Fiction Reviews

Ghosts of Manhattan

(2010) George Mann, Pyr, US$16.00, trdpbk, 237pp, ISBN 978-1-61614-194-3

This book is set in 1926 in an alternate vision of that era – the trappings of the roaring twenties with jazz clubs, gangsters and prohibition is ever present... But this version is one with: coal-powered cars, ways of extending lives and steam-powered air travel. Introduced in this book (it is claimed) is the world’s first steampunk superhero, the 'Ghost', who has a personal mission to keep the city safe from crime by the use of technology – rocket boots, concealed weaponry and goggles that enable him to see in the dark.

One particular villain the Ghost finds himself up against is the Roman, whose trademark is murdering public figures in an inventive fashion and with a distinctive calling card – two Roman coins, one on each of the victim’s eyelids. The coins prove to be a mystery in themselves, as do links with the Roman. Some of his henchmen are huge moss men and the Roman is scheming to bring about a supernatural event to draw forth an ancient pagan god in to the world.

The Ghost is forced to draw upon his contacts within the city and to establish who the Roman is and what his plans entail. He also finds himself joining forces with unlikely allies to halt the Roman’s plot and to save the city when a police officer is presented with an offer he literally cannot refuse – should he not accept a bribe, he will face dire consequences.

The narrative of this book reads like a classic old-fashioned crime story and fits the time in which it is set in perfectly. The steampunk elements – modes of transport and technology are woven in with a city that has an authentic feel. There are scenes of action and violence and a wonderful section featuring a biplane chase where the Ghost has to use the experience he has gained on the battlefield to ensure his survival. The way in which the Ghost deals with villains has classic flair and style with an inherent sense of him being the traditional superhero, dealing with injustice and crime when he sees it.

I was not sure how the supernatural element would work given the backdrop of the book but as the steampunk element provides fantastic moments by its nature, it adds suspense and intrigue to the plot given the mysterious nature of the Roman himself. The story also gradually reveals who the Ghost is and alludes to his past experiences and how he came to take on the guise of crime fighter.

Ghosts of Manhattan is a refreshing twist on classic action and adventure crime novels, with its touch of fantasy. The intrigue of the identities of both the Ghost and the Roman keep the reader turning the pages whilst the combination of action and suspense propel the story. The characters who appear in the book are also well defined – from the weaseley informant the Ghost goes to for information, to a mysterious ally of the Roman’s the Ghost is determined to track down in order to get to the Roman himself.

The book also features a femme fatale who is hiding a secret. While I felt that that character was a little insipid to begin with, she plays an essential part in the plot's development. It is also made clear that the Ghost is as human as the people on the street and just like anyone in a combat situation faces injuries and danger. At times it feels as though this element is over emphasised although it also illustrates the dangers that the Ghost faces.

This book is intended for a steampunk audience and the introduction of a steampunk superhero is a fairly unique selling point. Additionally, it would also interest readers whose tastes include both crime and fantasy elements.

Sue Griffiths

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