City of the Plauge God, by Sarwat Chadda

City of the Plague God, by Sarwat Chadda (Rick Riordan Presents, January 2021), brings Mesopotamian deities to New York city to great effect.   

Sik seems to be an ordinary Iraqi-New Yorker boy, going to school, working hard in the family deli, and grieving for his brother Mo, killed in an accident while doing humanitarian work in Iraq.  Sik, however, is the only 13-year-old in the city being hunted by Nergal, the Mesopotamian god of pestilence, who thinks Sik has something he wants. When Nergal's grotesque minions attack, he's saved by the sudden appearance of  a sword-wielding girl, Belet, the adopted daughter of Ishtar (goddess of war and passion).  Nergal then tries to force Sik's hand by spreading pestilence and disease across the city, starting  with the deli and Sik's parents, but since Sik has no clue what it is he's being asked to hand over, he can only watch in horror (from the comfort of Ishtar's very upscale home...).  

Sik isn't a heroic fighter, and pestilence is hard to beat with a sword in any event.  So when disaster strikes Ishtar, leaving the kids on their own, they are at a loss. Then in Central Park, in a glass greenhouse ziggurat, Sik meets Gilgamesh, who gives him a quest for the one thing that can stem Nergal's tide of death and decay--the flower of immortality.  To get there he'll have to travel through the land of the dead and use his wits to make it through many challenges.  

Fortunatly, he's not alone, because waiting for him there is his brother.  And Sik has the great blessing of being able to talk, working out bitterness and regrets as they travel together to save the world.

I'm realizing that I'm making it sound like a quest story, and it is except that the quest doesn't really take up all that much of the book.  Before we get to that point, there's much running around a fly-infested rotting city pursued by Nergal's gastly minions (there's also flying over the city in chariots pulled by winged lions...), as well as less action packed bits  of discussion, plotting, Ishtar being Ishtar and Belet being Belet (being Ishtar's adopted daughter is not easy...).   

The talking swords, disgusting minions,flying lions, and small bits of humor, will appeal lots to many readers; others will prefer the more introspective bits about grief, friendship, and family.  Little details, and little extra touches, like the line of cuneiform at the bottom of each page, bring a Mesopotamian zest that may well have readers looking for more about this ancient culture.  Sic's Islamic faith isn't a driver of the plot, but it's there and real (and rather surprisingly unthreatened by his trip to the land of the dead...).  And as an inclusivity bonus, toward the end we learn that Mo and another minor character were a couple.

The fact that this book came out during the current pandemic is just coincidence, but it's really such a different, exaggeratedly fantastical, kind of plague that I didn't find it a distressing reminder of the real world.

Of all the Rick Riordan Presents books, this is the one that felt to me closest in the structure of the story to the myths that it borrows from (possibly because I read the Epic of Gilgamesh fairly recently), and I although I of course wasn't aware of this until about 2/3 of the way through, it added to my overall appreciation, which was great.

(Middle grade readers might know Sarwat Chadda as the author of the Ash Mistry series (Hindu mythological adventures), but might not know that he is also Joshua Kahn, the author of the most excellent Shadow Magic series).


  1. I saw this yesterday and initially thought he was *in* Cork which is much more interesting! https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/percy-jackson-author-rick-riordan-to-graduate-from-ucc-1.4510660 I didn't know he lived in Boston!

  2. "Sik, however, is the only 13-year-old in the city being hunted by Nergal, the Mesopotamian god of pestilence" - geez, just being 13 should be problem enough for any kid! Glad it turned out okay for him in the end.


Free Blog Counter

Button styles