The Monarch of the Glen
While American Gods is very much a standalone story, there’s plenty more background to get into for those who’d like to read more around it. The Monarch of the Glen was originally included with Gaiman’s spectacular 2006 short story collection, Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders, but has since been made available as a standalone novella (with some beautiful illustrations by Daniel Egneus).
Where American Gods itself is a vast and sprawling narrative, interspersed with occasional self-contained stories, The Monarch of the Glen has a very different shape. Here again the protagonist is Shadow Moon, though in this instance he has long since left America behind to wander the wider world. In the course of that wandering, we find him stranded in the Scottish highlands. The narrative is along the same lines as Beowulf, if that helps push you in the right direction.
The mythologies evoked are slightly different (in keeping with the change in setting), but the overall tone will be very familiar to fans of American Gods. It’s also an opportunity to see Shadow a little further removed from the context we know and the pressures of the situation we see in American Gods.
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For those with no interest in the illustrated edition of The Monarch of the Glen, Fragile Things remains an excellent collection of short stories with a gentle fantasy twist. Moreover, the book also includes another (very) short story titled “The Mapmaker,” which was originally written for inclusion in American Gods, but never quite made the cut.
At the very least, the fact that this book contains two more remnants of 2006 release date serves as a constant reminder that there was a time when people waited five years for a tiny slice more American Gods, so our one year wait seems a little less dismal.
If you’d like another follow-up, you’d do well to check out Gaiman’s later short story collection, Trigger Warning, which contains the short story “Black Dog.” Alternatively...
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For those who prefer the approach of a nice novella presented with illustrations, Black Dog has also been issued as a standalone book (with illustrations once more provided by Daniel Egneus). Here again, we find Shadow Moon alone in the north of Britain, where he finds himself staying in a rural pub on a rainswept night.
If The Monarch of the Glen stands out for telling a story that feels smaller than that of American Gods, Black Dog is claustrophobic by comparison. Rather than being about the broad strokes of a particular mythology, it has the feel of a character we now know well interacting with small-scale local legend. As you can imagine, this changes the tone somewhat, and lends it a personal feel that’s all too easy to lose track of in the hubbub of the ‘big picture.’
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We’ll avoid stepping fully away from Neil Gaiman by jumping to something he at least had a hand in with Good Omens. Co-written by fantasy legend Terry Pratchett, Good Omens is effectively a coming-of-age novel that happens to coincide with the apocalypse. The humour is just as you’d expect from the combination of Pratchett and Gaiman. There's a tendency toward the ridiculous, undercut by a tinge of bittersweet sadness. Sometimes that’s sadness for a misspent youth, sometimes just a romantic notion of a certain time or place, but it’s almost always buried in there as a soft burr.
Here, rather than the old gods of American Gods, the narrative is spurred on by the presence of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. It’s the story of the biblical end of the world, precipitated by the birth of Satan’s son. Opposing this armageddon are an angel named Aziraphale and a demon named Crowley, each their respective side’s agent on earth. Both have grown so attached to their life on Earth that they view the prospect of the end of the world as a terrible eventuality.
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The Night Watch
Stepping away from Gaiman altogether, Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch is a spectacular blend of a recognisable modern world and a strange setting informed by folklore. Set in Moscow in the late 1990s, Night Watch plots the course of Anton Gorodetsky, a man who discovers relatively late in life that he is an "Other," capable of sensing the twilight world of the book’s magic.
The book splits the difference between urban fantasy novel, detective novel, and a series of short stories about a modern world in which mythological creatures are active agents. Like American Gods, it has the feel of a single broad narrative interspersed with smaller episodes that serve to flesh out the world in which it’s set. Moreover, it positions the forces of light and darkness (the Night Watch and Day Watch respectively) opposite one another in a kind of bureaucratic approach to good and evil that sees witches and wizards trading spells back and forth in a bid to squeeze as much as they can from every situation. It's a bizarre combination, but one that will appeal to those who enjoyed the gods of American Gods effectively hidden throughout a world that no longer wishes to see them.
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Rivers of London
Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, released in the US as Midnight Riot, is a detective novel, at least in the broadest terms. It follows the adventures of PC Peter Grant, whose dreams of being a detective are all but dashed when he finishes his probation only to immediately be saddled with a desk job miles from danger. Grant’s situation improves when he offers insight into a strange murder thanks to an eyewitness account he hears from a ghost. This sees him inducted into a division of the police that deals specifically with supernatural crimes.
