My daughter's only remark on this book was that it was a kinda gross read. I agreed with her, but we don't say that often, and it wasn't out of character or too terrible -- not really, I guess? As long as you're not reading while eating, it's a great fantasy!
Sik Aziz works in his Iraqi parents' deli in Manhattan. They're eking by, working hard to achieve the American Dream, one falafel sandwich topped with their Baghdad chili sauce at a time. The one paid employee, Daoud, is an aspiring actor who never passes up a chance to not do any actual work, so when Sik's brother, Mo, goes back to Iraq on a botany trip and is killed, it's up to Sik to fill the void.
And he's getting pretty good at it, until one night, he takes out the garbage and there's something both sinister and rhyming, in couplets, lurking in the alley. Intrigued (who wouldn't be?), he sneaks out, still carrying the wok, and takes a peek.
This is the gross part, when Mesopotamian demons Sidana, a large humanoid rat, and Idiptu, a humanoid toad, reveal they both know Sik and are there to get him. He defends himself with the wok, but then another entity arrives, the god Nergal, crawling or made of a billion flies, Sik can't tell which. The flies swarm all over Sik, biting. They drive him back inside the deli, where Daoud finally shows up, but now the fight's inside the deli, with Sik's family's livelihood at stake.
Still, Sik is no match for Nergal, even armed with a wok. Nergal demands Sik has something he wants, something his brother Mo gave Sik. But Sik, of course, has no idea what the god of decay is talking about. Nergal and the demons rip the framed, pressed and dried flowers from Mo's trips off the walls of the deli, frustrated. A girl ninja shows up, with a susper-sassy and deadly sword, Kasusu, and together they fight off Nergal, who she reveals is her Uncle, and his demons.
But not before everything -- and it's a deli, right? -- rots, decays, gets maggots, etc. It's gross. The tables disintegrate, the metal pots and pipes rust, everything is contaminated with rot and decay. It's actually a kinda cool power for a fantasy god to have, one I've not seen used in middle grade stories before, and the ick factor could really appeal to some middle grade readers.
Sik figures out the ninja girl is the new girl in school, Belet -- rejected from NY's elite high schools, fabulously wealthy, and not a common sight at his PS (public school). And then Sik meets her mother -- Ishtar. The goddess.
And the story really picks up, by getting even worse for Sik. Nergal is god of more than just decay. He's the god of disease, too, and he was in the deli, remember? It isn't long -- end of the school day -- before both of Sik's parents are in the hospital, patients zero, sick with a super-infectious plague.
I don't want to spoil the story, but essentially Nergal wants to take over first NYC, then the world. What god in Rick Riordan's imprint doesn't?
Ishtar, Belet, Sik and Daoud, in his own way, are there to prevent that from happening, by figuring out what Nergal wants from Sik (actually Mo, but Mo's dead) and why. The only way to fight Nergal is to recruit the greatest warrior Mesopotamia ever produced -- Gilgamesh. Who may have already beaten his sword into a plowshare, or a convenient hand-shovel. He's packed up the warrior gear and is a pacifist horticulturalist, with his own ziggurat greenhouse in Central Park.
There's so much more to this story! I could've done with fewer mentions / reminders of the flies; they're seriously disgusting. But the author never lingers too long on the maggots and flies, and overall it's a fast-paced thriller, in the best way. I've already provided a key to a plot twist, and I feel like if I write any more, I'll totally spoil your enjoyment of the story.
Read up and enjoy!