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Ghosts of Manhattan
George Mann
Pyr, 237 pages

Ghosts of Manhattan
George Mann
George Mann is the Consultant Editor of Solaris and the author of The Mammoth Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, The Human Abstract and Time Hunter: The Severed Man. He lives and works in Nottinghamshire, England.

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A review by Nathan Brazil

'Night. That was his time. That was when the miscreants and crooks, the monsters and the nightmare things all spilled out into the open. That was when the city needed him most, and when he felt most alive.'
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If the idea of stylised and stylish steampunk superhero appeals, then this may be just the book for you. It's a short, punchy read, which succeeds more than it fails, and offers the possibility of much more to come. The setting is 1926 New York, in an alternate reality where there are coal-powered cars, and biplanes take off from standing starts atop skyscrapers, using primitive rocket boosters. The USA is engaged in a Cold War with the British Empire, which still covers half the globe, and the British have only just buried Queen Victoria, whose life was artificially preserved to the age of 107. Targeted murders are occurring across New York, the victims all found with pristine Roman coins laid on their eyelids after death. The trail points to a shadowy underworld figure, known only as the Roman. It is a time for the Ghost; the secret identity of Gabriel Cross, a Bruce Wayne-like socialite and former military pilot. As the Ghost, he spends his nights battling crime vigilante style, equipped with special weaponry and experimental technology of his own design.

The supporting cast include ingénue Celeste, a nightclub singer with a secret, who is also the Ghost's private obsession and the love interest of his alter-ego. There's Gideon Reece, the doer of dirty work and chief thug for the Roman, NYPD Detective Felix Donovan and his perceptive assistant Mullins, and a splendidly understated museum expert, named Arthur Wolfe, who is the only person to be entrusted with the Ghost's true identity. It's a small cast, but one that does what it needs to do, filling out the at times quite claustrophobic world that the Ghost moves in, and providing natural bridges between the set piece action sequences. It is in those that are the book succeeds the most, creating vivid imagery of the Ghost taking brief flights using crude rocket boots, and cutting down part mechanical part otherworldly Moss Men, using explosive flechettes. There's an enticing noir violence permeating the entire book, which is in harmony with the relatively low tech at the Ghost's disposal, and to society in general. Looking into a world without the Internet and mobile phones is quite refreshing. The negatives are occasional bits of fast and loose plotting, such as when the Ghost is being chased by what are described as "goons" and makes his escape using a bi-plane, only to find that the "goons" are in aerial pursuit. In the space of a page and a half they've apparently developed piloting skills. But this sort of thing does not really detract from the overall appeal of the book. Unlike the secret of the Roman, which was something I found lacking in originality, as if the author thought it didn't really matter if he used such a hackneyed plot device.

Ultimately, Ghosts of Manhattan felt as if it could have stood another hundred pages, thus allowing room for better, more fulsome explanation and expansion of what promised to be a fascinating alternate history setting. But this is just the beginning, and George Mann delivers a start which is fun, flavoursome and just occasionally frivolous. I've read comics as novels many times before, and always appreciate when a writer is trying to do something a little bit different. Whether the author can open up his world, and add the degree of depth that would make it something special, remains to be seen. For now, I can recommend this book as an enjoyable, light read, and a cordite riddled introduction to the way things might've been.

Copyright © 2010 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 www.inkdigital.org.


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