In Scott Mebus's Gods of Manhattan, Rory Hennessey considers himself pretty much an ordinary kid. He lives with his mother and younger sister, Bridget, way up on the northern tip of Manhattan and wonders about his absent father. Then one day, after an encounter with a birthday party magician named Hex, Rory starts to see strange things. Things like a cockroach sitting on a rat's back, holding reins, and an Indian warrior. Tracking down Hex, Rory learns that another city, called Mannahatta, lies alongside Manhattan, visible only to a select few like himself, called Lights. In Mannahatta, people who made an impression on human consciousness before they died, who did great things, have become spirits. Some of them, the ones leaving the strongest memories behind (for good or ill), have become gods. They can only die when people stop remembering them. Hex tells Rory of a quest to rescue a tribe of ancient Indian spirits, trapped by the leaders among the gods. The success of the quest depends upon Rory's help, because of his rare status as a Light. Rory has to figure out who is friend and who is foe in this strange parallel world, one that bears dangers for humans and gods alike.
Rory is a three-dimensional character, a loner who cares deeply for his sometimes pesky younger sister, and also a modern, New York City kid reacting to the presence of spirits in his city. Bridget is a strong character, too, sometimes afraid, usually bubbly and chatty, but ultimately brave and loyal. The cockroach is also engaging, as are the Indian warrior, Wampage, and a papier-mache boy named Toy. Some of the gods are quite creative, such as Babe Ruth, God of Heroes, Dorothy Parker, Goddess of Wit, and John Jacob Astor, God of Excess.
Gods of Manhattan does have quite a large number of characters, and I had a bit of trouble keeping track of who was who. Especially among the members of The Rattle Watch, a group of adolescent children of the gods (immortal, unlike the demi-gods in the Percy Jackson books). There is a handy Cast of Characters at the front of the book, and I found it necessary to refer back to that page often. But I think, as this is apparently the first book of a series, that this will get easier as the series progresses.
Gods of Manhattan is a fast-paced read, with action throughout that will keep young readers turning the pages. The author has clearly done quite a bit of research into the history of Manhattan, but that history never overwhelms the story - it feels organic to the plot. The writing is witty, with plenty of dialog, and just the right amount of subtle, throw-away humor. For example:
"... Rory is the real prize. The big bear at the fair."
"What are you talking about?" Rory retorted. "I'm nobody's bear."
"Of course you're not. I'm talking metaphorically. I do that from time to time; I'm trying to quit. Rory, you have a special gift. You can see what's there."
"Wow," Rory said sarcastically. "Where do I pick up my cape?" (Page 56-57)
"After all, in the Munsee world, there is no buying of anything, especially land. Only renting. In that sense, they really are the first New Yorkers." (Page 71-72)
Scott Mebus leaves several loose ends dangling at the end of the book (as well as an homage to a classic series about a hidden world), and I find myself curious to see where the story will go next. Recommended for middle grade fantasy fans, especially for those who like imagined worlds that are superimposed on the ordinary world. Also recommended for historical fiction buffs, including adults, who will enjoy the facts about Manhattan, and who will appreciate the various gods. A very fun read.
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Publication Date: April 2008
Source of Book: Bought it at Hicklebee's, on their recommendation
Other Blog Reviews: Fuse #8, SherMeree's Musings, Kiss the Book, Cool Kids Read, Becky's Book Reviews, Once Upon A Bookshelf, Reader Views, Anokaberry, Bookami, SF Site. Updated to add: see also Colleen Mondor's review, which brings up an important shortcoming to this book, one that I missed in my own discussion above.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.