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Gods of Manhattan
Al Ewing
Abaddon Books, 238 pages

Gods of Manhattan
Al Ewing
Al Ewing was born in 1977, three days before Elvis died. Indoctrinated into the loathsome practice of comics at an early age by his disreputable brother, the child progressed from his innocent beginnings to the loathsome depths of sin represented by the British comic 2000AD, long known as a haunt of depravity. He remains esconced there to this day as a writer of the bizarre and fantastic, when not involved in even more sordid past-times.

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A review by Nathan Brazil

'Wasn't he America's Greatest Hero? Hadn't he killed a giant roc, escaped a maze of death, fought leopard men and made love to her on a heathen altar in the light of two setting suns?'
Every single time a package arrives from SF Site, I hope to find something special within, and on this occasion I was in luck. Gods of Manhattan was also my introduction to Abaddon's Pax Britannia; an alternative steampunk universe, which in this instance is accented toward a different take on comic book heroes. What Al Ewing does, quite brilliantly at times, is take the familiar and twist it into something that reads like a cousin to Marvel's Ultimates titles. But that is not all, the mix on offer here also includes allusions to figures from classical literature, crime fiction, and the counter culture of the 60s. It's all presented in an irresistible tongue-in-cheek fashion, and littered with casual humour. Lines that work for the average reader, and work better for those who catch the sly references. The story is a curious coupling of the straightforward and the subtly devious, playing with archetypes and sometimes using them like blunt instruments, but also blending in conceptual complexities and cunning plot twists. Most of all, Gods of Manhattan is a book in which the characters are written in such a way as to make the reader feel as if one has always known them. Al Ewing understands his players, their hopes and fears, their strengths and weaknesses, everything that makes them tick. This understanding and attention to detail is what enables him to bring a fresh, and ferociously entertaining perspective to what, in less able hands, could have been clichéd junk.

The story revolves around -- and is told from the perspectives of -- three lovingly re-imaged characters. El Sombra, is a merciless, Zorro-esque Mexican swordsman, from Ewing's earlier work of the same name. Once upon a time he was a poet named Djego. Now, he is the Saint of Ghosts, El Sombra, who believes the only good Nazi is a dead Nazi. Moving along a seemingly parallel path is the Blood Spider, who begins the book as a murderous masked vigilante, something like a cross between Batman and the Shadow. Then there's America's Greatest Hero, Doc Thunder, who is presented as an amalgam of Doc Savage, Hulk Hogan, and the original template for Superman. Thunder is invulnerable to bullets, able to twist solid steel with his bare hands, and can leap over tall buildings, etc. If all of this sounds like stuff you've read too often, fear not, what makes this work stand out is not the building blocks, but rather the way they are arranged. The differences between the Pax Britannia universe and our own are many and varied, the most significant being that steam power rules, and the electrical world we inhabit is just a dream. Quite literally in the case of alternate Andy Warhol, whose sculpture of a cellphone is exhibited Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art; a block of black ceramic studded with numbers and a tiny sheet of glass… representing the world of dreampunk. Distinctly less amusing is the fact that in this world, Hitler is still alive, after a fashion, and the Ultimate Reich has its tentacles inside the United Socialist States of America, attempting to run asymmetric terrorist activities via a covert group called Untergang. The thread that binds all together is the murder of Heinrich Donner, the former head of Untergang, who finally gets his comeuppance. It's a crime which attracts the attention of Doc Thunder and crew. Was it El Sombra or the Blood Spider? As we move toward finding out why Doc Thunder is so interested in a dead Nazi, we also learn that he is part of a ménage à trois with the mutant detective Monk, literally an apeman, and the immortal Maya Zor-Tura, former Queen of the Leopard men. The latter being a sideways look at Ayesha, from H. Rider Haggard's classic novel, She. Then there's the sheer cheek of the Blood Spider's civilian identity being a playboy named Parker, and the self-styled most dangerous man in the world turning out to be the folically challenged Lars Lomax. The creative appropriation and relentless inventiveness never flags.

From the opening pages which present a series of wonderfully well written, scene setting short stories, to the overall theme which surprises and delights, this is a book where ingenuity meshes with smart pulp fiction. The Pax Britannia universe, familiar and yet so very different, shows us the way it could have been, and that is a rather enticing vision. I finished the book eager for more, and I have no hesitation in recommending Gods of Manhattan as a real winner.

Copyright © 2011 Nathan Brazil

Nathan Brazil
If Nathan Brazil were dyslexic, he'd be the dog of the Well world. In reality, he's an English bloke who lives on an island, reading, writing and throwing chips to the seagulls. Drop by his web site at

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