American Gods is a Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel by Neil Gaiman. The novel is a blend of Americana, fantasy, and various strands of ancient and modern mythology, all centring on the mysterious and taciturn Shadow. It is Gaiman's fourth prose novel, preceded by Good Omens (a collaboration with Terry Pratchett), Neverwhere, and Stardust. Several of the themes touched upon in the book were previously glimpsed in The Sandman graphic novels.
The central premise of the novel is that gods and mythological creatures exist because people believe in them (a form of thoughtform). Immigrants to the United States brought with them dwarves, elves, leprechauns, and other spirits and gods. However, the power of these mythological beings has diminished as people's beliefs wane. New gods have arisen, reflecting America's obsessions with media, celebrity, technology, and drugs, among others.
Shadow is a taciturn ex-con who leaves prison only to find that his wife, Laura (McCabe) Moon, and best friend died in a car accident, leaving him alone in the world. Bereft, he takes a job as a bodyguard for a mysterious conman called Mr. Wednesday, who seems to know more about Shadow's life than he lets on. Shadow and Wednesday travel across America visiting Wednesday's unusual colleagues and acquaintances until Shadow learns that Wednesday is in fact an incarnation of Odin the All-Father (the name Wednesday is derived from "Odin's –Wōden's – day"), who in his current guise is recruiting American manifestations of the Old Gods of ancient mythology, whose powers have waned as their believers have decreased in number, to participate in an epic battle against the New American Gods, manifestations of modern life and technology (for example, the Internet, media, and modern means of transport). Shadow meets many gods and magical creatures, including Mr. Nancy (a manifestation of the spider god/trickster figure Anansi), Czernobog (here an elderly East European immigrant), and a leprechaun named Mad Sweeney, who gives Shadow the gift of a magical gold coin. Shadow tosses the coin into his wife's grave, inadvertently bringing her back from the dead as a semi-living revenant.
Shadow and Wednesday try to rally the Old Gods to fight the new, but most are reluctant to get involved. The New Gods abduct Shadow (utilising a group of shadowy Men in Black (MIB) led by the mysterious Mr. World), but Laura rescues him, killing several MIBs in the process. For his protection, Wednesday hides Shadow, first with a few stray Egyptian gods (Thoth, Anubis, and Bast, here as Mr. Ibis, Mr. Jaquel, and a common brown housecat) who run a funeral parlor in Illinois, and then finally in the sleepy Great Lakes community of Lakeside. Shadow meets many colourful locals in Lakeside, including Hinzelmann, an old-timer who spins tall tales, and Chad Mulligan, the workaday local chief of police. Lakeside is tranquil and idyllic but Shadow suspects something is not quite right about the town: While neighbouring communities turn into ghost towns, Lakeside is mysteriously resilient. The town's children seem to disappear with unusual frequency. But he cannot investigate further, busily travelling across America with Wednesday, meeting the likes of Johnny Appleseed and the goddess Easter to solicit their help in the brewing conflict. They are pursued all the while by the Men in Black, particularly Mister Town, a jaded MIB who blames Shadow for the death of his friends (actually murdered by Laura).
Finally the New Gods seek to parlay with Wednesday–but in fact they murder him. This act galvanises the other Old Gods into action, and finally they rally behind a common banner to face their enemies in battle. Shadow is bound by his compact with Wednesday to hold his vigil by re-enacting Odin's time hanging from a "World Tree" while pierced by a spear. Shadow dies and visits the land of the dead, where he is guided by Thoth and judged by Anubis. Easter later brings him back to life, obeying orders that she does not fully understand. During the period between life and death, Shadow learns that he is Wednesday's son, conceived as part of the deity's plans. He realises that Odin and Mr. World have been working a "two-man con", and Mr. World is secretly Loki Liesmith, his former cellmate who he knew as "Low Key Lyesmith". They orchestrated Shadow's birth, his meeting of Loki in disguise in prison, and Laura's death. As part of the con, Loki had ordered Odin's murder so that the battle caused between the New and Old Gods would serve as a sacrifice to Odin, restoring his power, while Loki would feed on the chaos of the battle.
Shadow arrives at Rock City, site of the climactic battle, just after the battle had started but in time to stop it, explaining that both sides had nothing to gain and everything to lose, with Odin and Loki the only winners. America is a "bad place for Gods", Shadow tells them, and recommends they go home and make the best of what they can get. The Gods depart, Odin's ghost fades, and Laura impales Loki on a branch of the World Tree, and finally dies after Shadow takes the magical coin from her.
In the aftermath of the climax, Shadow returns to Lakeside, where he finally stumbles on the town's secret: The missing children are abducted by Hinzelmann, who is in fact a kobold, an ancient Germanic household god. Hinzelmann blessed and protected the town, making it prosper despite the hardships plaguing the rest of the region, in exchange for the town's unwitting sacrifice of their young. Shadow brings about Hinzelmann's demise, even though he knows this may doom the community.
In Iceland, Shadow meets another incarnation of Odin, who was created by the belief of the original settlers of Iceland, and is therefore much closer to the Odin of mythology than Wednesday was. Shadow accuses Odin of Wednesday's actions, whereupon Odin replies that "He was me, yes. But I am not him." After a short talk, Shadow gives Odin Wednesday's glass eye, which Odin places in a leather bag as a keepsake. Shadow performs a simple sleight-of-hand coin trick, which delights Odin enough that he asks for a repeat performance. Shadow then performs a small magic of his own, pulling a golden coin from nowhere. He flips it into the air and, without waiting to see if it ever lands, walks down the hill and away.
The book also features many subplots and cutaway scenes detailing the adventures of various mythical beings in America: The Queen of Sheba works as a prostitute, staying young and powerful by preying, succubus-like, on the men she sleeps with; a salesman from Oman meets a cab-driving Ifrit; the first Viking explorers to come to America bring their gods, including Odin, with them; a Cornish woman turns fugitive in the new world, inadvertently populating it with the pixies and fairies of her native country; slaves from Africa populate the Caribbean Islands and America with their tribal gods; even going back all the way to 14,000 BC and the gods of the very first American immigrants.