Anansi Boys is the second book by Neil Gaiman that I’ve read, and it shares many similar themes with my first read, American Gods. But while I felt that book fell flat in many ways, Anansi Boys is a superior book which improved on the central idea. More importantly, Anansi Boys delivers on the premise in more satisfying ways than American Gods. Fat Charlie is by far a better protagonist than Shadow, and his story flows more eloquently, in my opinion.
Charlie Nancy, or Fat Charlie, is the son of a god named Anansi. Anasi is charismatic and a trickster, and growing up under his huge shadow, Charlie feels terminally embarrassed by his father’s outlandish behavior. He even feels embarrassed by his father’s sudden death, which happened in a karaoke bar while Charlie’s father was in the midst of wrapping up a big number.
Charlie doesn’t know he has a brother, but during his father’s funeral, a friend of the family tells Charlie many shocking things. He learns only then that his father was a god, and that he has a brother named Spider. According to the family friend Spider got all of the godly powers in the family, while Charlie was just…Charlie. The family friend suggests that Charlie summon his brother by talking to any spider. But Charlie doesn’t believe this being a bland kind of guy who doesn’t believe in gods living among men. He returns to his home in London, and he glibly tells a spider to send his brother by for a visit.
He’s understandably shocked when Spider does show up, and he’s got to be the bearer of bad news and explain their father’s death. Spider investigates the death in a way that proves to Charlie that Spider is a god, and then he takes out Charlie for a night of “mourning.” Charlie wakes up with an unknown woman in his bed, and from then on Spider’s influence in his life just keeps making things worse.
Spider is an irresponsible and carefree god, and after getting Charlie plastered, he makes a very bad attempt to imitate Charlie and do his job and have a lunch date with Charlie’s fiancée, Rosie. He exposes Charlie’s boss as a fraud, which almost seems like a good thing at first. But from the moment that Spider meets Rosie, all his plans for life change, and Charlie’s life rapidly slides off the side of a cliff. The fact that Rosie is the fiancée of Charlie doesn’t matter, Spider just knows that he wants her. So Spider, disguised as Charlie, seduces Rosie. And Charlie finds out about it in the worst way possible.
Charlie then sets out on a quest to get rid of his brother, and in the process, he makes major problems, for Spider, and for himself.
Without giving spoilers, it’s very hard to talk about what happens next, but this is a complex and sometimes muddled book. Spider’s meddling with Charlie’s boss begins revealing that Graham Coats, talent agent to the stars, is in fact a scam artist with a heart of coal. Because of Spider exposing his criminal enterprise, Graham begins a panicked plan to frame Charlie. At the same time, he’s also confronted by one of his older clients. He kills them, and then he takes off, believing he has escaped and pinned everything on his inept employee. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The main thing that made this a superior book to American Gods is that the sub plots and side characters here all tied back into the main story. In American Gods, there were a number of side stories that, while interesting, had nothing to do with the main story. They didn’t go anywhere or relate back to the man character’s plight. Shadow was kind of dull and unlikable, so I was actually grateful for any tangent, even if it wasn’t part of the main plot. At least then, it was an excuse to get away from Shadow for a little while longer.
But the side stories of Anansi Boys all tie in to the main plot, and I didn’t feel anything was useless padding. Fat Charlie is a much better character to follow, both funny and bumbling in a ways that were kind of endearing. So when the story shifted to cover the other characters, I liked those scenes too, but I still wanted to get back to Charlie and his side of the story.
Gaiman also should get credit for writing great dialogue. This was one of the saving graces of American Gods, but in Anansi Boys, he’s better able to weave together dialogue that makes me less aware of when the story’s gotten muddled. The quips and cracks are so sharp and witty that the conversations gloss over low points in the story. This is dialogue so good, writers ought to study it as “the right way to handle conversations,” in my opinion.
What really disappointed me about American Gods was the weak ending, and I feel like Anansi Boys does a lot better in this regard, although it’s still kind of a letdown after all the previous build up. But from the anticlimactic battle, the narrator goes on to explain how both Charlie and Spider embrace their true natures and become good gods. Charlie chooses a path of lower godhood, but it feels fitting, like a continuing legacy of his father’s “undercover” work.
So, I give Anansi Boys 4 stars, and I recommend it to fans of fantasy and mythology. In comparison to American Gods, I think it’s in every way a superior book that creates a convincing world of gods among men, and their epic misadventures.