From there, it’s got everything you could ask for in an urban fantasy. The human characters feel jaded, but real enough for us to be concerned about them as they’re tossed into a world they’re not wholly equipped to understand, the inhuman characters feel appropriately larger-than-life, and the world itself feels as though it’s been carefully injected into the gaps in a real city.
Part of the appeal of Rivers of London is that the London's rivers are personified as a series of river gods, including Old Father Thames himself. As you might suspect, this resonates well with American Gods’ gods.
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The Last Wish
Sadly, The Last Wish remains criminally underread compared to the three videogames based on it (beginning with The Witcher). Less a novel than a collection of episodic encounters with monsters and mythical creatures, Andrej Sapkowski’s The Last Wish is the first of a series of books about Geralt of Rivia, a sort of mercenary monster hunter who roams the countryside looking for supernatural creatures to fight (or at least quell). It’s nothing too complicated, for the most part it reads like old adventure series, and that’s part of its charm.
Being set in a fantasy world, The Last Wish might seem like it’s a little further afield than most of the other books mentioned so far, but the similarities run deeper than you might expect. Part of what makes the whole series so appealing is its treatment of the various creatures that Geralt is hired to dispatch. Sometimes, those creatures are monstrous beasts that pose a threat to anyone living nearby, but almost as often they’re misunderstood mythical animals in a world that is moving on without them.
Where much of American Gods takes place in rural and out-of-the-way places, The Last Wish has the sense of a rapidly urbanising world that is encroaching on the territory of these near-mythological creatures. It’s a strange feeling, but given how often those encounters are fatal for one party or another, there is a sense of the inevitable march of progress gradually grinding some of the magic from the world.
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The Selected Stories of Manly Wade Wellman Volume 4: Sin's Doorway & Other Ominous Entrances
Manly Wade Wellman forms the bridge here between the fiction and folk tales. Born in what is now Angola, Wellman spent much of his childhood steeped in folklore. After moving to America, his hunger for folk stories continued until he was made assistant director of the New York Folklore Project. All of this to say that Wellman’s fiction, though it fits well with much of the pulp writing of its time, was deeply informed by his intimacy with folk stories from two different continents.
Wellman is best remembered for his stories of the Appalachian mountains, many of which involve characters stumbling into supernatural situations that they can combat only thanks to their own knowledge and understanding of folklore.
While he did write novels, Wellman’s best work tends to be like the folk stories from which he draws inspiration; they are concise, poetic, and tend to linger in the mind of the reader for a few days afterward. This is as much a result of Wellman’s poetic use of language and his ability to draw on a vernacular that feels, above all else, true.
“Up these heights and down these hollows you’d best go expecting anything. Maybe everything. What’s long time ago left off happening outside still goes on here, and the tales the mountain folk tell sound truer here than outside.”
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If the fact that The Monarch of the Glen is loosely based on Beowulf caught your attention, you may also be interested in John Gardner's 1971 novel, Grendel. Gardner's novel recontextualises some fundamental elements of the novel by presenting the reader with the world from Grendel's point of view.
It might sound like a relatively small shift, but as Grendel's life story is explained we begin to sympathise with him. We see Grendel less as a monster than as a character with his own agency trying to make his way in the world.
Here again we see the theme of the inevitable march of human progress beginning to encroach on the territory of fantastic beasts, and Grendel watches as civilisation rises, but his interactions with the world of men seem doomed. Grendel may sound bleak, but there is a magic to it that's difficult to describe.
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Philip Pullman is better known for His Dark Materials, but it would be doing him an injustice not to mention his excellent selection of stories from the Brothers Grimm. For those who love the allusions to folk tales scattered throughout American Gods, the Grimm brothers were scholars and folklorists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, so there’s a certain pedigree there.
As those of you who have read his other work will attest, Pullman’s style is both charming and engaging. While there are some classics here that people will already be largely familiar with (like “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel,” and “Hansel and Gretel”), there are also stories that are often overlooked, not least of which “The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers” and “The Three Snake Leaves.” As with American Gods, the gentle blend of the familiar and the obscure makes this an absolute joy to read. It’s a particular pleasure for those who haven’t given much time over to reading folk tales.
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The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories
For anyone who fell in love with American Gods for its gentle twists on folk tales, Pullman’s retelling of traditional stories may be less interesting to you than Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Originally released in 1979, The Bloody Chamber is a collection that specifically focuses on female characters in fairy tales. It might seem like a minor change, but it breathes new life into otherwise familiar stories, forcing the reader to reconsider some narratives that might otherwise be taken for granted.
If you have been particularly taken by the ambitious adaptation of American Gods, Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” is as strange and beautiful as the original story. Moreover, it’s another adaptation that seamlessly blends a series of discrete narratives into a single, unified whole. It’s absolutely worth reading the story and following it up with the film, if only for comparison's sake.
Carter’s style is simultaneously vivid and fanciful, with stories that are stark and filled with rich colour. If this sounds like a strange pairing, it suits the book's combination of the gothic and the fairytale.
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Continuing in the vein of new perspectives on classic stories, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad offers an alternative look at Homer’s epic, The Odyssey. Where The Odyssey portrays Odysseus’ island-hopping journey home after The Iliad, Atwood’s novella features Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, reflecting on her life from Hades in the 21st century. Part of the fun is in the way that Atwood fills some of the gaps in the narrative established by both The Iliad and The Odyssey, including that Odysseus’ going to war effectively left Penelope alone to both raise Telemachus and manage Ithaca.
Part of what makes this one particularly appropriate for fans of American Gods is that it gives us an opportunity to see from the point of view of the wife of an epic hero, casting that hero in a less than favourable light. Indeed, while Shadow’s journey with Wednesday mirrors the structure of an epic poem, the fact that Laura has quite so much agency (and indeed, rescues Shadow) is one of the areas in which it differentiates itself.
It’s also worth noting that Atwood is currently having her cultural moment in a similar manner to Gaiman, thanks in no small part to the incredible popularity of the adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale.
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While American Gods is often compared to The Odyssey, the specifics of the book come far closer to Virgil’s The Aeneid. Where the overwhelming majority of The Odyssey focuses on Odysseus’ voyage home, The Aeneid is a book about a people who are left effectively without a home. Our hero, Aeneas, ends up being the leader of a people on a journey to find a new home after they are displaced.
More than that though, Aeneas, like Shadow Moon, takes responsibility for the hearth gods of Troy after the city is defeated. It is in that sense of duty and dedication to the cause of gods that could die that the two narratives resonate most strongly. Indeed, when Aeneas describes himself, he even goes so far as to say:
“I am Aeneas, duty-bound, and known
Above high air of heaven by my fame,
Carrying with me in my ships our gods
Of hearth and home, saved from the enemy.”
Shadow’s journey home after leaving prison at the beginning of American Gods leaves him in a similar position. Effectively without a home to return to, he finds himself shouldering the burden of the old gods. Obviously, The Aeneid is presented in a very different style, but it too is a single long narrative with smaller, episodic adventures scattered throughout.
Aeneas even visits the underworld, for those of you who enjoyed that portion of American Gods in particular.
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Of Gods and Fighting Men - The Story of the Tuatha de Danaan and the Fianna of Ireland
Continuing with the theme of older stories, we’ll also recommend Lady Gregory’s Gods and Fighting Men. For those who enjoyed Mad Sweeney and the general hints he gives at a broader Irish mythology, as well as for those who enjoyed the episode dedicated to Irish folk tales, there are few books that take the same degree of care as Gods and Fighting Men.
Just as American Gods often describes the ways in which the old gods came to the New World, Gods and Fighting Men spends its early chapters describing how the old gods first came to Ireland, and the wars between the Tuatha De Dannan and the Firbolgs who were already there when they landed. From there, the stories meander as folk stories almost always do, but if you’ve been paying attention to the things that Mad Sweeney says over the course of the first series of American Gods then you’ll certainly recognise some of the events he’s referred to. The story of Lug is a particular highlight.
For the most part, the book sets the tone perfectly. The characters involved aren’t people, they’re often both somehow more and somehow less than that. Moreover, they’re described in the poetic terms needed to really sell these kinds of folk tales.
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It’s sweet that we can end a list like this as we began it, having moved broadly from fiction to folklore, with another Neil Gaiman book. For anyone who fell in love with Gaiman’s depiction of Wednesday in American Gods, then you’ll likely enjoy his more recent depiction of the full Norse pantheon. Where American Gods is a very specific interpretation of the Norse myths, Norse Mythology is a more straightforward retelling of the original stories. As with Lady Gregory’s collections of Irish myths and legends, Gaiman manages this with a flourish and a style that does these stories justice.
It’s tricky to add too much here without giving away some of the things that make the Norse myths so much fun, but the book’s treatment of Loki in particular is excellent (not least because of his tension with Thor). There’s also the classic appeal of the Aesir’s enchanted artefacts, like the cloak of falcon feathers that, once wrapped tight around someone, transforms them into a falcon. There is a genuine sense of magic here that's hard not to love.
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