fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsGhosts of Manhattan by George MannGhosts of Manhattan by George Mann

I’ve been lukewarm to George Mann’s Victorian steampunk novels set in London, finding them mostly adequate: quick-paced but a bit flat and somewhat too beholden to cinematic cliché. They are intermittently entertaining and lively, but never quite get all the way to good. Mann’s new novel, Ghosts of Manhattan, is similar, but set in America this time. It’s perhaps a step above the London novels in quality.

It’s 1926 and America is in a cold war with a British Empire that still stretches over much of the world. The city of New York is filled with coal-powered cars and rocket-propelled biplanes. It’s also filled with crooks, most notably The Roman: the violent head of a group of gangsters and the person seemingly responsible for a run of targeted murders, each victim left with a pair of authentic Roman coins on their eyelids.

The police seem powerless and so into the fray steps The Ghost, a non-superpowered masked hero who makes it his mission to find and stop The Roman (whose motivation isn’t quite what anybody expected). Also along for the plot are a wealthy, playboy type; the singer with whom he has a relationship; and a cop who refuses to be corrupted by the Roman’s wealth and power.

As with the London novels, the book is fast-paced with few distractions from the main plot. The Ghost’s identity is predictable and I’m hoping it wasn’t meant to be much of a surprise. The character’s past gives him a dark tinge that adds a good deal of depth to an otherwise depth-free story. There’s something pleasantly familiar about the hero, a bit of a nostalgic throwback to pre-superhero days.

The plot moves along familiar tracks until near the end, when it spins off in another direction — and almost into another genre — entirely. There’s little time for either the reader or the characters to think much about what’s going on, and so the plot, while quick-moving, is entertaining but a bit flat and not particularly compelling.

Ghosts of Manhattan suffers from some trite language and scenes as well. In one scene, for instance, the hero’s flechettes “strike home” twice within a few paragraphs, shortly before we get the stock scenario in which the hero is about to be killed but the bad guy intervenes so he can “do it himself” (hint: he doesn’t). There are several instances of these issues throughout the book, as well as some seeming contradictions in character. And while an alternate Jazz Age (complete with a Gatsby-type) seems ripe for some rich description, as in the London books the setting is a bit disappointing.

The book’s quick pace and likable character make up for the flaws to some extent; you’re speeding along so quickly rooting for the good guys that you don’t stop too often to notice the flat aspects. But as with Mann’s earlier books, Ghosts of Manhattan goes down well but doesn’t leave you feeling fully satisfied.

~Bill Capossere

Ghosts of Manhattan by George MannYou may recall a wonderful story about a wealthy young man in New York in the days before World War II, a man who has a double identity as a crime fighter. He doesn’t wear a disguise, per se, but he does wear a piece of equipment on his face that serves as one even as it aids him in his work. His pretty girlfriend is pretty darned brainy herself, and figures out the existence of his second life pretty quickly.

No, that story isn’t Ghosts of Manhattan, though you might be forgiven for thinking so, given how derivative the novel is of the Vertigo comic to which I’m referring, Sandman Mystery Theater. The Sandman, Wesley Dodds, is a fully-developed character, while The Ghost, Gabriel Cross, is a paper doll one can dress in night goggles or a tuxedo, having little personality — and that which he does have is attributable to an odd experience in World War I that is never fully explained. Dodds’s girlfriend, Dian Belmont, is similarly a much more complete individual than is the object of Cross’s affection, Celeste, about whom we learn almost nothing except that she is a beautiful nightclub singer. Manhattan itself is more fully realized in Sandman Mystery Theater; in Ghosts of Manhattan, Manhattan might as well be Chicago or Minneapolis for all the sense of place we’re given.

These shortcomings are essentially structural; but there are serious problems with the writing on the level of the individual sentence or phrase as well. In fact, the writing is what I object to most about this book: it’s terrible. For instance:

The snow of the previous evening had begun to melt, reducing into a miserable gray slush that sloshed about the Ghost’s ankles as he walked. Cars hissed by, spraying gobbets of the stuff into the air, their wheels splashing in the newly formed rivers that ran along the gutters in glistening rivulets.

“Glistening rivulets”? You’ve got to be kidding me. Numerous odd phrases like that jolt the reader out of the story (for example, there’s a fellow who “grinned profusely”); they are followed by clichés (a woman “langorously smok[es] an unfiltered cigarette”; a bad guy says, “[H]e’ll make a rather interesting morsel for our visitor”). No one just smiles; “a wide grin split[s] his face.” And, of course, the bad guy has a “sinister, silky voice.” If Ghosts of Manhattan were a parody, I might be chuckling at this bad prose, but there is no evidence that this novel is intended as such. I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to take it seriously, and that’s just about impossible.

The steampunkishness of Ghosts of Manhattan is really all it’s got going for it. The contraptions Mann introduces are generally interesting, even if sometimes they seem thrown in simply for the sake of adding a bit of strangeness rather than because there’s a genuine need for them. A gun that shoots flechettes instead of bullets, for instance, seems rather silly and even cruel before an enemy comes along on which bullets have no effect. On the other hand, I like the notion of planes taking off with rockets instead of after a long buildup of speed on a runway, and cars that run on coal instead of oil. Of course there are zeppelins; is there a single steampunk novel that doesn’t include these airships?

So we’ve got noir, and we’ve got steampunk. Anything else we can throw into this stew? Maybe a Lovecraftian monster or two? That’s the ticket! A touch of Lovecraft might actually work if Mann had bothered to prepare the way for this development, but it feels rather like an adnihilo ex machina as used here.

Ghosts of Manhattan is the first in a series. Maybe the next one will be better. One can always hope.

~Terry Weyna

Ghosts of Manhattan — (2010) Publisher: 1926. New York. The Roaring Twenties. Jazz. Flappers. Prohibition. Coal-powered cars. A cold war with a British Empire that still covers half of the globe. Yet things have developed differently to established history. America is in the midst of a cold war with a British Empire that has only just buried Queen Victoria, her life artificially preserved to the age of 107. Coal-powered cars roar along roads thick with pedestrians, biplanes take off from standing with primitive rocket boosters and monsters lurk behind closed doors and around every corner. This is a time in need of heroes. It is a time for The Ghost. A series of targeted murders are occurring all over the city, the victims found with ancient Roman coins placed on their eyelids after death. The trail appears to lead to a group of Italian-American gangsters and their boss, who the mobsters have dubbed ‘The Roman’. However, as The Ghost soon discovers, there is more to The Roman than at first appears, and more bizarre happenings that he soon links to the man, including moss-golems posing as mobsters and a plot to bring an ancient pagan god into the physical world in a cavern beneath the city. As The Ghost draws nearer to The Roman and the centre of his dangerous web, he must battle with foes both physical and supernatural and call on help from the most unexpected of quarters if he is to stop The Roman and halt the imminent destruction of the city.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.