I picked up Gods of Manhattan mainly because I’d forgotten the book I was reading at home and wanted a book to read. So, of course, I hurried into the library, closed my eyes, and pulled out a book at random.
In the interest of complete and somewhat nitpicky honesty: the first book I pulled out was not Gods of Manhattan. It was The Sorcerer’s Secret, the third book of the series, but I decided that it would not go against the spirit of my luck-of-the-draw selection to go for the first book of the series.
Having said that, this was a book I had previously seen in the library, and I’d mostly considered it to be a Percy Jackson-ish book: gods, probably Greek gods, in New York. I was surprised on this count, though. Considering this is covered on the book’s in-flap, it’s not really a spoiler to say that gods are not figures from any particular mythology, but instead figures from New York’s history who have worked their way into popular consciousness enough to achieve a sort of immortality and godhood. This means that people such as Babe Ruth and Alexander Hamilton are gods — in fact, Hamilton is the gods’ mayor. (I would be remiss not to admit that I was delighted whenever Hamilton was mentioned because it meant that I was mentally shoehorning Lin-Manuel Miranda’s interpretation into the novel. As one does whenever Alexander Hamilton comes up.)
The plot mainly consists of thirteen-year-old Rory discovering that he can see through magical illusion to the “truth” of New York City, and the subsequent trials and tribulations he and his sister must go through because of this, involving gods, rebellious groups of almost-gods, cockroaches, and a magician.
While it reminded me less of Percy Jackson than I had expected, the book it did unexpectedly remind me of was Gregor the Overlander. Mostly because it features a boy in his little sister who discover what is more or less a secret world connected to New York in which cockroaches play a pretty significant role. If this turns out to be an actual niche market genre rather than just two separate series that happen to meet these oddly specific criteria, I will be delighted. Please let me know if you know of any books that match this description.
Now that I’ve compared Gods of Manhattan to Gregor the Overlander, I feel the need to add that this is purely a matter of story content, not my enjoyment of the novels. Gods of Manhattan was an enjoyable read while it lasted, and I will probably check out the sequels since they’re in the library, but I don’t anticipate the story really sticking with me in a significant way. It had elements I truly enjoyed, elements I somewhat enjoyed, and elements I was actually uncomfortable with.
If that seems like odd categories, it’s because I was thinking of a specific element for each item.
The element I truly enjoyed: Bridget. Bridget is Rory’s little sister and the first time you see her she’s at her birthday party, carrying her don’t-leave-home-without-it cardboard sword, Buttkicker. I feel like if you didn’t like Bridget at first, she would very likely end up irritating with her aggressively bubbly-sibling tangents (featuring quotes such as, “the whole fun of the zoo is hoping a gate is left open and the animals break out and each other … just the other day, an antelope got out and mauled a giraffe!”) It’s weird to see latent annoyance in a character, but I, personally, was immediately charmed, which made her little tangents welcome.
The element I “somewhat enjoyed” first showed up in, of all places, the acknowledgments, which I read before starting the novel. In them, the author talked about the inspiration he got from New York history and the research he did into while writing the book. So the first time a character took the time to explain a piece of New York history to Rory, I thought, “ah! I can see the influence the author was talking about pretty clearly!” And it was interesting, don’t get me wrong, which is why I put it under “somewhat enjoyed,” but sometimes it felt kind of … misplaced. At one point the characters enter a magical replay of a historical battle and amidst all the chaos and noise and danger (and with a life-threatening time limit too keep to!) Rory’s companion shouts a whole paragraph’s worth of historical information about the battle into Rory’s ear, which felt … weird. I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and remind him about the time limit.
As for what made me uncomfortable: the weird, kind of racist attitude toward First Nations people. The Munsees, an aboriginal subtribe, actually feature very heavily in the book, mainly as prisoners of a magical trap, but the attitude toward them was just … weird. As mentioned above. In the first place, they used the word “Indian” in reference to the Munsees more often than I’ve ever seen outside of books like Indian in the Cupboard, which is old, or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which deals with racism. However, that is not my main point about this. My main point is how the Munsees seemed to be treated almost as equally mythical as gods, spells, and the general existence of magic. They did talk about Munsees in a historical context as well, but the overall impression was weirdly mythical. As seen in this quote: “Could this be true? Cockroaches that waved to you while riding on rats were real? Indian girls with laughing eyes were real? It was all real?” I don’t know how to break this to you, but First Nations people actually do exist, there, bud. This isn’t something you need to have special magical powers to know.
In terms of spoilery things I can’t give too many details about: a) the thing I predicted definitely happened as I predicted it, and b) the thing I didn’t predict definitely also happened and I was delighted, mostly because of Lin-Manuel Miranda.
I can never tell what the tone of my reviews really sounds like until considerably after I’ve written them, but for now: three out of five stars. I probably won’t add it to my favourites shelf, but I was entertained and will probably check out the sequels.