I read this as soon as I got my hands on it, 'cos I've been waiting for a new Gaiman book for what seems like ages but really is, ooh, just over a year (if you include picture books), and rather less than six months (if you include the extended Hill House edition of American Gods, which I received just before Christmas).
Anansi Boys is not really a sequel to American Gods, although it does share a character, and is pretty obviously set in the same 'world' (where gods are real, and walk among us, and are pretty normal people really). This book, though, doesn't feel like any sort of continuation at all - it actually feels a lot more like Neverwhere. Partly that's due to the setting - mostly London with a few trips to Florida, Saint Andrews and the beginning of the world - but mostly because of the tone of the writing. American Gods was a big, dense novel, with some (interesting, but possibly not all that deep) things to say about belief and the evolution of technology. Anansi Boys is a much more gentle read. There is very little death, or torture, or war (although some nasty things do happen to Spider), and rather more comedy, romance and fun.
Fat Charlie is a rather bored Londoner, with a crappy job and a soon-to-be mother-in-law who really doesn't like him. When he returns to Florida to attend his father's funeral, he is surprised to be told that he has a brother he doesn't remember, who can be summoned by asking a spider to pass on a message. Fat Charlie then makes the mistake, while drunk, of doing so. And much hilarity and chaos ensues. Not for Fat Charlie, though, who finds that Spider is rather better at his life than he is himself. When Charlie attempts to get rid of Spider, he makes a deal with a God that he shouldn't have, and things get rather worse from then on. But everything ends happily, just the way it ought to.
There are some wonderful jokes, descriptions and one-liners in this book. I found that rather a surprise - although all of Gaiman's works have a layer of wit, and Good Omens is a fantastically funny book - because here, they are everywhere. There's a sense of whimsy that stands out (Fat Charlie's adventures with and without a lime, for example) because the book changes feel so quickly. Spider's torture is deeply unpleasant, and Grahame Coats is a very nasty piece of work (as all villains should be) - but on the other hand, Spider and Charlie's night out on the town is very funny indeed, as are most of the descriptions of Mrs Noah ("Fat Charlie wondered what Rosie's mother would usually hear in a church. Probably just cries of 'Back! Foul beast of Hell!' followed by gasps of 'Is it alive?' and a nervous enquiry as to whether anybody had remembered to bring the stakes and hammers"). Gaiman switches between weird, nasty, funny, sweet and rather horrible very adeptly, but always remembers that this is a light-hearted book. I don't want to give the impression that there is nothing to the book, just that it feels very different to any of his other works. Which is why I always look forward to the new one.
I think anybody picking up Anansi Boys hoping for more of American Gods will be surprised, but probably not disappointed - the book is too deftly strung together, and well-written, for that. Bits of it reminded me of Wodehouse (especially the slightly labyrinthine plotting, and the way in which characters keep on meeting each other by accident, normally at the worst possible time), and bits of it could come from anyone who has ever written a novel about being slightly unhappy in London, but mostly the book feels very Gaiman-ish. Hard to define, of course, but great fun. Rather nice to have another novel with a black lead, though not much is made of it, and a character called Marcus appears in the final few pages, which always makes me feel well-disposed towards a book. The change in Charlie's character is well handled - he turns from someone who is wet-but-nice into a very likeable sort-of hero - and the rest of the characters are nice when they need to be, unpleasant when called for, but pretty realistic all the time. I particularly like the idea that each of us has a theme tune, and "Evildoers beware" is a classic. There are a couple of the 'interludes' that I enjoyed so much in American Gods - here they mostly take the form of stories about/from Anansi, and again work very well as diversions from the main narrative thrust, whilst still serving to throw some light on an aspect of the plot that Gaiman wants to highlight.
Two small niggles. The charity for which Neil sold the rights to name the cruise ship ("Squeak Attack" was the result) is a good one (the Comic Book Legal Defense fund), but the name doesn't fit and the explanation is a) rubbish and b)the only patronising thing I can remember about the book. I know why the boat has that name - most people will just spot a slightly rubbish joke that stands out because of the use of one of only a couple of footnotes. And there are (to the best of my recollection) two instances where the author intrudes upon the narrative. One is at the very end of the book, during the 'what happened next' section, which is fine. The other comes half-way through the text, and stood out like a sore thumb (for me, at least). It wasn't necessary, and it seemed to me like a hangover from a previous draft (although I'm almost certainly very wrong about that). Neither are major problems - but they were the only things I could find that were wrong with the book, which otherwise I thought was utterly wonderful, and will be happily recommending, pushing, promoting and all-round loving when it comes out.
In January, I get the (expensive but lovely) Hill House edition, which will have as-yet-undisclosed extras. I look forward to re-reading it then.
I read a proof, which I was very lucky to get hold of. The first will probably start appearing on eBay soon, and will go for stupid amounts of money, but I'm hanging on to mine. I read this on the train and at home, 26/05/05 to 30/05/05. Published in Hardback in September, ISBN: 0755305078.