BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A masked vigilante takes on the mob in an alternate 1920’s New York City.
PROS: Excellent pacing; exciting action sequences; prose makes for swift reading; this is a page-turning story.
CONS: One unbelievable Indiana-Jones-in-the-fridge moment; the ending doesn’t quite mesh with the feel of the story.
BOTTOM LINE: Ultimately a fun, pulpy thrill ride.
In George Mann’s latest book, Ghosts of Manhattan, a masked man dubbed the Ghost takes on the mob in an alternate 1920’s New York City. In this wonderfully alluring retro-future (beautifully captured by Benjamin Carré’s evocative cover) coal-powered cars drive the streets while the skies are populated with biplanes and airships. Think: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow meets steampunk.
Wait — that description (as well as the back cover billing of being a “steampunk superhero” book) glamorizes how Ghosts of Manhattan feels. There is steampunk, to be sure, as evidenced by the appearance of the steam cars, airships and several brass devices thrown about. But the steampunk isn’t the central focus of this story as much as it as a tasty, mixed-in flavor. (The steampunk background attaches itself to Mann’s excellent Newbury and Hobbes Victorian steampunk books. Ghosts of Manhattan occurs decades later in the same timeline, an alternate history of our own. Here, there exists a cold war between the U.S. and the British Empire following the recent death of Queen Victoria, who was artificially preserved to live past one hundred years.) The superhero label, however, is accurate; the Ghost is essentially a masked vigilante with night goggles, a trench coat, rocket boots, a fléchette gun mechanism on his arm, and a serious grudge against the mob. Taking all this together, the book feels like is an exceptionally well done pulp-era novel that just happens to be set in an alternate steampunk past, with the protagonist acting as judge and jury to the organized crime element.
To be entirely clear, there’s major appeal in this setting and I loved every minute of it. It easily serves the straightforward plotline. The characters, too, fit right into this mold. The Ghost himself is an enigmatic nighttime figure who needs the city as much as it needs him. And while he does operate outside the law, he also adheres to a personal code: he never takes the first shot, preferring instead to let the villains make the first move. Leading those villains, mostly from offstage, is The Roman, the mysterious mob boss with an even more mysterious past. The Roman’s calling card is a pair of ancient coins gently placed on the eyelids of his murder victims. There is also dedicated Police Inspector Felix Donavan who is tasked with catching both The Roman and the Ghost. Meanwhile, the story also introduces Gabriel Cross, a war-veteran with an inherited fortune and who tries to stave off boredom through an endless stream of dinner parties at his Long Island home. Gabriel is vying for the affection of Celeste Parker, a nightclub singer he sees in New York City who, we come to learn, harbors an interesting secret. A few others round out the small cast of characters, like Gideon Reece, The Roman’s effective right-hand man who’s a character you’ll love to hate.
The Ghost goes about the city fighting crime with a cool arsenal of weapons. Being masked, there is, of course, the question of his true identity. It’s not really hard to figure out, especially considering the small cast of characters, but Mann makes readers wonder for a small while whether the Ghosts’ dual identities are something of a secret even to himself. The Ghost is motivated to be unlike the other NYC residents who go through meaningless machinations of daily life without actually achieving anything worthwhile. His altruistic goals make the Ghost a character you root for; especially since he’s going after people who are clearly evil.
Pursuant to the superhero genre, Ghosts of Manhattan is rife with scenes of action and derring-do. These passages help make the books a super-fast, page-turning read that was simply hard to put down. This is a book that caused me to lose seep.
There were two notable hiccups in the action. The first concerns a biplane chase that, exciting as it was, seemed too conveniently included. It was something that seems even more forced when you consider the aerodynamic impossibilities of the end result. I mean, I’m talking Indiana Jones/refrigerator impossible. But Mann otherwise isn’t afraid to ratchet up the body count, even if that sometimes means the Ghost isn’t as successful as he wants to be, which nicely serves to make his plight more urgent and believable as the book progresses. The book races along that pulpy path right up to the ending (my second nit) which, while interesting in concept and in self-contained execution, doesn’t quite align with the feel of the story thus far; it owes its underpinnings to the supernatural elements of the earlier Newberry and Hobbes timeline instead of the retro-future superhero mashup that drive the book forward.
But these are minor scratches in an otherwise shiny adventure. Ghosts of Manhattan was enjoyable enough that I’m willing to cut it some slack. In the end, it was just huge amounts of fun.