"He was going for a gun. Today...today we do it your way."
- Detective Donovan
I hate it when a reviewer starts out a dissenting review with "I tried to like this book, I really did." It's been used sincerely, and I respect people who can, but it's also one of those things people use on Amazon (which has a level of intelligent discourse like the infinitely more infamous XBOX Live only with people reviewing books instead of playing Halo and Battlefield) when they want to say "Hey, I'm on your side, so take this bad review of a book seriously!" along with "I've been a fan of (Insert genre/author here), but this is..." and trashing the book.
The problem being, I really should like Ghosts of Manhattan. It's a superhero story set in a steampunk version of the pulp era. There really isn't another alley that one could say was mine...I'm a huge fan of steampunk, Boardwalk Empire, The Shadow, and detective stories. On top of that, George Mann is a widely acclaimed author whose book The Affinity Bridge is considered a classic of the genre. But Ghosts of Manhattan, to put it mildly, is ridiculous crap. And with a declaration like that, I'm prepared to back it up. So, without any further ado, let's get to it.
Ghosts of Manhattan is the story of a steam-powered version of Manhattan-- Cars have funnels on them, airships dot the skies, and holographic advertisements are common. Think a futuristic city, but done completely with retro overtones. In this city, the main antagonist is a crimeboss known only as The Roman, a man who inexplicably seems to do a decent share of his own dirty work and leaves a pair of denarii on the victims' eyes as a calling card. His right hand man, Gideon, holds sway over New York City with a supercharged (we know this because it has three funnels on it. Three!) car, an army of moss golems, and a custom-made pistol. Opposing him are the one honest cop in the city, a lounge singer with a secret (of course), and the hero known as "The Ghost", a technological genius and former war vet. Also embroiled in the mess is Gabriel Cross, a wealthy playboy and you can see where this is going from there. The Roman turns out to be a threat to all existence with some unsettling ties to otherworldly powers (of course), and The Ghost, the lounge singer, and the Honest Cop(tm) must band together against the forces of darkness to save the city and perhaps the world (of course).
I suppose the first problem with this Lovecraftian abomination of a book is that it insults the reader's intelligence. To give an example, let's start with the character of The Ghost. Here we have someone like Bruce Wayne, with one difference: Everyone knows Bruce Wayne is Batman. People who haven't even seen or heard much about Batman know that Bruce Wayne is Batman. It goes without saying. That's part of writing about superheroes-- you let the reader in on the game early and then you let them tag along to interesting places after that.
So why the hell would George Mann, in creating a Batman-style character, want to try and mislead everyone into thinking that the billionaire playboy war vet isn't the masked superhero raising hell and shooting lethal explosive darts into mobsters' heads? I mean, he could be trying to be original, but come on-- when there's a superhero and there's a billionaire playboy with some questionable nighttime activities, everyone knows the score. No, I believe that George Mann just thinks his entire readership is dumber than primordial syrup and is willing to believe that they're different people until the big reveal comes up to shock and surprise them. In this regard, Mann is like a magician who very obviously palms a coin and then tries to explain it as magic when he pretends (with an equally obvious motion) to pull it out of someone's ear.
Constant readers (few of you that there are) might remember in this review, I stated that steampunk was
"...a pretty easy job: Just throw around some robots with boilers and some higher technology, and suddenly, boom. Instant steampunk book. Bonus points if you use the word "airship" twice in the same chapter."
No one should have any problem with this, normally. After all, it's kind of how the genre works. Nothing wrong with the genre working, right? Well, it's a little harder than I originally outlined. You see, the setpieces and props have to actually connect to the story, not exist in spite of it. It's insulting to write a story with a cool setting and then barely use the setting in places here and there. Yes, the Ghost uses a flechette gun, jet boots, and some pretty cool goggles, and the "holotubes" are a nice touch, but everyone else uses a regular ol' gun, and even the cars are fairly par for everything, save Gideon's. In other words, Mann takes my earlier description of steampunk writing and absuses it like a redheaded stepchild to such a degree that once again, it's like he's insulting the audience. That sort of lazy, dishonest behaviour simply won't cut it. No author should ever treat his readers like this.
The characterization is terrible, too. Those archetypes I mentioned earlier? Yeah, that's the whole character for each of those. It's like the writer went through a list of every possible trope they could and took the basest possible meaning for each. (The links, in order, are the hero of the piece, the lounge singer girlfriend (or at least her secret), the honest cop (tm), Gideon, and The Roman) What makes it worse is that the hero is named Gabriel Cross, and one of the villains is Gideon Reece, which leads to some confusion, given the biblical names that begin with G and the fact that their first names are mentioned far more than their last names. These are not interesting people, or even fully-formed characters. They are stand-up carboard cutouts that move and talk vaguely like people. They are fucking pod people. This is not what an author does. This is what a lazy mouth-breather with a book to write does.
Without any characterization, the plot can boil down to "people run around a city, doing random crap and hoping it makes sense to anyone". There's even a biplane chase scene in the final third of the novel. The idiot screwed up a biplane chase. When it happened, I had to stop and wonder "Huh. What the hell is this doing in here? It's screwing up the book." I then went on to wonder exactly why a biplane chase had materialized out of thin air, instead of occurring organically in the novel itself. I never wonder what an action sequence is doing in a book. That's part of what I like about books-- the action sequences. Those nervous moments between characters and how they react to things.
And speaking of missed action sequences, the climax is, pardon my language, shit. It is the syphilis-infected needles on a junk heap of disgusting offal that I refuse to get into the specifics of in such a classy and respectable establishment as this blog. The massive doomsday portal had a gigantic "OFF" switch all the heroes seem to miss until after the big world-destroying creature was summoned, the love interest is sacrificed for no reason other than she said so earlier and the plot wants to make her carry through with it, and the villain who has been set up for the better part of two hundred pages is offed from behind. By a single bullet to the head. After previously wiping the floor with Our Hero. That shouldn't happen. Once again, it's the mark of a lazy author when the villain's henchman is given a much bigger (by an exponential magnitude) sendoff than anyone in the book and the head villain is given a bullet in the head in the basement. That there was a massive and horrifying event before it does not clear this of an anticlimax.
I suppose there are good things here and there...the ideas presented are interesting, and this had the potential to be a really cool steampunk superhero pulp kinda story. If it wasn't lazy, insulting, and not worth the paper that it was printed on. And some day I will find George Mann, and after I quiet the urge to smash in his face and sensitive private areas for writing such offal, I will buy him a drink and explain to him exactly how offended I am by his travesty of a novel, and how he, long considered an author of note and merit in the field, has let me down. Then I will probably storm off.
For those of you who decided to skip the large reams of scathing invective and insight, I did not like this book. In fact, I do not even I do not recommend it to anyone, nor would I ever. Avoid it at all costs. That this even was published by a decent fantasy book outlet makes me weep for the publishing industry and apprehensive about what quality books we are getting in the age of ebooks, self publishing, and the like. It's boring, insulting, forced, and none of it makes the slightest bit of sense. There's a plot in there, but not one anyone would feel particularly obligated to follow. Please, please avoid this book. For my sake if not for yours.
Tomorrow: We continue in the vein of strange worlds and stranger technology with Jeff Noon's The Automated Alice, which is better than this, I promise you.
Friday: A return to Richard Kadrey's L.A. Antihero Stark with Kill The Dead
Next Week: We return to normal schedule with The Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack.