not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
The idea for this book, which seems at least partly inspired by Gaiman’s Sandman comics, is great: the gods of every pantheon are real, and their power on each continent is reflected in the acts of worship they receive from followers. Gaiman seems to have fun showing how different gods got to America and how they survive in small vignettes at the end of most chapters–the variety of the narratives and people really drives home the sweep of American history in a way that I appreciated.
The central story, however, is a little less compelling. I’m trying to give my immediate impressions here, so I’ll skip over a lot of character stuff that bugged me and say that I think giving the main character a mysterious past and unexplained connection to events hobbled the story more than Gaiman thought it should. Generally, when there’s a central mystery to be answered in a book’s last few chapters, it helps if the dozens of chapters leading up to that one have a sense of progress, even if that sense turns out to be false. But the chapters seem stuck in the same gear for the first 4/5ths of the book–go to a place, meet a god, figure out who the god is, the god either agrees to join Shadow and Wednesday or does not, rinse and repeat. Many of the gods’ occupations and lives are cleverly conceived, but the chapters don’t really seem to build to anything, and it feels like we’re waiting for the point in the story where all the clues that Gaiman is sprinkling into the chapters will become relevant.
Also, dipping into the character stuff a bit, Shadow seems to be fairly empty, even for a protagonist who’s supposed to be a self-insert character. He joins sides in the central conflict in a fairly arbitrary fashion, and there’s no sense that the conflict has any real stakes for him. Even the thing he supposedly wants, he doesn’t seem to want, and when he makes a huge decision at about the 4/5 point in the book, it seems to be done with the same shrugging ambivalence with which he greets every decision. I don’t know what it means that Gaiman could come up with such great modern contexts for the gods, but couldn’t create a modern character for whom the fates of the gods might actually mean something.