Book review: City of the Plague God

Middle grade fiction
by Sarwat Chadda

A timely tale for our pandemic season, City of the Plague God draws on lesser-known Mesopotamian mythology to spin its tale of adventure in New York City.

Thirteen-year-old Sikander “Sik” Aziz works in his Iraqi refugee parents’ deli and mourns his dead brother Mo. One night, two demons show up demanding something for their boss, Nergal the Plague God, something they think Sik has. Rampaging through the deli, they infect Sik’s parents with a gruesome disease, turning them into patients zero. Only by the timely intervention of a mysterious girl ninja does Sik manage to escape.

With his parents in the hospital and infection spreading, Sik is taken in by Ishtar, the Goddess of Love and War. Turns out, her adopted daughter Belet is the surly ninja who rescued Sik. The three team up to defeat Nergal’s evil plans. They’re joined by Gilgamesh, now a pacifist vegan baker living in Central Park, and Kasusu, a sarcastic talking sword.

Throughout, the action is peppered with humorous bits and asides, as when Kasusu claims to have been Excalibur. “I thought Excalibur would have been a bit…bigger?” said Sik. Kasusu huffed. “Size isn’t everything.” Sik’s quips throughout help ground the mythological elements and make him seem more like a modern kid.

With help from a clever homeless girl, Sik and Belet locate the container ship Nergal arrived on, only to find that his infection has spread to many more New York residents, turning them into monsters or making them desperately ill. When Sik figures out that Nergal seeks a plant that grants immortality — a plant which Sik’s brother Mo sent back home from Iraq before his death — the race is on to find it before Nergal and his demons can.

In amidst the nonstop action, Chadda deftly weaves in details of Islamic culture: the soup kitchen run by the local imam; the experiences of Iraqi refugees; the way Hollywood typecasts Middle Eastern actors as villains; as well as the deli’s delicious kebabs, hummus and hot sauce. Muslim identity is a central theme here, and Chadda even addresses the dichotomy between Sik’s Muslim faith and the existence of gods and goddesses. (Cleverly labeled “The Thor Conundrum,” as in is Thor a god or a superhero?)

In the end, the story balances heart, action, and humor in a post-apocalyptic setting where teens can rise to a challenge and Muslims turn out to be heroes.

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