Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Review: The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

The Gods of Gotham
Lyndsay Faye
432 Pages
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
Published March 15th, 2012

I know that I'm not supposed to judge books by their cover, but I do it anyway.  When I see a really great cover I can't help but be drawn to it, as if I need to see what's inside.  I'm happy to report that the substance of Lyndsay Faye's The Gods of Gotham is every bit as good as its excellent cover.

The Gods of Gotham is an historical mystery that takes place in the New York City of 1845.  The Irish Potato Famine is in full swing and waves of dirt-poor Irish are pouring into New York like rats fleeing from a burning boat.  At the same time, the city's first police force, commonly know as "the copper stars", has just been founded.  The city is a powder-keg of Nativists and Irish with the rough and tumble copper stars doing their best to stomp out the fuse before the whole thing explodes.

Walking home one night, Tim runs into a frightened girl covered in blood.  After some questioning he discovers that the girl is named Bird and that the blood that has soaked her clothing belongs to somebody else.  She leads him to a body, which leads him to many more bodies of Irish children.  When the killer identifies himself as an Irish religious zealot in a letter printed in the newspaper, the city nearly blows its lid.

Like any good book, the mystery isn't really the point of The Gods of Gotham.  What separates this from any other novel in its genre is that the story is much more about the characters and the place.  Faye gives us a gritty New York that is populated with child prostitutes, clever newsboys, angry Americans and many others just trying to survive.  She does an excellent job describing the realities of surviving in 1840's New York and hits many of the political, religious and cultural highlights.  The best part about Faye's world-building is that while it's immersive, it's not distracting from the story.  You've given a complete picture of the time and place without overwhelming detail.  Everything fits together in a way that serves the story.

My BA degree is in History (my thesis was on a particular battle in the US Civil War) and so The Gods of Gotham hit my sweet spot - great writing, good characters, fascinating historical content.  Each chapter is prefaced with a quote from the period that illustrates the very real religious bigotry that is described in the novel.  The few characters that are pulled directly from the history books are seamlessly integrated so that you might not even suspect that they're actual people.  For example, you won't see anything like, "oh, and there goes that Thoreau fellow - I hear he's planning to live on a pond somewhere.  How preposterous!"  As I said before, the history serves the story and never distracts from it.

The Gods of Gotham is a great read. It's entertaining and exciting read, while providing an easy history lesson on the realities of mid-19th century New York City.  The primary characters are well-formed and the secondary characters are colorful and fun.  I recommend The Gods of Gotham to any fan of mysteries and historical fiction.

Book Source: Devourer of Books Blook Club Giveaway / Publisher

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