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Anansi Boys
Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont, © 2006

Format: Book
By:   Neil Gaiman
Genre:   Fantasy
Released:   September 2005
Review Date:   February 09, 2006

Fat Charlie's not one of life's winners. He has spent most of his life trapped in the shadow of his charming, intelligent and devilishly handsome father. He works for an oily talent agent who keeps him around because he doesn't ask too many questions, and he's engaged to a woman who refuses to sleep with him.

However, one day his quiet little life gets tipped on its head when he learns that his father is dead . . . and that he was a god . . . and that he has a twin brother called Spider who takes very much after his father. Spider is handsome, cunning, charismatic, and, unlike his father, is completely selfish.

Amused by Fat Charlie's life, Spider sets about taking it over. Passing himself off as Fat Charlie, he takes over his flat, his job, and his fiancee leaving Fat Charlie all alone and hunted by the police. Fat Charlie realises that this was all a terrible mistake and tries to get rid of Spider by making a deal with one of his father's old enemies. However, Charlie comes to realise that, as far as gods go, his father was probably one of the better ones and that he and Spider aren't all that different after all — and that the only way to solve all of his problems and save Spider is to go back into the dreamtime and truly become his father's son.

With the exception of Bad Omens (co-written with Terry Pratchett), Gaiman's writing tends to suffer from a failure to pay as much attention to the actual story as to the mythological ideas that are being thrown about the place. American Gods, for example, might well have been wildly imaginative and intelligent, but it was also emotionally hollow. Similarly, Gaiman's remixing of the history of the Marvel universe in 1602 was ingenious but the plotting was absolutely disastrous ("Dudes . . . it's all like totally because of aliens").

Anansi Boys bucks this trend by being funny, warm, charming, and joyously accessible. In fact, this is arguably the best story Gaiman has even written. Anansi himself is rendered as a charismatic old guy with a twinkle in his eye and a warm heart, his sons splitting these traits up amongst themselves quite nicely, producing the warm-hearted but spineless Fat Charlie and the gleefully amoral Spider. For the first time, Gaiman's work becomes something that you can love rather than just be impressed by or interested in, because this book uses its narrative simplicity and characterisation as a springboard into some of the most engaging ideas Gaiman has ever produced.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a bunch of guys who spent their teens reading and thinking, fantasy and sci-fi writers have long been fans of the archetypal battle between the Bully and the Trickster. Richly allegorical, this battle can be taken to symbolise any triumph of the wits over brute force or mindless conservatism. For example, in his debut novel King Rat (which also featured Anansi) China Mieville used this battle to symbolise the struggle between multi-culturalism and cultural patriarchy. Fans of Neal Stephenson will remember his talk of Greek and Babylonian myths symbolising the triumph of science and reason over bestial ignorance. Gaiman, though, puts a different and arguably more trangressive spin on this timeless allegorical battle.

Anansi battled Tiger and stole humanity's stories. When Tiger owned the stories, all mankind could think of was killing and surviving, but Anansi brought them freedom from such things and gave them stories about love and fun and dance and song. Anansi's victory over Tiger can therefore be taken to symbolise Man's movement from an animalistic hunter-gatherer existence to a more sedentary life where survival became easier, freeing up time for more trivial pursuits. Just as Anansi battled Tiger, now Fat Charlie must battle first Spider and then a host of mythical beings using just his wits.

Fat Charlie is an everyman; he doesn't fight for all of mankind's stories but for control over his own. Fat Charlie's fight can therefore be seen as a fight between man and his gods. Fat Charlie frees himself from the control of his gods and realises when the battle is done that he has become a lot more like Spider and Spider has become a lot more like him. In fact, they are the same person cut in two.

For Gaiman, then, religion is a collection of stories written by humans and we should treat them as such. But would you expect anything else from a man who makes his living messing with old religious myths?

Anansi Boys is a warm and wonderful book marred only by a certain shallowness to the secondary characters, and by the well worn tendency of fantasy writers to resolve all outstanding plot difficulties using some impenetrable magical process. Despite these problems, this is arguably Gaiman's most engaging book: Its humour and intelligence sparkles through on every page.

It is also the first book to offer a number of DVD-style "extras," including production notes and deleted scenes. Gaiman fans will adore it, and it will even appeal to those who don't normally like his work.

RevSF reviewer Jonathan McCalmont's father isn't a god, but he does have an evil twin.

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