As 2007 wound to a close, the young adult fantasy market was on the cusp of a sea change. Harry Potter had taken his final bow. His Dark Materials began its unsuccessful transition to cinema with both fanfare and misplaced outrage. And, with Christopher Paolini's third book still not due for at least another half a year (and with some of the wind arguably taken out of its sails by the failure of the Eragon movie), the publishing industry drummed its collective fingers nervously, wondering whose offering was going to be the next culture-defining hit.
What's good about this for YA fantasy readers is that there is a lot of work pouring into the genre right now by writers eager to please and publishers all too aware of the size of the pie they're trying to slice. Scott Mebus is one of these writers. A former producer for MTV Networks who has already published two mainstream novels, Mebus offers his young adult debut with Gods of Manhattan. Given Mebus's résumé, what's most suprising — and gratifying — about Gods is how unabashedly old-fashioned an adventure it is. There are none of the requisite pop culture references — current bands, rappers, video games, what have you — that you might expect from some writer out to prove to the mallrats how plugged into the zeitgeist he is. Mebus's masterstroke in Gods of Manhattan is how plugged in he is to the marvelous and colorful character of his beloved metropolis. Mebus hasn't just crafted a smart and exciting story here. It's his inspired use of Manhattan's vast urban labyrinth as a setting — indeed, as a character in its own right — that sells it all so winningly.
Why no one has thought of this before is a real puzzler. I suppose, like the hidden history of New York City that Mebus references, it's one of those things that's right in front of everyone's noses that they never notice. Mebus's introduction led me to the website Forgotten New York, where I spent a hour one evening utterly hypnotized by the photos of antique buildings, hand-painted advertisements, back alleys and historical ephemera that are everywhere in Manhattan and yet only visible if you know what to look for. It's so natural to imagine that there's some kind of ghost world living within Manhattan separated from reality by only the thinnest of veils that you can see how Mebus's novel could have almost written itself. The City That Never Sleeps has a history as vivid and compelling as almost anywhere in the world. Putting this history to use in fantasy worldbuilding shows real inspiration.
The downside — it's a small one, but I wouldn't be earning my stripes if I didn't bring it up — is that Mebus's plot is pretty much YA fantasy boilerplate. The story follows the usual routine in which a young protagonist finds himself unwittingly in the archetypal role of "chosen one" (here called the Light) who must use his newfound powers on a quest for the necessary magic items that will vanquish a dreadful evil and right a past wrong. With loyal companions at his side, he must endure trials, overcome hardships and treachery, at the end of it all Coming Of Age a little dinged up but not overall much the worse for his experience.
Yeah yeah — seen all that enough times before. But who cares? If it's delivered with enthusiasm and creative panache, it's a formula you can recycle from now until doomsday, because it speaks so succinctly to the growing-up lessons we all learn. The transition from childhood to adulthood, with its acknowledgement of the difficulties of moral autonomy, is never painless. Good young adult fantasy will always find ways, in the hands of talented writers, to represent that transition through the vocabulary of the imagination.
The short version: Rory Hennessey is thirteen, living in Manhattan's northernmost borough Inwood with his kid sister Bridget and their single, working-all-hours mom. Rory is made aware of the hidden city of Mannahatta, a spirit realm coexisting with the modern city but hidden from most mortal eyes, by a curious magician named Hex, whom they meet after he performs at Bridget's birthday. The children learn of the numerous titular gods who rule Mannahatta, famous figures from New York's past whose great achievements in life earned them immortality — John Jacob Astor, Babe Ruth, Alexander Hamilton, Dorothy Parker, even Boss Tweed is among their number. More soberingly, Rory learns that he is the Light, the mortal child long awaited who must undo a great wrong done to the island's native inhabitants, the Munsee indians, through the recovery of some long-lost magical wampum. But there is treachery even among the gods, and an assassin with a blade capable of killing gods is on the loose. Only the Rattle Watch, a gang of teenagers born to the gods, who can neither age nor achieve godhood themselves, know this killer is in the employ of Willem Kieft, adviser to Mannahatta's mayor, Alexander Hamilton himself. And they have very few supporters among the gods on the council.
Rory and Bridget's adventures take them to all points in Manhattan, from north to south, from the pinnacle of the Chrysler building to deep below the streets in the city's forgotten tunnels and sewers. All the while there's the nagging concern that Hex is up to more than he is letting on.
Having read up a little on New York's earliest pre-colonial history, I find myself really admiring the way Mebus researched this period and incorporated key events into the backstory of Gods of Manhattan. Such historical figures as Adriaen van der Donck and Willem Kieft really did end up as enemies over Kieft's waging war against the indians in 1643, against the wishes of the Council of Twelve Men, the colony's earliest governing body (it was called New Amsterdam then), which Mebus has effortlessly made his own Council here. In the novel, this history serves as the foundation for the injustice Rory must redress. We're all used to fantasy writers incorporating European history into fantasy settings. Mebus is one of the few writers to use American history in the same way. (I'm deliberately excluding the "alternate history" camp here.) The closest comparison I can make is Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker novels.
Gods of Manhattan isn't perfect, but what is? Some of the early chapters go a little exposition-heavy in setting things up. And I would have liked to see Mebus do more with some of his gods, too — at the very least give the more colorful among them stronger supporting roles. After all, what's the point of putting Dorothy Parker in your story as the Goddess of Wit if you aren't going to have her utter a single Parkeresque witticism? It also bears noting that, given this is a New York story, Mebus makes no mention whatsoever of You-Know-What. What a shame that the world we now live in is one where any book or film or work of art relating to Manhattan will inevitably be discussed in terms of how it addresses or fails to address 9/11, as if all writers from that city have some obligation to editorialize on an event about which probably everything that can be said has been said. I respect Mebus's choice to avoid it, because to include it would have given the book a political character entirely inappropriate to its tale. And I'm sure Mebus is like many New Yorkers in wanting the world to remember that there's so much to New York that, without denying the tragedy the respect it deserves, the whole city shouldn't find itself defined by 9/11 alone from now on.
Gods of Manhattan is a marvelous and vividly realized adventure, as full of mystery, secrets, peril, wonder, surprise and pageantry as the city to which it pays homage. Plus, it has warrior cockroaches who ride rats!