Aug 31, 2012

Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann

Many thanks to Professor Cayne Armand, who continues our run of guest reviews here at the blog, while I recover from the stress of finishing my dissertation and anticipate my oral defence on September 17 (the five year mission might be ending a year sooner!). You can check out Armand's science fiction serial at

I will begin this review by telling you that you should absolutely read this book. Trust me – with the sequel, this book adds a great deal of characterization that will only make reading the next book better. With that caveat, let us delve into the review of Ghosts of Manhattan. As you might guess, in my opinion, Ghosts of Manhattan is more of a prequel than a first in a series.

I enjoyed Ghosts of Manhattan well enough on its own. I will generally purchase a book if I find it interesting enough to read a second time – and I would buy Ghosts of Manhattan. I found it to be a great adventure and crime-procedural all rolled into one, with strong flavors of the 1920s period. As I read through the story I found myself comparing The Ghost to other vigilante/hero archetypes; The Shadow, Batman, the Phantom, and oddly enough, Flash Gordon.

I genuinely enjoyed the characters and the story that they moved in – even the villains. While a great crime procedural, I spent much of the book thinking that it isn’t intrinsically steampunk. It felt like Mr. Mann didn’t hit his stride with the steampunk aspects until the last third of the book, leading me to suspect that the steampunk was almost whitewashed on as an afterthought. As a bit of a spoiler for my next review, I can tell you that I was right to hope for more in the second novel of this series, and your willingness to read Ghosts of Manhattan will be rewarded.

I mentioned that the steampunk flavors felt whitewashed – let me elaborate. Within the first few pages we see The Ghost defeating some of the Roman’s mobsters, and during the course of battle are given our first taste of the steampunk aesthetic that Mr. Mann used in his world. The cars are powered by self-feeding coal hoppers, twin smokestacks rising at the rear of each and every car. Self-lighting cigarettes feature in the story – an interesting flavor of retrofuturism.

Our hero, the Ghost, has the ubiquitous boots, buckles, and goggles. He complements them with pneumatic flechettes and rocket boosters. Each of these steampunk-flavored pieces present an interesting premise, and I was hopeful for a great ride after reading the events of the bank robbery in the first chapter. Sadly, the story seemed to grind to a crawl, and aside from the appearance of the holotubes (holographic telephones), and self-lighting cigarettes, the steampunk aspects of the story faded into the background. I distinctly recall asking myself at page 33, “Isn’t this supposed to be a steampunk story?” The rich steampunk attributes that I had keyed myself up to anticipate were supplanted by a vivid world where I more expected to run into the cast of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” or “The Sting.” As the story progressed, I half expected the Roman to turn out to be Al Capone.

Not many pages after my doubts surfaced, I was soon given another morsel of steampunk, enough to draw me along, but my rhetorical question was far from banished and reappeared all throughout the story until I hit the last chapters. Between the action and the increased appearance of steampunk, I was well engrossed, and felt as though I were finally reading the novel I had anticipated.

My list of complaints, though few, would begin with foreshadowing. Allow me to preface that I don’t foreshadow easily – I didn’t expect the ending of “The Sixth Sense,” or “The Village,” for example. Throughout the story I felt as if the foreshadowing were ladled out rather than drizzled. It was so strong that the ending was not unexpected, nor the segue into the next novel; on the whole, much thicker than I would want in my normal reading.

Secondly, while it may seem a bit puritanical, I found it quite jarring that Mr. Mann would generally refrain from cursing throughout the novel, but would say f**k when referring to intercourse. To have such a dichotomy was both distracting and off-putting. Had he used more gritty language with his characters throughout, I wouldn’t likely have noticed.

Thirdly, the use of “fifty-dollar” words. There are some words in the English language, while useful and full of flavor, should still only be used once a page, and some, once in a novel. They are heavy, rare, and, like truffles in cooking, should be used sparingly. I recall reading a self-published novel where “victuals” was invariably used to refer to food. As a writer and an editor, let me tell you, this is a once-in-a-book word. In Mr. Mann’s case, the police zeppelins invariably moved “ponderously” in the “gloaming” night of New York – two words that add great clarity of image, but should not, in this author’s opinion, be used more than once in a story.

Finally, I feel as though the steampunk flavors inserted in the novel could just as easily be excised and we’d have a 1920s policier, just as interesting, and maybe a better story without the expectation of brass and steam. Were this a stand-alone story, I would argue that point more stridently. Having read both, I will say that the wedding of the two different setting flavors comes to fruition as Mr. Mann hits his stride in the second book, Ghosts of War.

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