Book Review: “Gods of Manhattan” by Scott Mebus

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Thirteen-year-old Rory Hennessy is a level-headed boy. He has an eye for the plain, unvarnished truth. This is why he hates watching stage magic; he can always spot how a trick was done. Always, that is, until his sister Bridget’s ninth birthday party, when a conjurer named Hex pulls off the impossible. Suddenly Rory’s entire world is shaken. Soon he begins to spot other impossible things, like a cockroach rider waving hello from a rat’s back. Within days, the familiar and mundane streets of New York are transformed into a wonderland in which ghostly pirate ships patrol the river, animals engage in kung fu fighting, and members of the extinct Munsee tribe stalk the paths of Central Park.

Rory soon discovers that he is a rare type of person known as a Light. He sees what really is, and he can enable other people to see it too. But this talent puts him in great danger. Someone has seen to it that most Lights disappear by age four. Only the fact that, somehow or other, Rory has managed to block out his talent has kept him alive until now. But the feral, childlike Strangers are after him now. And one of the immortal gods of Manhattan — spirits from its past like Alexander Hamilton and Walt Whitman — is after Rory’s head, aided by an assassin wielding a unique knife that can even kill gods.

That doesn’t even begin to describe the danger Rory is in. All he has to defend himself are a handful of the immortal children of the gods, known as the Rattle Watch; a clan of rat-riding warrior roaches; and a mysterious magician with questionable motives, served by a papier-mâché boy. I’m not sure whether to count one little girl who fancies herself “Malibu Death Barbie” as an asset in Rory’s favor. For, all too soon, his adventure becomes all about saving Bridget.

Meanwhile, we readers are treated to a rapid, free course in the history of New York City. We meet many characters from its variegated history. We tag along on wild, and often scary, excursions into the past, where Rory and friends are threatened by gangsters, British troops, an albino alligator, and everything in between. A quest to right a 150-year-old wrong and restore the balance of Manhattan’s spirit world veers to a supernatural bank heist, a spiritual journey, a surprise plot twist, the unveiling of a traitor, and a deadly trap. And the door remains open for more adventures in the world of Manhattan, where gods like Peter Stuyvesant and Zelda Fitzgerald preside over such areas as nostalgia, guilt, trends, excess, wit, shoplifting, and street construction. The chronicles of Manhattan continue in at least a second book, titled Spirits in the Park.