Gods of Manhattan by Scott Mebus, 340 pp, RL 5

First reviewed in 2011, Gods of Manhattan is very much like Wildwood in that it is a fantasy squarely set in America as well as a fantasy that presents a world within a world. This time, there is a ghost world of historical figures running New York City alongside the flash and blood politicians. Excellent fantasy and adventure and really great history as well!

It's really hard not to pick up a kid's book with the title Gods of Manhattan, especially when the cover art is by the current god of fantasy cover art for kids, Brandon Dorman. When Scott Mebus' first book for kids came out in 2008 I picked it up and read the jacket flap and was instantly intrigued by this book that created an American mythology with historical figures from New York City's past. 

I'm not sure why it took me three years to actually read the book, but by the time I did my son had been on vacation to New York City and come home with The Historical Atlas of New York City: A Visual Celebration of 400 Years of New York City's History by Eric Homberger, which was an excellent resource, although not necessary to enjoy and understand Mebus' story. The  Gods of Manhattan does come with a fold-out, four page map of Manhattan illustrated by Brandon Dorman which also includes a list of characters and important terms. However, once I started reading Gods of Manhattan it was rare that I wanted to stop reading long enough to look up people and places.  This book, aside from having a very unique and interesting premise, is so well written and full of vivid descriptions and compelling characters that it was a genuine treat for me to read - like a delicious meal at a fabulous restaurant. And, fortunately for everyone, this is a three course meal. Book two in the series, Spirits in the Park is currently in paperback and book three, The Sorcerer's Secret, comes out in paperback in August.

Having attended fourth grade in California, I am more familiar with names like Junipero Sera and places like the the twenty-one missions that line the El Camino Real than I am people like Adriaen van der Donck and places like Central Park and the Fulton Fish Market, but Mebus' writing is so inviting that I slipped into this new old world that he created with ease and excitement. The Gods of Manhattan, as the title suggests, are mortals who have done something great in their lifetimes, be it notorious or noble, and left a mark on the history of Manhattan. In their afterlives they live on in the parallel world of Mannahatta, which was the Lenape Indian's name for their land, and now Manhattan. As the magician Hex describes to our hero, Rory,

Mannahatta is lousy with gods, each of whom watches over his or her slice of Manhattan, big and small. Gods of everything from Justice to Sample Sales, Guilt to Jaywalking, Money to Street Construction - very equal opportunity. . . When a mortal does something great, he is reborn in Mannahatta as a spirit. If his legend grows enough, he might be fortunate enough to ascend to godhood. Of course, it all depends on what they're remembered for. Mannahata is littered with the spirits of famous gangsters, so very few of them become gods, since there's room for only so many gods of crime. But there aren't many contenders for the job of God of Alternate Side of the Street Parking, which is how Alan Tuddle rose to the position simply by being remembered as the guy who always got the spot. All told, there are thousands of gods here in Mannahatta, on top of hundreds of thousands of spirits, not to mention all the other creatures lurking about. They all have jobs to do - making sure Manhattan keeps sailing along smoothly, spiritually speaking. Though some work harder than others. 

Presiding over all of the spirits and gods is the Mayor and his Council of Twelve. Alexander Hamilton, the God of Finance, has been mayor for over two hundred years, displacing the original mayor of Mannahatta, Peter Stuyvesant, a Dutchman who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1647 and turned the settlement into the beginnings of a real city. The Council of Twelve also counts Dorothy Parker, Goddess of Wit, Zelda Fitzgerald, Goddess of Trends, Walt Whitman, the God of Optimism and Babe Ruth, God of Heroes, among its members. The worlds of Mannahatta and Manhattan collide at Bridget Hennessy's ninth birthday party when the magician Hex shakes things up for Bridget's big brother, Rory.

