New York City in 1845 is a dirty, violent powderkeg, a nasty undercurrent of racism and fear threatening to topple the great metropolis into chaos. Timothy Wilde, left scarred and penniless after a fire ravages much of lower Manhattan, is pressed into service on the newly launched, and much reviled, New York City police force. Days into the job, when the bodies of slaughtered and violated children are discovered, his life is forever changed as he slowly grows into not just a fine policeman but also the city’s first true investigator.
Lyndsay Faye’s extraordinary new book “The Gods of Gotham”, is quite rightly pegged by most reviewers as an “historical mystery.” But like all great literature, “Gods of Gotham” works on a multitude of different levels as Faye deftly weaves the complex interplay of plot, character and a palpable, dynamic setting.
The first challenge of historical fiction is, unsurprisingly, the history. Great science fiction is always recognized for the spectacular world-building at play in its greatest works. It’s a highwire act, creating a city, country, planet, universe, that is at once fantastical but also completely believable.
But what of writers who spin yarns that take place in bygone days? Of stories that take place in the real world of historical record? In some ways, this is an even more daunting highwire act, one that removes the net entirely. Because not only must the ‘historical novelist’ re-create a world that is believable, the world must also be entirely accurate and faithful to history. No small feat.
One of “Gotham’s” many powerful insights is the way in which, by examining discrimination of two centuries ago, the reader is left to reconcile that the same bigotry and hatred still exist in the world, just with new targets. And Faye makes compelling use of this uncomfortable reality.
Faye is one of those rare writers for whom language is a musical instrument, a magical talisman. What I’m saying is this young lady can write. Her prose burns.
And even more impressive is that she uses her prose chops in service of an elegantly plotted work that is humane and moving, in no small part due to her masterful characterization. Her sprawling and boisterous New York teems with an array of fascinating characters, all woven into the clockwork of the book’s central mystery: Who is killing all these children? And why?
The work hinges on the troika of the honorable Timothy Wilde, the love of his life Mercy Underhill and Wilde’s salacious, drug-addled older brother Valentine. There are many emotional payoffs throughout “Gods of Gotham” and they are hard-earned. Faye has revealed these characters in layers, and when we think we have learned all there is to know about them, she shows us another facet, another angle, and we are riveted to see where these characters will go from here. I was truthfully haunted as I flipped the last page closed, wondering what next was in store for Tim, Mercy and Valentine. For Faye has miraculously managed to make “Gotham’s” ending both uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time.
Thankfully, there is a “Gods of Gotham” sequel on the way. I for one will be front and center when it is released, anxious to see what adventures next await the wonderful Wilde brothers.