BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The Ghost, a masked vigilante in a steampunk-based alternate 1920s New York City, attempts to uncover the secret of the “raptors”, winged mechanical creatures that abduct citizens off the streets for some nefarious purpose.
PROS: Exciting adventure; straightforward delivery; wonderfully captured retro feel.
CONS: Stage setting delays the main thrust of the book; the character of Ginny feels extraneous.
BOTTOM LINE: A palatable blend of action, retro sf and steampunk.
Ghosts of War by George Mann is the second novel in a series about a masked vigilante who fights crime from to rooftops of an alternate 1920’s steampunk New York City. Occurring shortly after the events of the first book, Ghosts of Manhattan, the new threat to the city is a plague of disappearances carried out by “raptors” – fearsome, winged, beast-like machines with brass skeletons and metal talons — that pluck their victims from the streets and whisk them away, never to be seen again. The culprit and the motive of these dastardly deeds remain elusive to both The Ghost and NYPD’s Inspector Donovan, The Ghost’s sympathetic confidant. Donovan, meanwhile, is also tasked by his superior to track down a British spy located somewhere in the city, all in the interest of national security — the threat being an escalation in the cold war between the United States and England.
Obviously the seemingly separate threads of the raptors and the British spy are destined to converge, but it isn’t until they do that that the Ghosts of War really hits its stride. Until then, the stage is being carefully set with elements of action (represented by an excellent opening scene confrontation between The Ghost and a raptor), conspiracy (Donovan’s city-elected superior being more interested in matters of national concern than the local threat to the city’s citizens), drama (the return of The Ghost’s drunken ex-lover, Ginny), and the supernatural (the scene that kicks off the rest of the page-turning adventure). It’s the movement of these story elements, how they revolve around one another, and how they intersect that drives the majority of the novel and engages the reader.
Along the way, Mann adds to the depth of the main character. The Ghost is a war veteran whose duty to his country was not without its ill effects on his state of mind. As he tries to reconcile his troubled past (as alluded to by book’s title), he also looks to find meaning in his life. The reappearance of Ginny seems intended to emphasize this need; however, that character, despite how helpful she is in one particular nail-biting confrontation, seems tacked on. It’s never quite clear why she returned or why, given her absence, The Ghost trusted her enough to reveal his identity other than as a means to have her join in on the action, which ultimately comes off like putting a loved one in danger.
That said, it’s the danger itself that will appeal to readers. Like the previous outing, Ghosts of War contains some interesting supernatural elements. As evidence that reading is a subjective experience — even when talking about this same reader — those supernatural elements were much more welcome this time around as they added urgency towards rooting for the good guys. Mann’s consistently straightforward delivery makes these otherworldly events par for the course and much appreciated. And when you mix in the sf-romantic elements of retro and steampunk (Airships! Biplanes! Airship and biplane fights!), well, the result is a flavor that’s quite palatable indeed.