After the party, Rory begins to notice things around Inwood, the Manhattan neighborhood where his mother's family has lived for generations. Stone gargoyles eat pigeons, cockroaches ride on rats, an Indian hunts in Central Park and a rat and a squirrel have a throw down right before his eyes. Since his dad walked out on his family when he was four and Bridget  was a baby, Rory has been an outcast, the kid without a dad, and, most often, the primary care giver to his sister while his mom works overtime to keep the family afloat. Bridget and his mom are his tribe and he doesn't think he needs anyone else, especially after he starts seeing things and worries that this will make him even stranger to those around him. However, Rory does decide to hunt down Hex and get some answers and this is when he learns that he is a Light. As Hex explains to him, "People don't want to see the real truth. They'd rather live in a fog. They don't want to see the chips in the paint or the bums on the street. So they close their eyes to it, without even knowing it. But it's the nature of a Light to see through all illusion to the truth, to face the truth and point it out to others. So you, out of all the other mortals in the city, can see through to Mannahatta. That is very valuable to many people." Rory also learns that he may be the only person who can right a horrible wrong that Mayor Hamilton and his right hand man, a shadowy figure named Kieft (with a very interesting real-life history as the Director-General of New Amsterdam preceding Stuyvesant who left a trail of slaughtered Native Americans in his wake) have enacted upon the spirits of the Munsee Indians, one of the original tribes to inhabit the land.

The ensuing story has as many twists and turns as the NYC subway system and kept me guessing almost to the end of the book, so much so that there is not much more of the plot I can share here without revealing any crucial elements of the book.  Gods of Manhattan is a story of many layers populated with characters with multiple identities and hidden agendas. As someone who reads a lot of fantasy, it is easy to spot a plot element that has been dropped in to make the story move along or explain something. Mebus' story is so seamless and his character development so rich that every plot advancement and all of the characters' actions were believable within the world he created and there was only one instance in which a resolution scene seemed almost too tidy. And, while most of the story takes place in Mannahatta, which is a parallel world with quite a few magical things that the real Manhattan doesn't have, the real city is a very strong presence and Mebus's writing was very visually descriptive. At times, the large cast of characters was difficult to keep track of and I found myself flipping back to the list of characters and important terms often. However, this did not slow me down but instead increased my curiosity about the historical figures who populate the story.

While  Gods of Manhattan is definitely the start of an adventure, Mebus tells you enough about his characters to draw you in and make you want to know more but he also leaves the reader with a sense of closure, on one level. There are many characters I liked and am excited to know more about, like Alexa van der Donck and Toy, to name a few, but my favorite character has to be Bridget, Rory's little sister. Although she is just nine, she is the kind of kid who thinks she should be the hero of the story and has spent most of her life preparing for it - or maybe just filling the hole left by the absence of her father. With her cardboard sword named BUTTKICKER that she says her father left behind for her when he disappeared, she has a strong sense of wanting to protect her family and prove herself brave and worthy to her father when he returns. Over the course of their adventure, she chides herself for not stepping in front of danger the first time she has the chance, then jumps the next time she does. On a shopping trip with her mother, she passes over the shiny sandals and sporty Pumas for the steel-toed lace up boots that she knows will serve her well in a battle. With the popularity of Harry Potter, it has become common to see the flawed, conflicted hero in fantasy novels struggling with the subtle nuances between good and evil these days. Never before have I seen the character who wants to be the hero, is in training to be the hero and instead finds herself the sister of the hero. Gods of Manhattan ends with Bridget taking the kind of chance that propels a story forward but also makes a character interesting and exciting to watch. And, to top it all off, Bridget is hilarious. When she and her brother decide to spend the day in the Central Park she spots a mime and wants to throw things at him to see if she can make him say "Ouch!" When she gets bored waiting for Rory to decide what to do next she plays her favorite game: "hailing cabs and then pretending to be surprised and confused when they stop for her."

I can't recommend Gods of Manhattan enough to readers who enjoy fantasy and to readers who love historical fiction because this book is the perfect blending of the two genres with the very rare setting of the United States, as opposed to the typical fantasy setting of England. The obvious comparison is with Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series but Mebus' writing is so much more complex and thoughtful than Riordan's books and, while there is plenty of action, Gods of Manhattan is not the fast paced roller coaster ride the Riordan's books can be. This makes Riordan's books easy to read for younger kids reading at a higher level and appealing to older readers who like an easier read. While reading Gods of Manhattan, I was often reminded of one of my all-time favorite series,  the Time Quake Trilogy by Linda Buckley-Archer. A time travel book rather than a fantasy with a parallel historical ghost world, the books share a depth of character development and historical foundation that makes for richer stories. Before I even finished Gods of Manhattan I was ordering books two and three and now find myself waiting not-so patiently to how Bridget, Rory and that creepy bad guy in the darkness, Kieft cross paths a final time.

No comments: