Gods of Manhattan

Gods of Manhattan By Scott Mebus [LibraryThingAmazon]

Rory’s always been able to see past tricks and deceptions, but even he’s surprised when he finds himself able to see even farther, deep into the secret history of New York. There notable figures of the city’s past walk as gods: Peter Stuyvesant, Babe Ruth, Alexander Hamilton, and countless others. Cockroaches ride rats into battles, albino alligators swim the sewers, and statues whisper secrets for a handful of coins. Rory quickly finds himself and his little sister Bridget immersed in this world, working to correct a great injustice committed a hundred and fifty years ago, but a great enemy is doing his best to stop them – an enemy with the power to murder the gods themselves.

Now, the thing you have to understand is that I am a New Yorker born and bred. I spent the first 14 years of my life in Brooklyn, just across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan. I went to college in Morningside Heights, just below Harlem, and though I live in New Jersey now, I commute into Midtown every day, and am hoping to move into the city as soon as possible. To my mind, there is no better place in the world than New York City (although London comes close), and I plan on living there my whole life.

Gods of Manhattan is a love letter to New York, and to people of my mindset. It’s steeped in the history of the city – the gangs, the rabble politics, the crusading journalism, the minor heroes and the urban legends. The rich descriptions of the island, from the cliffs of Inwood Hill Park (where my co-blogger Rebecca and I walk while we plot our novels), to the labyrinthine and antiquated streets of Greenwich Village, are a delight to read if you live in and love New York like I do.

But if you don’t…well, there’s the rub, right? Singing panhandlers on the subway and the otherworldliness of Central Park probably don’t mean much to a reader outside of the city. And the history…I mean, out of the Council of Twelve, the ruling gods of Manhattan, I’d guess the average kid would recognize two: Alexander Hamilton and Babe Ruth. Older readers would probably be able to identify Walt Whitman, Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, and possibly Horace Greeley and John Jacob Astor. As a New York kid I would have known the name Peter Stuyvesant was important, since the most prestigious public high school in the city is named after him, but I wouldn’t have known who he was; I could only identify Boss Tweed since I recently read a book on New York history. T.R. Tobias? Hamilton Fish? I had to look them up. So the concept, while brilliant, raises some very real questions of accessibility.

Then there was the treatment of Native Americans in the book, which was sort of all over the place. See, the spirits of the Munsees who used to live on the island remain there, but a hundred and fifty years ago they were trapped in Central Park, and can no longer leave. This is, of course, a horrendous injustice, and Rory’s central quest in the book is to obtain the items needed to break the spell and free them. However, he’s then told by the sole Munsee to escape the Trap that he should not free the Munsees, since the Munsees are so angry about the Trap they’ll attack the gods of Manhattan as soon as they’re free, leading to immense bloodshed on both sides and the inevitable complete destruction of the Munsees. To his credit, Mebus never says the Munsees are irrational for being angry; of course they’re angry! They’ve been trapped in Central Park for 150 years! But the idea that the Munsees are being kept in the Trap for their own good is very “white man’s burden” and phenomenally offensive.

There are a couple of other patchy areas related to the Munsees. For example, when Rory refers to the first Munsee he sees as an Indian, Bridget punches him and tells him the correct term is “Native American,” which is great – but then both children continue to refer to the Munsees as Indians both in dialogue and narration, which is almost worse, like they know the politically correct term and just don’t care. On the other hand, Bridget does refer to one Native girl as a squaw and is promptly told not to be so insulting, so there’s that. Rory also receives a wampum belt and is told that it is his “birthright,” which is a little appropriate-y, even if they explain it away by saying he must have some Munsee blood from way back when. There are good moments with the Munsees, and Mebus appears to have done his research, but there are also some really, really bad moments.

Speaking of the Trap, when Rory is told why he has to open it, it’s not just to correct an injustice. No, apparently the Trap is responsible for global warming, war, and everything else bad in the world. This crops up pretty frequently in fantasy – blaming the real world’s troubles on a mystical issue – and I hate it. It absolves us from blame or responsibility – like, hey, why not stomp around with my giant carbon footprint if global warming is all because of an evil spell? Obviously I don’t think any readers will go “Well, I guess global warming is really because Native American spirits have been betrayed,” but it supports a mentality of a quick-fix solution instead of the constant vigilance and hard work necessary to fix all the things we’ve done wrong as a society. And I don’t like that one bit.

The other major problem was the climax, in that there wasn’t one. Seriously. Everything seems to be building up to something…and then Rory gets knocked unconscious, and when he wakes up things all sort of resolve themselves without answering any questions or fixing any problems raised at the beginning of the book. Um, whoops? I get that there’s another book coming out and we have to leave some things open, but the book should have at least achieved some sort of exciting turning point. But nope. Boy, I bet Mebus is embarrassed about that.

For my final quibble, I’d just like to point out that even when you yell a question, it still needs to end in a question mark, not an exclamation point. “What is going on!” is wrong, and that, or similar shouted queries, happens all the time in the book. If Mebus really wanted his characters to yell questions all the time, he could have just used the interrobang: “?!” It’s grammatically correct as well as having the bonus benefit of a super awesome name. Interrobang!

But now for the positive things! And there are positive things about this book. Aside from the wonderful concept, I absolutely adored Bridget. Rory was a decent enough Everykid, but Bridget was fantastic. All she wants in life is to be a warrior, and her head is filled with fantasy epics and kung fu movies and all the rituals one has to go through to become a fighter. She has just one doll – named Malibu Death Barbie. There’s a wonderful scene where she goes shoe shopping with her mother, and though there are tons of shoes she’d like, she settles on steel-toed boots, so that she’ll be able to put the hurt on the very real bad guys who are suddenly popping up in her life.

There’s another great aspect about Bridget, but it’s spoilery, so I’ll put it behind a cut: show

I also really enjoyed a bunch of the supporting characters. Toy the paper maché boy is rather charming, and, once his backstory is revealed, tragic and creepy in a really effective way. I especially liked Fritz the Battle Roach; this book plus the Gregor books just might make me not hate cockroaches (although I kind of doubt it). And some of the gods worked really well; Whitman as the exclamation-point-abusing God of Optimism cracked me up, and Stuyvesant was great as God of Things Were Better in the Old Days.

Gods of Manhattan hit some places that I really, really like, and I’m in love with the concept, but it fell down quite a bit in execution. A book that started off as a strong five wound up only earning three cucpcakes, and then only because I’m pretty sure I will be picking up the sequel when it comes out. Maybe Mebus can pull this thing up from the ashes. I’ll let you know.


    2 Responses to “Gods of Manhattan”

    1. Destiny says:

      Yep, I felt the same way about the book feeling a bit confusing and having no climax. I also loved the Malibu death Barbie thing!

    2. Hannah says:

      You are right about some people getting confused over who the gods are, I had no idea who most of those people were, except for Hamilton and Babe Ruth! And Rory does get knocked out a lot in this book. I was reading the book and you know something starts to get really exciting and then. . .he gets knocked out. ‘loud sigh’

      I though Bridget was awesome! She was one of my favorite characters in the book! The only problem I had with her was the whole “luckiest girl in the world” thing, it bothered me for some reason.

      I have to admit, Mebus did an awesome job with the assassin! It shocked me when he showed who it was

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