what was up with Media).
- Powered by a Forsaken Child: The real reason why Lakeside is prospering compared to the economically depressed surrounding towns is because Hinzelmann is an old god who keeps the town thriving through murdered children without the townspeople's knowledge.
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Sam, to Audrey: "You. Are such. A cunt."
- Quick Change: Pulled by Mr. Wednesday
- Quirky Miniboss Squad: The Spookshow
- Resurrected Romance
- The Reveal: "It's a two man con. It's not a war at all."
- Science Is Bad: Played with. The New Gods represent different facets of America's modern, technologically advanced culture, but for a while we are led to sympathize more for the primitive—and seemingly more benevolent—Old Gods. Over the course of the story, however, we come to learn that a not insignificant number of the Old Gods were violent, bloodthirsty monsters in their time, and some of the New Gods are not as eager for conquest as they first appear.
- Surveillance as the Plot Demands: Media can inhabit the body of any TV character and use them as an avatar to spy on or communicate with anyone watching a TV.
- Survival Mantra: "It's easy, there's a trick to it, you do it or you die."
- Shout-Out: In one of Shadow's dreams, a brief mention is given to an "octopus-faced" god.
- Standing Between the Enemies: Shadow manages to stop the battle between the Old and New Gods by telling them both how they were manipulated into fighting by Mr. Wednesday and Loki so that they could gain power from the deaths of the other gods.
- A Storm Is Coming: Repeated by Mister Wednesday and Mad Sweeney.
- Sue Donym: Low-Key Lyesmith = Loki Lie-Smith
- "Take That!" Kiss: Sam to Shadow, as a Take That against everybody else in the bar at that point, but especially Audrey.
- Thanatos Gambit: Wednesday arranges his own assassination in order to convince a lot of reluctant Old Gods to join the war.
- This Is a Work of Fiction: "The gods, however, are real."
- Timmy in a Well: Lampshaded with a raven
- Town with a Dark Secret: Lakeside--the only reason why it has continued to prosper in tough economic times was because Shadow's neighbor turns out to be a kobold that has sacrificed a child every year since the town was founded in a ritual to ensure the town stayed healthy and prosperous. Only the kobold actually knew the secret--all of the other townspeople seemed to have had no idea, many assuming the missing children were simply runaways or, in at least one case, kidnapped by their noncustodial parent from out of town.
- Treacherous Advisor: Wednesday.
- Trickster Mentor: Mr. Wednesday and Low-Key.
- Trojan Prisoner
- Two Aliases, One Character: Low Key/Loki and Mr. World
- Undeath Always Ends
- Unfazed Everyman (or Unlucky Everydude): Shadow
Wednesday looked at him with amusement and something else--irritation perhaps. Or pride. "Why don't you argue?" asked Wednesday. "Why don't you exclaim that it's all impossible? Why the hell do you just do what I say and take it all so fucking calmly?"
- Unwitting Pawn: Virtually all the old and new Gods, and Shadow himself, are pawns in Wednesday and Loki's Kansas City Shuffle.
- Urban Fantasy
- The Verse: Shared with Stardust, although you would only know it by reading Wall: A Prologue, and with "Anansi Boys" since Mr. Nancy not only appears in both, but even dresses the same. There is also a minor crossover with The Sandman, since Delirium makes a brief appearance in San Francisco.
- Violin Scam: Commented upon by Wednesday.
- Wannabe Diss: Wednesday speaks with particular disgust of a waitress who serves him and Shadow; he quizzes her about her religion, and she claims to be pagan, but when further quizzed about the particular flavor of paganism, she spits out some pseudo-mystical bullshit and acts offended when Wednesday brings up some of the more hedonistic aspects. Wednesday says she "doesn't have the faith and won't have the fun," with the implication that he could at least respect her if she enjoyed herself. He goes on to name her sins, which, from the petty to the actively criminal, show a similar propensity for half-measures and lack of commitment, with further implication that for this she is worse than the actively evil. The line about "does not have the faith and will not have the fun" is taken from a poem by G. K. Chesterton, about how dreary modern unbelievers are compared to ancient pagans.
- Wham! Line: Two of them:
- The World Tree: The Norse version, more or less
- A Worldwide Punomenon:
- "I was just rotting away where I was." --Laura
- "Look in the trunk."
- Wednesday gets the girls because of his charm. One of the eighteen charms he learned while hanging from the World Tree.
- Your Cheating Heart: Laura was cheating on Shadow with his best friend.
- You All Meet in a Cell: Well, somewhat. Loki and Shadow meet in prison.