The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Gods of Gotham was an impulse audio read from my trusty library, and it was definitely worth the read. The narrator really took this book where it needed to go. His voices were subtly different for each character. He endows Timothy with the integral mix of hardened cynic and stubborn idealist which defines his persona. For Valentine, Timothy's jaded older brother, his tone is more sardonic and poised, what I would expect of a borderline shady rakish fellow such as Valentine. The narrator also does the voices of women well. He doesn't fall into the trap of endowing all women with a high falsetto, but instead their voices are higher than men and have the feminine softness expected of women, without each one sounding like a clone. Even the children's voices are well done. I would give the narrator five stars alone, although I am not committed to giving this whole book that rating.
Readers who have watched the television series Copper or the movie Gangs of New York will find this world familiar. Set in New York City in the mid-19th century when the influx of Irish into the country reached an epic high, the author doesn't hesitate to be real with the situation. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from historical documents of the time, including some horribly bigoted written statements against Catholics and particularly the poor Irish that came over in the wake of the Potato Famine in Ireland. It paints a very vivid picture of the realities of this time with all the depths of the ugliness of human nature on display.
There were more than a few wince-worthy moments, from the rampant racism against Irish and blacks (among other marginalized groups, even Jews), and not to mention the horrible bigotry towards Catholics. All these are crucial to the story, although Faye focuses more on the Irish-phobia and the racism against other groups is a realistic backdrop. One aspect that I found the most chilling was the casual acceptance of existence of child prostitution. This was just one of the many extant social ills of the time, but the idea is so abhorrent that it did make this read a little more difficult for me. I was grateful that Timothy in his own way takes a hard stance against this.
Some readers might find the portrayal of women in this novel quite jaundiced. I can't really point fingers in that area, since most of the characters have their share of stains on their soul. Having said that, I really did not like Mercy Underhill. Although I realize that Timothy is deeply in love with her, I hope he gets over her, because she does not deserve him, and not because of her failings but the callous way she treated him. I liked Mrs. Boehm and young Bird a lot. Their characters help to give texture to the story and to further define Timothy's own characterizations. Despite his cynicism, his deep sense of justice is shown in how he interacts with their characters in particular, but also in other ways.
It's obvious I really liked Timothy and with good reason. He's a good everyman hero. Imperfectly perfect as a lead for this book. I liked that he has a keen detective mind, but his reasons for having it have to do with his background as a bartender and his own hard life in New York City. He's very down-to-earth, but honorable at the same time. His conflicted relationship with his older brother is a very important aspect of this novel. Readers who enjoy the theme of familial relations (often troubled) will appreciate their relationship. There is a deep seed of bitterness between them that tarnishes many of their interactions, and I was glad the author took the time to delve into that, and the reasons turn out to be very crucial to the story. I rather liked Valentine, even though he has some very questionable morals and his behavior is quite debauched even at the best of times. Deep down I think he's a good man who truly loves his brother, despite his admittedly flawed moral compass.
Overall, Gods of Gotham is a gritty, atmospheric historical mystery/thriller that made for very good listening. From a stellar narrator in Steven Boyer, to well-crafted historical details, to characters that are far from one-dimensional, this has all the ingredients for a good read. Although not a five star book, it's definitely a four star read with my thumbs up to it and recommendation to readers who enjoy historical mysteries and thrillers. I will be picking up the sequel, Seven for a Secret very soon.
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